Efforts by government and non-state actors towards accelerating rural women’s access to solar are expected to yield great impacts
By Dr Mildred Barungi
Women and girls are generally disadvantaged in terms of access to clean and renewable energy, and yet they bear the greatest burden of firewood collection. Over 89% of rural households use firewood as the main source of energy for cooking.
Therefore, increasing rural women’s access to solar energy can improve their socio-economic status by reducing the time and effort they spend collecting firewood. It would minimise the chances of rural women being exposed to respiratory and other health risks that are associated with use of unclean energy.
Research has shown that the lung capacity of people livings in households that use firewood to cook is 9% lower than that of their counterparts that cook using clean energy sources (such as solar power and electricity).
In 2012, it was reported that indoor air pollution arising from the use of combustible fuels by households caused 4.3 million deaths, with women and girls accounting for six out of every 10 of these.
Solar power is a safe alternative energy source which can replace the prevalent use of firewood in rural areas. However, use of solar energy by households remains limited to the extent that solar power contributes about 5% only to the total energy demands for households.
Moreover, even among households that are connected to solar energy is mostly used for lighting and charging mobile phones.
The limited access and utilisation of solar energy means that the full benefits of this clean energy source are yet to be captured.
In September 2018, the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC) in collaboration with the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) conducted a solar power home systems market assessment survey in Mbarara and Gulu; among the key findings is that access to and use of solar energy is least among female-headed households.
Although solar energy is cheap in the medium and long run, the initial cost of purchasing and installing solar home systems is high and prohibitive for most households.
Indeed, from the aforesaid survey high initial cost of solar installation was cited, especially by women, as the biggest hindrance to solar acquisition. From the survey, we learnt that most female-headed households with intent to install solar are most likely to buy simple lighting systems that cannot be used for cooking. This is because, women compared to men are generally less economically empowered and therefore cannot afford the price of solar home systems which are designed to run heavy appliances like cookers.
Besides affordability, another key challenge that is hindering rural women from acquiring solar home systems is that they are not aware of the procedures of accessing solar, basic as they may be. Based on the Gulu and Mbarara case study, an appreciable percentage (about 12%) of female-headed households without solar lacked the knowledge about solar acquisition procedures. This points to the need of solar companies to invest in massive advertising of solar home systems to close this knowledge gap.
Since the most critical constraint that hinder rural women from accessing solar is the high initial cost of acquisition, it is important rural women are economically empowered to afford solar home systems. Already, Government recognises the need to economically empower women and as such, in 2015/16 financial year, Government piloted the Uganda Women Entrepreneurship Programme (UWEP). The programme is meant to address the challenges women face in undertaking economically viable enterprises. This programme (UWEP) which targets the poor, unemployed and vulnerable women should be rolled out countrywide.
As a strategy make solar home systems more affordable, the Uganda Solar Energy Association (USEA) needs to be supported to finalise and popularise the handbook on taxes applicable to specific solar products to protect importers against taxes that they are not supposed to pay. This is likely to reduce the cost of solar home systems and stimulate further demand from the less economically empowered (female-headed) households. Also, solar companies should devise means of lowering the cost of solar home systems and/or provide rural households with payment plans that are more flexible compared to the ones that already exist on the solar market. Rural women should be prioritised because they are the most affected by the financial barrier to solar acquisition. Also, traders in the solar business are encouraged to offer rural women solar home systems on credit—this will help relax the financial constraint. Reduced costs and friendly payment terms will enable women to demand solar home systems, which are superior to the lighting systems.
Efforts by government and non-state actors towards accelerating rural women’s access to solar are expected to yield great impacts. When rural women begin to use solar home systems, the drudgery of collecting firewood will put to an end, and the saved time can be invested in other productive engagements such as entrepreneurial activities. Moreover, use of solar home systems will in part enable Uganda to attain the sustainable development goals, particularly Goal 3 that seeks to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being.
The writer is a Research Fellow with Economic Policy Research Centre