Take Five: “The opportunity for sustainable energy entrepreneurship is significant for women”


Suhela Khan. Photo: UN Women/Jeevan Kanakkassery
Suhela Khan. Photo: UN Women/Jeevan Kanakkassery

Suhela Khan currently leads UN Women’s joint programme with UNEP, called "Women’s Entrepreneurship for Sustainable Energy Programme" in India. Launched at COP 21 in six countries, the Programme works on identifying and removing structural gender-specific barriers that female energy entrepreneurs face, enhancing women’s productive use of sustainable energy, and increasing women’s participation and leadership in developing gender-responsive energy policies. UN Women spoke to Ms. Khan about how women’s access to clean energy and entrepreneurship can be improved in India, which is in the midst of a profound transformation in the energy sector.

Why focus on women’s access to energy?

Energy poverty is not gender-neutral. Men and women are affected differently by energy policies due to their varying roles at home, communities and work places. For example, when energy is scarce, the burden of collecting leaves, twigs and dung for fuel often falls on the girl child.

Also, rural women in India are engaged predominantly in agriculture and in small-scale income-generating activities; either operating energy-intensive micro-enterprises or working as home-based workers, often without access to dependable energy (for mechanical power for agricultural operations, food processing, water pumping and irrigation, etc.). This, coupled with climate change related risks, exacerbates the drudgery of their daily work and stifles their economic prospects.

Recent research has shown that provision of electricity frees up women’s time by increasing their efficiency of domestic chores and allows them more time to take up paid work. For example, studies show that in Guatemala, with electricity, the time spent by women in cooking comes down by 34 per cent, and in Nicaragua, when rural households have electricity, women are about 23 per cent more likely to work outside the home. [1] This indicates the possibility of unlocking tremendous economic potential in the developing countries—for instance, we know that if women were to participate equally as men in the labour market, India’s GDP would get a boost by 16 per cent by 2025. [2]

I should add here that though IRENA estimates that about 35 per cent of the global workforce in the modern renewable energy sector are women according to their survey with 90 companies from more than 40 countries, the situation is drastically different in many parts of the developing world, including India.

What are the barriers that women face in accessing energy?

To understand how women access energy and where they face barriers, UN Women conducted a primary survey with more than 6000 women, with a focus on the most marginalized communities, in over 100 villages across the states of Madhya Pradesh, Nagaland, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

The survey found that women exercised limited agency on household financial decisions related to renewable energy products, such as solar home systems, lanterns etc. and did not have control over the type of energy they used. They had limited awareness about renewable energy solutions and women also felt that they lacked technical skills. The gaps identified in accessing training for renewable energy were quality, distance, and cost.

On the supply side, service providers identified difficulties in communicating to women customers. Including women in the supply chain was also identified as a key issue—for example, service providers faced difficulty in hiring women as sales and marketing agents. Another major barrier is the lack of skilled personnel for installing, maintaining and servicing renewable energy products.

Further, women have not been involved much in framing renewable energy policies, and the schemes that target women largely focus on domestic cooking, reemphasizing gender stereotypes.

What role can women play in enabling access to energy at the household and community level?

UN Women’s research found that there is a strong willingness to pay for clean energy alternatives such as solar lights, solar home systems, and solar pumps. The opportunity for sustainable energy entrepreneurship, therefore, is quite significant for women.

Organizations such as Barefoot College, Frontier Markets and Solar Sisters have shown that a range of business models are possible when women act as agents of change in access to clean energy. As entrepreneurs, women could play a significant role in fostering inclusive and sustainable economic growth. Since women hold strong social capital in communities, they are better able to reach out to other women to generate awareness about clean energy solutions and its positive impacts on their lives.

What are the barriers that women face as entrepreneurs?

Women are under-represented in the energy value chain, both at the policy and decision-making level and in the work force. This limits the welfare and economic potential of energy policies and programmes. Women are limited in their ability to participate in the energy value chain or establish and manage viable enterprises owing to deep rooted social and cultural discrimination, and a range of other issues, such as: restricted mobility, time poverty (primarily because of the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work), lack of safety in public spaces and workplaces, difficulty in accessing finance, information and markets, and limited access to education and training.

How will the programme address women’s access to energy and entrepreneurship?

The programme will strengthen women’s capacities to effectively participate in decentralized clean energy value chains as managers, assemblers, distributors and service providers. It will address distribution barriers through women owned and managed community centres. Working with civil society, energy enterprises and local and state government, UN Women will identify, train and mentor female energy entrepreneurs, business associates and technicians to enhance their technical, marketing and business skills.

Additionally, the programme will adopt a holistic approach to build and strengthen the ecosystem that impacts women’s energy access. The focus will be on building awareness among women about renewable energy solutions for domestic and productive use, scaling up innovative tools and products for end user and enterprise financing, customizing training material, tools and methodologies , training women and their groups on gender responsive energy planning and enabling their effective participation in policy making.


[1] A background paper for the World Development Report 2010 on Gender Equality and Development Energy, gender and development: What are the linkages? Where is the evidence?

[2] Mckinsey Global Institute The power of parity: How advancing women's equality can add $12 trillion to global growth