Women in 86 countries face some form of job restrictions, while 95 countries do not guarantee equal pay for equal work, according to The World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2022 report. These struggles can be narrowed down to many employment sectors and affirm that we are still far from achieving gender parity.
This year’s International Women’s Day theme is ‘Equality today for a sustainable tomorrow.’ It recognizes the contribution of women and girls worldwide in addressing climate change for a sustainable future.
An International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) study showed that the DRE sector employs about 32% more women than only 22% in the energy sector overall. However, most women are engaged in administrative jobs compared to technical ones. Even fewer women are in leadership and decision-making roles.
As is our tradition at Power for All, we joined the rest of the world in celebrating International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, by honoring women in leadership roles in the rather male-dominated sector. Below, are the trailblazing women in the DRE sector we are spotlighting this year (not ranked in any particular order) and their achievements. We also reached out to them to understand how they got into the DRE space and their views on what more needs to be done to achieve gender equality in energy access.
Nicole Poindexter, CEO, and Founder, Energicity Corp
Nicole Poindexter, Chief Executive Officer, and Founder, Energicity Corp, a leading mini-grid developer in West Africa, got interested in the need to transition to renewable sources for electricity while working for a utility demand management software company. So she decided to make a shift and work on her passion.
“I hadn't necessarily considered working in energy access in Africa, but when researching the idea of getting 100% renewables on the grid, I learned what peoples' lives were like without electricity. I thought that was unacceptable, and I had to do something about it,” she said.
She, therefore, got on a plane to Ghana to meet some of the people living in a village without electricity, and they asked her, "Can you bring light tomorrow?" She told them it would take longer than tomorrow but that she would try. Seven months later, Energicity Corp turned the lights on in the village through a mini-grid.
Nicole notes that achieving gender equality in the DRE sector is not an easy task, and it requires both men and women to participate as equal leaders. “When solving a problem of this magnitude - getting electricity to the 600 million or more people in Africa without electricity, and further doing it with renewable energy, we need the best ideas possible. Because it is highly unlikely that all those best ideas are entirely in the brains of men or in the brains of women,” she added.
She identified funding as one of the main barriers to gender equality in entrepreneurial businesses. “In 2020, 2.4% of venture capital went to women-led businesses. While I suspect that the percentage could be higher among the impact funders, this still is a critical challenge to overcome to achieve gender balance among DRE businesses, given the industry's capital intensity,” Nicole said.
Nicole explained that Energicity corp walks its talk when it comes to gender equality and has a 50/50 balance between men and women in its full-time staff across all its subsidiaries. “We've made an effort to make our hiring processes fair - ensuring we have diverse slates of candidates and diverse interviewers for every position. But also, it's likely that we attract strong female candidates given our company's mission and that a woman is the founder and CEO of the company!.”
Damilola Asaleye, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer at Ashdam Solar Co. Ltd
Damilola Asaleye is the Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer at Ashdam Solar, a renewable energy company providing clean, affordable, and uninterrupted smart energy solutions. Growing up in Nigeria, she saw and had firsthand experience of energy poverty; the struggles of dependency on fossil fuel as the main source of electricity, and the loss of a family member to fossil fuel domestic hazards. This prompted her, as a young child, to start dreaming of solving the energy problems in Nigeria.
“Hence when I saw a university course on physics with solar energy, I knew that the course was my calling. I studied physics with solar energy as a first degree, my second degree in atmospheric physics, and am currently concluding the third degree in renewable energy engineering. I co-founded Ashdam Solar immediately after my first degree because of my passion to solve energy poverty,” she said.
To achieve gender equality in the DRE sector, there is a need for private and public organizations to create gender-inclusive spaces across the value chain and foster an environment that will allow all genders to grow and maximize their potential, noted Damiola.
“Many organizations do not have an enabling environment for the female workers as there are many biases on what we can achieve intellectually and physically. Therefore, it is important for every individual and organization in the sector to intentionally remove biases from their decision-making and structures. Because it is when we are intentional about removing biases that we will see the greatness that womenfolk bring, and only then, can we achieve gender equality in the DRE sector,” she said.
Through Ashdam Solar, Damiola has initiated many special programs to close the gender gap in the DRE sector. These include the Solar Queen Technical Training Scholarship for women training on solar photovoltaic installations. It also offers them internships and mentorship to have a successful career in the DRE sector. The program has empowered 120 women so far.
The Green Tech Girls and BEMORE summer boot camps train secondary school girls on topics such as introduction to renewable energy, climate change, and solar applications and basic installation practicals. Over 2,500 girls have participated in these programs.
“We also participate in school outreach and mentorship sessions where we advocate for girls to join STEM, focusing on the DRE industry. Currently, six schools with over 3,000 girls have gone through this program,” she said.
Ifeoma Malo, Co-Founder/ CEO, Clean Tech Hub, Nigeria
Ifeoma Malo is Co-Founder and CEO of Clean Tech Hub Nigeria. Whilst working with the Nigerian government, she met several smart and innovative young people in the electricity sector. They were seeking simple yet radical ways to transform their communities through electrification and livelihood projects. Speaking with them led Ifeoma to believe that the public sector alone cannot solve Nigeria’s energy problems and that DRE was critical in addressing rural development through rural electrification. She also noted the gap in business skills support for new start-ups in the clean energy space.
“These two reasons led me to believe that there had to be a way to provide research and data support and market and investment enablers to both support the entrepreneurs and provide scale for rural electrification through DRE,” she said.
Regarding gender equality, Ifeoma noted that when we talk of equality generally - we are speaking to equality in opportunities and equality in remuneration. This is no different in the DRE sector, which she says, is growing rapidly with increasing opportunities. However, many women are still not well situated to take advantage of these opportunities.
“It is imperative that we work towards recruiting practices that encourage women to consider the DRE sector. Secondly, we need to give women a voice across all segments and value chains of the DRE sector to ensure inclusive and sustainable policies and projects. Lastly, we also need to amplify the voices and the work of women in the sector because representation matters,” she said.
At CleanTech Hub, Ifeoma said, gender is integral to all its activities. For instance, its clean energy and livelihoods program empowers women with clean energy products and services to grow and sustain their small and micro businesses and households, thereby giving them voice and agency in their own lives, in their families and in their communities.
“The livelihoods program also intersects with our Clean Cooking program focussing on transitioning rural women from wood and kerosene to cleaner cooking technologies. In our productive use program, we work with women smallholder farmers on ways to use DRE technologies and appliances to improve their efficiency and increase yield.”
She added that recently, as a group of women leaders, they started an association of women in the DRE sector to work together to remove the barriers that make it difficult for women to benefit fully from DRE opportunities in Nigeria.
Debra Rowe, Ph.D., President, U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development
When she was in college, Debra Rowe, Ph.D., President, U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, heard about people in the poor neighborhoods of New Haven, Connecticut, choosing between heating and eating. This was after an oil embargo on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) had increased energy prices and interest rates. She also learned about climate change and started looking for solutions.
“All these issues aligned with the use of distributed renewables. I was particularly taken by the idea of people owning their own power using renewables instead of being connected to a fossil fuel-based utility company. So I went to work for a solar energy company, installing and then selling solar and conducting energy audits at senior citizen complexes. I then opened my own company and eventually went to the college and said they should have a renewable energy and energy efficiency program and I wanted to create it,” she said.
To achieve gender equality in the DRE sector, Debra said career guidance materials need to include examples of women doing all the jobs in the sector. “We must collaborate to continue the culture change and policy efforts that will open up career opportunities and equal pay for women. It is crucial to reduce the gender disparity in the renewable energy sector to improve the well-being of women and families. It will also help governments, businesses, and nonprofits to be more successful,” Debra noted.
According to Debra, the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development is helping to enhance the formal and informal power of women in the green economy in general and in renewable energies in particular.
“Via the education for green jobs initiative, we are working with educational institutions, businesses, NGOs, and governments to update their curricular materials and career guidance resources and to make extra efforts to recruit women. We are also working with the employers to create a more welcoming work culture for women. We have created a tool kit about how to be an environmental changemaker. The US Partnerships website also highlights videos of women and girls as changemakers, creating solutions internationally to deal with climate change,” she elaborated.
Debra added that they hope to create an application to show women in the informal economy the career opportunities within DRE. “Our global guidance document that is part of the green jobs initiative highlights the gender disparity and points to reports about what must happen to create systemic improvements.”
Emily McAteer, Co-founder/CEO, Odyssey Energy Solutions
Emily McAteer, Co-founder, and CEO, Odyssey Energy Solutions, an industry platform to simplify, streamline, and reduce the costs of developing and financing energy projects, has worked in climate solutions for her entire career, and it became clear to her early on that scaling DRE in emerging markets is a critical path towards a low-carbon future.
“I started working in the DRE sector over a decade ago when I received a Fulbright fellowship to study rural distribution models for solar lights in India. I later began building a mini-grid development company and started Odyssey to help solve some of the scaling challenges I was experiencing as a project developer,” Emily said.
She noted that encouraging women to take up key roles in companies in the sector is a critical step. “We've been working hard on our end to identify female candidates for engineering, data science, sales, and other roles that often attract more male applicants,” she added.
“At Odyssey, we are working to provide the data that will allow us to measure gender outcomes for the energy access sector. Our financing facilities on the platform use our data tools to measure the gender impact of their financing. We are continually working on new solutions that will allow governments, donors, and other financiers to facilitate gender equity through their support for the sector,” she elaborated.
Kate Steel, Co-founder and CEO at Nithio
Kate Steel, co-founder, and CEO at Nithio, an AI-driven platform for clean energy investment, became interested in energy access and renewable energy while working as a teacher in Nairobi twenty years ago. The city was on a power rationing schedule, and very few communities in rural areas had access to grid electricity.
Kate notes that energy access in remote areas often impacts women more acutely because they spend more time in and around the home and are subjected to smoke and fumes from biomass cooking and kerosene.
“It makes business sense for companies providing DRE access to have women design the systems, sell the products, and provide customer service. Based on this, I think companies should prioritize jobs for women and ensure that their staff reflects their customer base. Investors can also encourage this push for equality by prioritizing investments to companies with strong female representation,” she said.
Kate explained that by driving investment in the solar energy space, either through its own investments or helping other investors to scale, Nithio was directly providing energy access to households, thus enabling women to spend less time collecting biomass, improving health outcomes, and controlling their energy supply.
“The last point is important because controlling your energy supply makes the household more resilient against climate change. Nithio is recognized as a 2X Challenge Investment by the US Development Finance Corporation for its focus on women-run businesses,” she added.
Lucia Wamala, Chief Executive Officer at Bakulu Power
Lucia Wamala, Chief Executive Officer at Bakulu Power, ended up as a founder through what she considers a bizarre twist of fate. “I had gone to Uganda in the hopes of collecting some funds from family for my MBA in luxury management. I was pregnant at the time and very emotional. When I visited my parents' graves I had a change of heart and wanted to do something more meaningful instead,” she said.
For Lucia, gender equality is important because energy poverty has a female face. “Women and girls are the ones who walk to collect fuelwood for cooking and suffer the respiratory consequences of cooking with fuelwood. To be honest, the real-life perspectives from women (and all end-users) unfortunately tend to be missing in project designs,” she noted.
All projects at Bakulu Power are designed with productive-use components. Investing in key economies helps to stabilize its electricity business and creates paths towards sustainable communities. “Currently, we work with three community-based women organizations. We recruit employees from these organizations for our productive use businesses and, also with our university partners, train women to start their businesses,” Lucia explained.
Judith Joan Walker, Chief Operating Officer, African Clean Energy
After seeing first-hand the struggle people face living in energy poverty in Lesotho, Judith decided to join her brother, CEO and Founder of African Clean Energy, Ruben Walker, in setting up and scaling up African Clean Energy in 2014.
“Since then, it has been a labor of love, trying to ensure we balance being mission-driven with scalability and results. I think that being a woman leader in this company has been an opportunity to pull other women up the ladder, and I see this as a great strength, rather than a hurdle,” Judith said.
Judith said having more women in leadership positions was one of the driving forces to have more women in the sector and achieve gender equality. “Diverse teams hire diverse teams, so it's really important that there is diversity and balance right to the top levels,” she said.
Judith added that the African Clean Energy company has always aimed to hire in a gender-equitable way and ensures opportunities for growth within the company. It also lowers barriers to accessing its technologies for customers by using micro-finance as a tool for affordability.
“We have continued to offer our products on friendly credit, without interest, to prevent over-indebtedness and ease the burden for families unable to pay up-front. We make it easier for those carrying the burden of cooking and cooking fuels (women and girls) to invest in better energy access,” Judith said.
AEC addresses gaps in energy access through its innovative products. “The ACE One solar biomass cookstove provides both thermal and electrical energy and saves both time and money for our end-users. It also has multiple benefits that would appeal to the whole family,” Judith added.
There you have it, the top eight women in the DRE sector that inspire us and that we chose to celebrate as part of the 2022 International Women’s Day. Which women in DRE are on your list this year?