Rural women are biggest victims of Africa’s energy shortfall

Pioneering solutions that are already in use offer hope for change 

Woman cooking

African countries suffer from shortages of energy supply and access, with negative effects on social and economic progress. As a result, the majority of energy expended across farms in Africa comes from manpower. But in truth, this is mostly “woman power”.

African women are largely responsible for cooking and outdoor work, shouldering a disproportionate share of manual labour — especially in agriculture.

Low levels of energy access are therefore not only undermining agricultural development and holding back progress on global development goals. They are negatively affecting the welfare of rural women at the same time.

As well as boosting economic activities and reducing environmental degradation, opening up access to sustainable, off-grid energy sources has the potential to dramatically transform women’s agricultural productivity, health and wellbeing. Since limited energy access is a rural more than an urban phenomenon, improved availability can boost rural women’s wellbeing and reduce gender imbalances.

But for this to happen, women’s needs must be considered at the policymaking level and capacity must be built, so they can play a meaningful role in the design, development and scaling of local energy solutions. Setting gender-positive development policies requires a deliberate, targeted approach.

One example of such an inclusive initiative is the public-private Transformative Partnerships on Energy for Africa, which seeks to add 160GW of on-grid capacity and 130m new connections by 2025 — amounting to 160 per cent growth. This will be done by overhauling utility companies and, crucially, increasing the number of bankable energy programmes that focus on serving women and “bottom of the pyramid” access.

Such gender-inclusive approaches are essential. Women conduct up to 90 per cent of the manual labour on farms, including sowing, weeding and harvesting crops. To weed a single hectare of sorghum by hand can take about 324 hours — almost two weeks — demonstrating the dire need for mechanised tools.

Improved energy access could help ease other burdens for rural women, too. Energy in rural areas is inextricably linked with the development of cottage industries — household-level economic activities such as sewing, knitting, baking and cooking — which are often done in poorly ventilated spaces using inefficient, polluting systems.

Cooking accounts for about 70 per cent of household energy use in Africa — compared with 10 per cent globally — and often involves biofuels such as firewood. The toxic fumes produced affect entire families and cause about 600,000 deaths every year across Africa, making them more deadly than malaria. Yet, bound by their domestic duties, women suffer disproportionately from this noxious smoke.

Pioneering solutions that are already in use offer hope for change.

For instance, a switch to clean energy stoves in Uganda reduced acute respiratory diseases among users by more than a fifth, while similar technology in Mali cut household fuel expenditure by a quarter and reduced particulate matter pollution by 56 per cent.

Innovative technologies such as solar-powered irrigation pumps are already being used across the continent, while multifunctional diesel-powered machines have reduced the burden of fuel collection in Mali. Previously, wood for fuel would have been collected manually, often by women and girls, so these solutions open up time for other activities instead — including education, leisure and income-generating enterprises.

As these schemes show, improving access to alternative energy sources can enhance rural women’s economic situations and their welfare. Having more time to spend on income-generating activities is one key advantage of such modernisation, while greater sustainable energy access can also boost employment opportunities for women.

For instance, electrification in South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal province led to an almost 10 per cent increase in employment among women, while rural electrification programmes in Ghana are enabling women to run small businesses from their homes, such as preparing and selling snacks.

Solar energy access has also enabled rural children to use solar lamps while reading at night, protecting their eyes against smoke damage from paraffin candles.

Elsewhere, the Barefoot College initiative in Senegal is opening up multiple moneymaking opportunities for women — training them to become solar engineers, alongside other income-boosting endeavours such as bee-keeping and sewing.

Improving access to clean, sustainable energy across Africa is vital for agriculture and the development of rural communities — and countries such as Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa and Zambia have shown it is possible.

But as key workers and providers within these contexts, women must be considered in the design and implementation of these new energy strategies.

Without “woman power”, Africa’s agricultural sector would undoubtedly fail. But by improving energy access that ensures new systems, tools and technologies are gender-responsive, the continent’s rural women and farming communities can prosper.

Tumusiime Rhoda Peace is a former commissioner for rural economy and agriculture at the African Union Commission and a member of the Malabo Montpellier Panel.

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