January 4, 2018

Women Bring Light and New Life to Africa

By Megan Rabbitt

For the women of the Maasai communities – or bomas as they’re known in rural Tanzania – life may be simple, but it’s far from easy. Extreme weather, long treks to collect water, and daily chores like tending livestock, preparing meals, and caring for children make for long, hard days. But according to Teresia, one of the senior Maasai “mamas,” the greatest challenge facing her boma “was the darkness in our houses” because without electricity, “you can’t see anything at night.”

Until recently, Teresia’s boma lived without power – and life off the grid came with a host of challenges. Milk from the boma’s cattle spoiled quickly in the heat. Charging a cell phone meant paying for a bus ticket into town. And many of the women had no choice but to give birth in the dark.

Teresia’s isn’t the only African community that understands a life without light. In Tanzania alone, one out of ten people lack electricity. Across sub-Saharan Africa, two out of three people live off the electrical grid – that’s 70 percent of the entire population, or 600 million people.

Recognizing that expanded access to electricity could help unlock economic growth, alleviate poverty, and break down barriers to health and education, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launched an ambitious initiative in 2013 to double electrical access across sub-Saharan Africa. In just four years, the Power Africa initiative has brought electricity to 50 million people – including Teresia.

Thanks to the solar microgrids installed by a USAID Power Africa project, each home in Teresia’s boma now has electrical access. Today, milk is kept cool in refrigerators along with other foods and medicines. Cell phones can be charged at home. And children can read and study long after the sun goes down.

“The life of my kids will be better because of the electricity,” explained Teresia. “A life with light.”

Power Africa’s incredible reach is due in large part to the resources and expertise leveraged through public-private partnerships. To date, more than 100 private energy companies and investment firms – including household names like General Electric – have teamed up with the U.S. government to bring power to Africa. Private investment thus far totals over $40 billion – more than five times the United States’ initial $7 billion investment.

One of the many partnerships contributing to Power Africa’s success is a vocational training program led by Arizona State University (ASU). Through VOCTEC – or the Vocational Training and Education for Clean Energy program – ASU is helping to build the skilled workforce needed to maintain Power Africa’s renewable energy systems for years to come.

All too often, new energy installations fail because there simply aren’t enough trained, local technicians who can keep them up and running. Through regional training centers and partnerships with local universities, VOCTEC is training a new generation of technicians while making sure instructors have the resources they need to teach effectively. To date, the program has provided more than 28,400 hours of training across 15 countries – in Africa, and beyond.

Remarkably – and in keeping with Power Africa’s mission to empower women – the VOCTEC program has recruited 150 women to participate in solar trainings. Offering women-only trainings may have been the secret to VOCTEC’s success, because as one participant in Kenya explained, she “found having a female instructor very motivating as it showed me even women can be professional installers and be the best in their field.”

Program alumna in Kenya even formed a support group called WISE – short for Women in Sustainable Energy and Entrepreneurship – to encourage the continued training of women in the field. One member has already gone on to become the chief technical officer of a well-regarded private solar company, while another is the lead trainer at one of VOCTEC’s partner universities.

Whether it’s the Kenyan women of WISE or “mama” Teresia in Tanzania, women are playing a crucial role when it comes to bringing light and new life to Africa.

Teresia’s story originally appeared here.