You could call it a perfect storm – the good kind. Solar powered devices like pumps, refrigerators and silk reelers known as ‘decentralized renewable energy’ are dramatically changing life for women in rural areas of India, while helping India move towards a sustainable, climate-friendly economy. And the new work opportunities they offer rural women could increase India’s GDP by an astounding 18% by 2025, according to McKinsey Global Institute.
About 87 million women are members of self-help groups created since 2011 under the government’s National Rural Livelihood Mission to empower rural women and reduce poverty. As people in rural areas – two-thirds of India’s population – increasingly choose solar power over the expensive, unrelialbe electricity from the state grid, women are among the biggest beneficiaries.
Women no longer have to walk long distances to fetch water, thanks to 700,000 solar powered water pumps. Their homes are healthier as solar lighting replaces candles and kerosene lanterns. Labour-saving devices from electric roti-makers to solar-powered refrigerators make housework easier while opening up new possibilities for paid work.
“By 2030, an estimated 30 million women-owned micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are expected to flourish in India, employing nearly 150 million people,” says a study by the independent research organization, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). DRE-powered livelihood solutions can solve low mechanization and the need for more reliable electricity that constrain approximately 119 million farmers and 34 million micro-enterprises in the Indian rural economy.
More than 80% of end-users of clean energy appliances are women, says Powering Livelihoods, a CEEW-Villgro initiative that aims to mainstream clean energy-based solutions in India’s rural economy. And together, the 12 mature DRE livelihood technologies can impact 37 million livelihoods, a revenue opportunity worth $48 billion USD.
As well as collecting and sharing data, CEEW shares the stories of how these DREs are changing life for women in rural India, and that is intentional. One of the ways of spreading the use of DREs is by reaching out to women to show them how these techniques are improving life for other rural women – a technique called social marketing that also was used to sell the solar water treatment known as SODIS.
The strategy engages successful women as local champions; their experiences help generate sales, boost clean tech credibility, and create trust among other women. ‘Hyperlocal’ demonstration events and stations take the DRE products directly to women in their villages, while women-focused marketing campaigns, using short videos in local languages, help share information widely. Powering Livelihoods connects communities with companies that provide solar-powered livelihood solutions, with a focus on rural women.
Here are three examples shared on the website of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), the independent, not-for-profit research organization that is a cornucopia of information and resources.
Empowering silk reelers in Odisha through solar energy
Women living in Kardapal, a remote tribal village in Odisha’s Keonjhar District, had to reel silk threads by hand due to limited electricity access until, through a local demonstration in 2015, they discovered solar reeling machines. It meant they could reel faster from the comfort of their homes, and their incomes steadily improved.
Kuni Dehury, 35, who began encouraging other women to join their local cooperative society, has trained over 500 women to use the solar-powered reeling machines since 2016. She has seen the women in her village become more independent, with a better quality of life.
Leveraging the sun in Jharkhand’s farmlands
In 2020, Munita Devi, a 36-year-old farmer in Jharkhand’s Latehar district, invested a major part of her income to get a solar-powered irrigation pump. She had been using an oil-based pump to irrigate her fields but the Rs 10,000 annual expense made it difficult for her to farm sustainably. “After the installation, there is no added expense. Rather, I am saving the cost of fuel, which has increased my income. I no longer have to worry about my crops dying due to lack of timely supply of water,” says Munita. She has been able to procure a two-wheeler for her family and provide better education for her children.
Solarising refrigerators in Rajasthan dairy
The lives of more than 8,000 rural women from Dooni village in Rajasthan changed completely in 2020 when the Maitree Mahila Mandal dairy procured solar refrigerators to store milk and other perishable items. The company, which had been spending INR 10,000-15,000 for intermittent and erratic electricity, now saved money and had a consistent, solar-powered electricity supply, helping to increase the shelf life of perishable products.
Meera Jatt, 32, is inspiring more and more women to join the workforce. “Earlier, we could just think about ourselves. But as more and more women start working and sharing their experiences, we can now think of bettering the country,” she says.
How Micro Solar Pumps Are Changing the Lives of Women on Indian Farms. CEEW, Jun. 5, 2023
In rural Rajasthan, solar energy powers refrigerators – and changes women’s lives. Scroll, May 11, 2023
Decentralised Renewable Energy Technologies for Sustainable Livelihoods. CEEW, May 17, 2023