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Spotlight – March 2018
Spotlight Interview : Sita Adhikari, Empower Generation
Empower Generation (EG) is a social enterprise that supports rural women to lead inclusive businesses that deliver clean energy solutions to their remote communities in Nepal. In partnership with Kalpavriksha, they provide finance, sales, and supply chain management training and mentorship as well as working capital to women who in turn run their own clean energy enterprises, selling portable and large solar home systems through their sales agents.
Sita Adhikari, Co-Founder of EG and CEO of Kalpavriksha, talks about her experience running a wholesale clean energy distribution company and working with women entrepreneurs.
- What led you to start an energy access enterprise?
SA: “I saw that there was a great need for energy access in rural communities. Women and children are most negatively affected by lack of energy access because they are exposed to indoor pollution from kerosene and wood fires used in traditional cooking. When I met Anya Cherneff, we shared a passion for empowering women and for providing a solution to the energy access problem. We co-founded Empower Generation, which supports women entrepreneurs through training, start-up capital, and mentorship. And I founded Kalpavriksha, a for-profit wholesale distribution company, which provides clean energy products like solar portable lights and home systems as well as clean cookstoves to our distribution network.”
- What are your biggest successes?
SA: “Nepal had an energy crisis for a long period time. There used to be more than 18 hours of power cuts every day, and more than 60 percent of people did not have access to the grid. Setting up a model that helps rural women address this problem at a local level and watching our distribution network grow to 20 women-led businesses in 12 districts is our greatest success. Through our distribution network 294,626 people now have cleaner safer access to power, light, and cookstoves.”
- Is there any advice or a mantra you would like to share with organizations that are on the fence on incorporating women in their business models?
SA: “In terms of energy access related businesses, it is important to include rural women as they are the household energy managers and know their local markets the best. I believe local people need to be involved in providing energy access solutions to their communities. Local leadership, people that communities trust, determine whether the rest of the community will adopt clean energy technology, not the advice of outside organizations. In a country like Nepal, where women do not traditionally have a lot of agency it can be challenging to empower them. My advice to other organizations is to be patient and provide continual mentorship and support.”
- In many ways, your work on establishing and growing clean energy businesses coupled with gender inclusion is about breaking social barriers in countries like Nepal. How do you circumvent issues of traditional gender roles that limit participation of women?
SA: “Rural women lack business skills and mentorship. We provide them with technical support and leadership skills. However, training is not enough, we also offer an environment where the local community trusts the women entrepreneur. We introduce the entrepreneur to her local community as the CEO of her own company and as a clean energy ambassador, who is affiliated with a larger, reputable organization. Once the women entrepreneur is established in her community, she is seen as an employer, hiring her own sales agents, and gains respect and an identity in the local community, which leads her to break social barriers and become a change-maker.”
- What have been your biggest challenges and how are you working to address them?
SA: “Working capital for women is the biggest challenge. Rural women in Nepal do not own property and do not have access to their own money, making it difficult for them to start their own business. In addition, people tend to hesitate to invest in a woman-run business. Another challenge is the perception that poor people can only purchase poor quality products. In addition, the communities we work with expect to get products for free, and they have the job-finder perception rather than the job-creator mindset.
We addressed our biggest challenge by starting a women-led distribution network where we can provide them with different funding options. We offer only quality products to our distribution network, which in turn, provides local communities with access to the right technology at an affordable price. This is helping to change the perception of the poor only being able to afford poor quality products. In terms of changing communities’ expectations about receiving things for free, I explain to the entrepreneurs why they must purchase products rather than expect to get them for free, which is difficult in a donor-driven environment. I describe how I run my business, so that they understand that I cannot just give them the products for free. They gradual begin to comprehend the business/entrepreneurial mind-set. The entrepreneurs learn that only they can determine what products their community needs and purchase those specific products from Kalpavriksha. This is better than receiving free products that their communities may not even need. “
- Do you think there is adequate evidence around the impact of involving women as entrepreneurs or as part of the business models in the energy access space? If not, what would you like to see more of, in terms of both research and implementation?
SA: “We see evidence ourselves around the impact of women as entrepreneurs in the energy access space. However, I think this needs to be communicated in a better way to a larger audience.
As a small organization, it is difficult for us to constantly measure impact. We have basic methods to do so but need more support to do in-depth studies or to share best practices with other like-minded organizations. Having a limited number of staff, we are always looking to collect impact data in an efficient and meaningful way. Having a network that can share learnings and provide practical tips for implementation would help our organization.”