The African Development Bank and the United Nations Environment Programme estimate that an average of $41 billion per year is required to finance the energy sector in Africa. However, renewable energy (RE) provides a window of opportunity for Africa. Not only can the use of RE technologies such as hydro and solar photovoltaic help in addressing Africa’s energy deficit, but they can also contribute towards creating energy value chains through backward and forward linkages, including manufacturing, assembling of RE technologies, installation, repairs and maintenance. Given the ‘newness’ of the RE sector in many African countries, the industry could be developed in a way that is more inclusive and supportive of women, youth and disabled persons seeking employment and opportunities in the RE sector. This is especially important as women often suffer from energy poverty.
Across the developing world, women endure a lack of access to energy despite their status as almost half of all buyers of solar lighting systems globally. In sub-Saharan Africa, an average of 85.7% of households rely on environmentally hazardous fuels for lighting, cooking and heating, and use labour intensive activities that prevent women from engaging in economic activities and keep girls out of school, further entrenching their poverty. Enabling women’s access to clean energy as end users is essential to improving their livelihoods and correlates with a 59% increase in wages. This raises important questions as to how the RE sector can be shaped to be more women-inclusive, and provide for their economic growth.
Gender mainstreaming offers a preferred solution. As a tool that incorporates men and women’s concerns into the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes across political, economic and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally; gender mainstreaming is a strategy for achieving gender equality and the inclusion of women in sustainable development. This approach requires an understanding of how planned actions, policies, programmes and even infrastructure can affect women and men differently. Despite gender mainstreaming being increasingly used since the late 1990s, it has been difficult to incorporate this tool in infrastructure development in light of normative views that infrastructure is ‘gender neutral’. The challenges faced by many women in influencing decision-making at household and corporate levels, coupled with an absence of dedicated financing and budgeting for gender-based considerations at policy and making level amongst many African governments, has made it difficult for women to engage in infrastructure projects and for governments to implement gender mainstreaming in infrastructure projects – despite receiving official support from development financial institutions (DFIs), donors, and governments alike. Donors, business, governments and DFIs sometimes adopt a tick-box approach for the total female headcount in projects or struggle to incorporate clearly defined gender mainstreaming targets in infrastructure projects.
In order to address the challenges facing the RE industry, it is important to identify short- medium- and long-term solutions that can be tackled from the bottom up in order to engender Africa’s energy sector.
Short-term interventions need to focus on root problems, such as incorporating gender mainstreaming requirements into existing legislation and policy. For example, initiatives designed for communal RE production in projects of 5MW or less that encourage technical capacity building in women-owned businesses need to be encouraged and implemented. Similarly, development practitioner/gender experts need to be appointed to form part of project teams, to make inputs into project design and construction; and to help the government prepare gender equality strategies.
There could be greater collaboration between private and public financiers to find creative solutions for financing new, small and women-owned businesses in the energy sector. Implementing standard documentation and creating one-stop shops for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), or generating multi-institutional partnerships to create blended funding instruments that specifically target SMEs and women-owned businesses, are examples of collaborative efforts
Government and the private sector could also consider developing long-term industry guidelines catering for minimum threshold requirements for women leadership and technical experts at parastatal utilities and private companies. This includes identifying ways in which women’s inclusion in the energy sector can be furthered by industry guidelines – for example, through technical training/ capacity building, linking women-led SMEs with bigger companies, etc, and ties in with the other long-term goal of education.
One of the long-term goals required for furthering women’s participation in the RE sector is the need for skills development, technical capacity-building and implementing educational trusts and facilities that provide the necessary financial and other resource support to young girls interested in pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers. Efforts need to start at high-school level and to be progressively implemented, ranging from high school educational support through to internship opportunities upon graduation with tertiary degrees.
Ultimately, a differentiated and unique approach and understanding of gender mainstreaming, and the necessity for its inclusion in infrastructure development is required from donors, governments and DFIs if the RE sector is to comprehensively include women at every step of the energy value chain. In order to ‘do things differently’ within the RE sector, women need to be comprehensively included at decision-making levels and must be consulted in terms of project design and implementation. It is important that women as recipients of infrastructure projects and as gender experts be included in monitoring and evaluation processes for infrastructure projects in order to ensure lessons learning is undertaken for future developments. More women need to be employed as technical experts and leaders in the energy sector. It is only through their active participation and contribution in infrastructure development and design that they can become agents of their own development.