DevA: Creating Women-Led Solar Entrepreneurs in Nigeria

“Charity never lives long; it dies in the short run, in a short space of time as funds run out.”

If your country was suffering from energy poverty, how would you solve it? That's Nigerian Chimaobi James Agwu's challenge.

Agwu believes that empowering women to establish micro-enterprises is more effective than monetary donations, which don't necessarily generate permanent solutions. That's why Agwu established Development Access (or DevA for short), empowering women to become renewable energy entrepreneurs so that they can help their communities achieve a better quality of life.

Better Health and Wealth through a Sustainably Financed Model

Chimaobi James Agwu, DevA Founder

It's estimated that more than 100,000 Nigerians lose their lives to smoke-related diseases each year. Women and girls are disproportionately affected, with four in five of these deaths female. As in other developing nations, this is because women have no choice but to use dangerous kerosene lamps and dirty cooking stoves fired by wood for many daily household tasks such as cooking.

Agwu's – and DevA's – main interest is to give women a new lease of life through emerging technology in the renewable energy sector, allowing them to become healthier, and gain a financial safety net. To accomplish their goals, they’ve partnered with organizations like WakaWaka to provide sustainable financing, in addition to high-quality renewable energy products, in order to ensure that even Nigerians on the lowest wages will no longer have to live their lives without access to electricity.

For this to be realized, the social enterprise runs two flagship schemes. The first is the RENTA program. This scheme ensures that women across Nigeria have a low-risk form of finance for beginning a micro-enterprise that sells renewable energy products. Instead of simply giving participants free stock, the charity expects individuals to make a financial investment of some form. This helps women to realize the value of the program and the products they will sell, enabling them to realize that they now own a solution to the widespread problem.

The RENTA purchasing initiative allows a Nigerian on an average salary in the country to purchase products such as the WakaWaka Solar Lamp or a biomass cooking stove. The fact that no full upfront payment needs to be made makes it accessible to more Nigerians. A person, or a family, can cover the cost in affordable increments over a three to six-month timeframe.

Thanks to RENTA, even Nigerians on the lowest incomes have the ability to afford an energy resource that could save their life. In addition, the energy-efficient nature of these products helps to reduce or eliminate overheads such as lighting fuel and cooking fuel. This means consistent access to energy, and more money in the pockets for all those who participate in RENTA.

This scheme doesn't just help individuals, however, as some organizations have benefitted, too. Limand Hospital, in the Lagos State town of Command, is one such example. Previously, a generator was used to power a light source for patient rooms. Now, they’ve invested in five solar lights from Development Access. Today, this decision saves the hospital N1,000 – or $6.25 – in diesel costs on a nightly basis. Patient wellbeing has improved as a result, too, and the light quality from the lanterns is far superior to what the generators could provide. And the money they save can now be reinvested into healthcare.

So, what about the profits DevA accrues? The social enterprise reinvests any income they generate from sold products into Nigerian women. This is achieved by providing small business loans to them, and hence allowing them to make a living selling solar products and clean cooking stoves to loved ones in their community.

This financial backing is supported by thorough training from DevA. Every woman learns about how to run a business efficiently, sell products, and learn about the advantages and features of the renewable energy products they can offer. From here, any inventory a woman's micro-enterprise needs is purchased from DevA. Should a budding entrepreneur be unable to fund her startup costs, DevA provides stock that will help her get started. From here, any net profit made is expected to be used in purchasing further products to sell.

Together, micro-loans and the RENTA program give DevA the chance to make renewable energy a way for Nigerians to receive financial independence and better health in a plethora of ways.

“Internationally it is recognized that energy poverty is the worst poverty of all. This is why we are so keen on the relationship and collaboration with WakaWaka Solar Light,” states Agwu.

Getting Help from Current Women's Groups to Discover and Finance Female Entrepreneurs

For DevA, ensuring the plans gain traction has been a challenge at times, and this has required some creative approaches. Word of mouth has been one such difficulty, as well as establishing distribution networks. That's when Agwu and his team decided to depend on women's groups in Nigeria.

Agwu's social enterprise has determined that focusing on women is advantageous, and helps success to occur more quickly. This has been based on precedent. In the past, DevA used to provide free test products to some communities in order to pique interest and secure orders. Although it was a relatively effective method, the organization soon found that word of mouth about the products brought a greater interest.

Through utilizing the contacts that women's groups have already established through familial bonds or cultural tribes, DevA has achieved a number of vital goals. The first comes in the form of education. Women's groups have tried-and-tested procedures that ensure whole communities can learn about the advantages of using renewable energy, with awareness scant in several Nigerian regions. A lot of the time, women's groups are also able to advise DevA on which villages should be regarded as a priority, and provide recommendations on the women who would love to run their own business.

Solidarity groups also play a role when micro-loans are being distributed. As each participant is guarantor to another, this ensures that trust is established from the beginning of the process.

Last but not least, many women's groups are highly efficient at spreading the word about DevA's initiatives into Nigeria's most far-flung areas. Through endorsing solar lanterns and non-toxic cooking stoves to friends and relatives, this ensures that more people adopt the technology in their homes.

Further, though DevA has liaised with small shops in the past in order to create a retail relationship, the organization has found working with women’s groups is much more advantageous. Experimentation found this approach was unsuccessful, and didn't give the program the reach it needed. Agwu believed this results from several factors, saying: “We found out that with this method the opportunity for awareness is missing and the retailers paid the cost to the detriment of the end users. Secondly, the retailers tended to concentrate on selling the electricity appliances from which they have more profits as against the energy solutions we offer.”

Renewable Energy Transforms Lives

UNDP and ATRE Energy poverty sponsored training in South West Nigeria facilitated by DevA

Whether working with renewable energy entrepreneurs or seeing the direct impact of their technologies in peoples’ homes, DevA sees clearly how renewable energy has the impact to change lives for the better. One story comes from Mama Omolara, a mother to four who lives in the Ogun State village of Gidimo who sells household goods from a modest kiosk.

Previously, Omolara and her children only had access to two light sources. The first was a kerosene lamp, and the second a bush lantern fashioned from an empty tin and a wick. The lantern would lose light due to the wind, while the kerosene lamp would emanate toxic fumes. Each source of light posed a hazard to the family, and when fuel ran out, her kids could not finish their homework and as a result would be beaten by teachers.

DevA and solar lighting changed this. Now, the Omolara household has a new solar lantern, with each family member vying for control in the evening. Their energy independence means that Omolara can operate her kiosk later, lighting up the products she sells to boost profits and create financial security. The children perform better in school too, handing in their homework punctually.

Now, Mama Omolara and her family have purchased a second solar lamp, and this is just one of the many success stories DevA has heard. As Agwu stated: “Access to affordable and sustainable energy unlocks development potentials across all segments of society.”

DevA's founder firmly believes that fixing energy poverty in the coming decades is achievable. Chimaobi goes one further, and says: “We can actually conquer it within a five year period if all are serious and committed; why because energy pays its course and even returns a margin to the providers. It is an asset today and tomorrow.”

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