Symposium Provides New Insights for Modern Africa, Opportunities for Women in Energy & Water

“What will you do with the extra time you have?” Rachel Ishofsky, managing director of Innovation: Africa asked a woman whose village had just installed a solar powered water pump and distribution system.

“I will be a better mother,” she replied.

Women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa spend an average of 200 million hours per day collecting water (UN). Photo courtesy of Innovation: Africa.

For women in developing markets, water, energy, commerce, nutrition, education, and health are all inextricably linked. If a women spends hours each day searching for a source of clean water, or stands for hours in line for the single hand-pump (not to mention the time spent lugging it home) she doesn’t have time to run a small business. If she sends her children—especially her daughters—on that errand, she risks their safety and prevents them from going to school. If there’s no water and no time, how will she grow the nutrient-rich foods she needs to feed her children? And if water becomes the source of power generation or manufacturing, it means clean water becomes ever-more scarce, and a bigger portion of her time must be spent in securing water, foundational to life.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), along with the United Nations Foundation, The Brookings Institution, and the Center for Sustainable Development in Africa explored these issues and the sustainable innovation which is emerging to address them on February 26, 2014, at a half-day event, Modern Africa: A Symposium on Opportunities for Women in Energy and Water Access. Leaders and professionals from social enterprises, non-profit organizations, industry associations, and government agencies convened for a series of panel discussions, addressing Women’s Access to Energy, Women’s Access to Water, and Harnessing Opportunities through Partnerships and Innovative Investment Models.

Sustainable Water Sources for Those Who Need It Most

There’s a common—and welcome theme—amongst these types of meetings. Two things are required to sustainably address these issues. First, include the people who have the problem in the design and development of the solution, and second, establish an equitable, accessible market-based financial mechanism to sustain the solution.

In Africa, 90% of the work of gathering water for the household is done by women (UN). Photo courtesy of Innovation: Africa.

“You have to include women from the very beginning,” said Paula Jackson, president and CEO of the American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE). “It’s not easy. We all have multiple things that are priorities, but if you make the effort to include them, the reward will be more than you can imagine.” Assuming that developed market solutions can be easily leveraged in under-resourced markets is an easy mistake to make, and overlooks the important step of first understanding the local nature of the problem. “We don’t want to transfer the problems we have here,” said Jackson. “The lack of infrastructure is actually a wonderful opportunity to leapfrog and innovate to create an integrated approach.”

Rachel Ishofsky, managing director of Innovation: Africa, agrees. The social enterprise has installed 75 solar-powered water pumps and distribution systems, which use innovative software to monitor performance, ensuring better maintenance and fewer break-downs. “You have to partner on the ground.  You can’t do it from here.  Every village has a local women’s group. We ask the women. We map out the needs for water. You really need to work at the local level in the local landscape.”

Asking saves a lot of guesswork—and a lot of expensive mistakes.

Innovation: Africa has installed 75 solar-powered water pumps and distribution systems like this one, which use innovative software to monitor performance, ensuring better maintenance and fewer break-downs. Photo courtesy of Innovation: Africa.

While installing the solar water pumps addresses an immediate need, Innovation: Africa has also built in a method which meets another need in the community—and one that people are willing to pay for. Each pump is equipped with a pay-per-use mobile device charging station that generates the funding required to maintain the pump. “Every single one of our installations is able to be maintained through this system. It’s replicable and scalable.” Building in a mechanism to fund the solution in perpetuity is critical to sustaining it. But one key barrier remains, especially for women: the necessary financial capital to get started in the first place.

Funding the Water-Pump Innovation

While micro-lending has been a boon to these markets, and is now commonly acknowledged as an important part of sustainable economic development, capital to expand and scale remains maddeningly out of reach, especially for women, whose husbands are often required to sign for the loans, if they are available at all (either loans or husbands).

Photo courtesy of Innovation: Africa.

One interesting funding model explored at the symposium taps into the relationships and connections that emigrants—and their descendants—have with their country of origin, often the countries most in need of capital.  A host of innovative approaches exist to allow diasporas and others to share resources philanthropically across borders. But few legitimate, accessible, secure mechanisms enable the diaspora to invest a portion of their personal wealth in appropriate investments at home.

Homestrings Ltd, founded by Eric V. Guichard, provides an investment platform that caters to qualified investors and facilitates impact-investing by “providing effective tools to make and measure the difference you make in the world, all while making a reasonable return.” Currently available only in the United Kingdom, the firm is seeking the appropriate permissions in the United States.

This approach is also supported by The Aspen Institute.  Alexander Dixon, Director of the Rockefeller Aspen Diaspora Program at The Aspen Institute, pointed to the significant remittances which represent a major flow of capital that dwarfs foreign assistance by a factor of four ($500+ billion in 2012). “We need to look beyond the checking account,” he said. “There is considerable stored wealth which could be more appropriately deployed.  How do we help the diaspora channel their investments back to the home country and make the returns they expect?”

Photo courtesy of Innovation: Africa.

Clearly there is a need for intermediaries to facilitate diaspora investment at the global level, and then to go one step beyond it to open the world for appropriate investments across borders, which sustains the ecological, social and economic development, which in turn sustains us all.

Kudos to Brookings, CSIS, UN Foundation, and the Center for Sustainable Development for convening a series of conversations that give us more to think about and act upon—and help us invest in sustainable systems that enable a new generation of parents to take better care of their children.

Feature photo courtesy of Innovation: Africa.
Laura Asiala

Laura Asiala

Laura Asiala is the Vice President, Public Affairs at PYXERA Global. Passionate about the power of business to solve—or help solve—the world’s most intransigent problems, she leads the efforts to attract more participation of businesses to contribute to sustainable development through their people and their work. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Net Impact, a community of more than 40,000 student and professional leaders creating positive social and environmental change in the workplace.

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