The Power of Social Networks

May 15, 2018

And we don’t mean Twitter or Facebook…

Growing from 10 to 3,000 entrepreneurs, Solar Sister has learned many lessons about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to recruitment of women in clean energy value chains. Identifying women who will thrive in our unique business opportunity is critical to scaling Solar Sister’s last mile distribution. Over the past eight years, Solar Sister has piloted and tested a variety of different strategies and one main component has held true over and over again: social networks are powerful.

Aisha and Isabella

When Aisha Mgaya, a young woman working as a secretary in a small town in southern Tanzania, heard about the clean energy business opportunity offered by Solar Sister, she knew she had to get her mother involved. Her mother, Isabella Mgaya, 49, is a farmer in Maduma village, an hour’s drive from town, who lives with her two sons Vespa and Reagan.

There is little access to electricity. Since an electricity line arrived earlier this year thanks to government’s Rural Electrification project, a handful of people have connected to grid power. But the large majority live in the dark. Isabella Mgaya saw the benefit of becoming a Solar Sister entrepreneur and gathered other women in Maduma to sign up.

Isabella and her son outside her house
Isabella with her son, Vespa, pose in front of her house, Tanzania


While the village center remains off-grid, there are some points of bright light: a shop is lit by two small round solar lights; in the pub, there’s another solar light hanging on the wall; down the path, a home is lit by two solar lights — one in the kitchen as the family cooks and one outside in the compound. This is the result of Isabella’s enterprise. Isabella and her daughter Aisha are community champions who help to reach last-mile communities.

Testing techniques

Taking a sample of 670 Solar Sister entrepreneurs in Nigeria and Tanzania, we evaluated how different recruitment techniques impacted entrepreneur performance and the quantity of entrepreneurs signed up. Techniques include pitching to groups, holding community events, recruiting through implementation partners, radio campaigns, marketing materials and one on one connections.

Community champions

Solar Sister’s main strategy to expand its network is recruiting through its Community Champion Model. Community Champions are local leaders that have close ties to their communities and have strong connections to women’s groups and networks. Instead of approaching possible recruits in large groups and community events, Solar Sister’s field staff work in partnership with Community Champions to target potential recruits on a one on one basis. From there, these new recruits introduce Solar Sister to local women’s groups and their existing networks to bring more women into the program.

Data shows this approach is more successful than the standard approach of assembling and pitching to large groups and/or through community events. We found that entrepreneurs recruited through friends sell four times as much as entrepreneurs recruited through community events and produced the highest number of recruits (37% of total entrepreneurs). While community events produced the second highest quantity of sign ups (21%), entrepreneurs recruited performed the lowest in product sales.

One thing has held true over and over again: social networks are powerful.

Our experience from the field has taught us that the impersonalized recruitment approach limited to large groups disTable - recruitment techniquescourages an individual woman to get the answers she needs to fully understand the value addition and commitment to become a successful Solar Sister. Women tend to be more comfortable taking advantage of opportunities that do not come from strangers, but from people they know and trust. A recent study conducted by MIT uncovered the high importance last mile consumers place on established connections and networks. One on one conversations also allow our field team to address individual concerns and connect with each woman’s aspirations, concerns and challenges.

Last Mile Learning is a monthly blog series by Grants and Impact Manager, Abby Mackey. The series shares Solar Sister’s experiences, data and learning from our work with women-run renewable energy businesses in Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda.