The voices of Solar Sister Entrepreneurs: understanding the challenges of women entrepreneurs in the world of COVID-19

June 02, 2020

In partnership with ENERGIA, we listened to the voices of 41 Solar Sister Entrepreneurs in Tanzania and Nigeria through structured phone interviews to better understand the impacts of COVID-19 on their livelihood. Networks of women entrepreneurs play a salient role in bringing clean energy to the hardest-to-reach communities of the world. In light of the global pandemic, their businesses have come under great pressure, and this risks hampering progress towards universal clean energy access and women’s empowerment targets. It is always critical that we listen to the challenges our women entrepreneurs face to identify the key areas that require regional and global support, but even more so in the wake of COVID-19.

The survey responses we received demonstrate the stark reality and heart-breaking impacts of COVID-19 on women clean energy entrepreneurs in rural communities. While devastating, they also highlight the tenacity of  Solar Sister Entrepreneurs and give us hope that we will come out of this stronger and more determined than ever to provide light, hope, and opportunity to the communities that need it the most. 

Key findings from the survey: 

  • Solar Sister Entrepreneurs have a high level of concern about how COVID-19 will impact them and their families: nearly 60% of the entrepreneurs interviewed stated that they are very worried about COVID-19 affecting them and their family. The top two concerns related to COVID-19 impacts are the ability to provide childcare and run a business at the same time throughout school closures, and the ability to earn money and put food on the table. 

COVID family impacts

“I am not able to go out to do my business. It is affecting a major source of income for sustaining my family. There is no way to access money for people to pay me because I am in a rural community. There is no bank in my area.”

  • The impacts of COVID-19 on Solar Sister Entrepreneurs’ clean energy businesses are severe: Nearly 70% of the entrepreneurs interviewed told us that their clean energy business has been affected by COVID-19 “a lot”. The main concerns related to the business impacts of COVID-19 are a loss of customers and market, as well as supply of products and raw materials. Despite the negative impacts of COVID-19 on Solar Sister Entrepreneurs’ clean energy businesses,  women entrepreneurs are resilient. Many have turned to digital marketing and selling to maintain customer relations and sales. 

covid business impacts

 “We cannot connect to our customer families now. My income has dropped. I cannot save for now and I use it all to the family. All my dreams have stopped.”

 “I am shut out from going out to fend for myself and family. Having what it takes to earn a living but not being able to is heartbreaking.”

 “Nowadays I do my business through phone calls and customer come to my house and before we do any business they wash their hands, make sure they wear mask.”

 “I am trying not to allow the pandemic weigh me down. I started exploring my family and friends’ connections. I started advertising on my WhatsApp.”

  • Availability of COVID-19 support and relief packages in Solar Sister Entrepreneur communities is limited and very little seems to be reaching last-mile communities: When asked about the availability of COVID-19 support and relief packages within their communities, Solar Sister entrepreneurs reported virtually none. In the rare cases where support, like food distribution, was offered, it wasn’t able to reach everyone in the community due to limited availability/resources. 

 “Nothing like that has come to my community. In fact, I was asking yesterday, when will we see the this thing we hear over the news.”

 “We have seen food support disbursed in my community, but because of how little it was, I didn’t receive.”

 “There is none at all going on in my community.”

  • Most Solar Sister Entrepreneurs own phones, but less than half own smartphones, which would allow them to connect with both Solar Sister and customers in a new way during the pandemic: In this COVID-19 world, businesses are relying on technology, social media, and online ordering to maintain sales and marketing, so we wanted to understand our entrepreneurs’ access to mobile phone technologies. Nearly half of the entrepreneurs interviewed reported owning a basic phone (not a smartphone) and having access to mobile phone charging at all times. Around 40% of those interviewed have access to a smartphone and mobile phone charging at all times. 

SSEphone ownership 2

  • Financial support  was identified as the #1 need at this time by Solar Sister Entrepreneurs: In terms of most immediate needs, the entrepreneurs interviewed frequently cited financial support in the form of cash relief. Many of them are currently relying on their savings from their clean energy business to provide for their family. As a result, they’re concerned about having capital available to revamp their businesses once consumer demand picks back up. Other forms of support cited include: PPE, product loans & other financing options, access to smartphones, food security, and education about COVID-19.

“With the shut down of many business activities, overtime we would have dug into our capital to feed and by the time things have balanced we will not have enough money to pick up our business. Any support to sustain or help boost our capital base.”

“If we could be granted small gratuities in a form of grant/ stimulus package, it will enable us to get back at our feet again, as we have used our small savings to feed our families and relatives, as our finances have depleted tremendously.”

So what can we learn from the voices of these women entrepreneurs?

  1. Government support is lacking for women small business owners in the informal sector.
  2. COVID-19 support and relief packages need to provide financial support in the form of cash to support women’s enterprises in rural areas.
  3. Now more than ever, access to mobile technology is crucial for rural women entrepreneurs to interact with customers and make sales and to receive ongoing mentorship and support from organizations like Solar Sister. 
  4. Along with access to mobile technology, training on digital literacy, communication, marketing, and selling would greatly help rural women entrepreneurs increase their market reach in the face of the pandemic. 
  5. Solar Sister Entrepreneurs are resilient and display great fortitude during challenging times. They are willing to adapt and mold their businesses, as needed, but they need the proper support to do so. 

If you’re interested in seeing the survey findings in more detail, they can be accessed here for Nigeria, and here for Tanzania. In addition, be sure to read ENERGIA’s briefing about this listening initiative, which also includes findings from women entrepreneurs in Kenya, Nepal, and Senegal. 

Now, more than ever our community needs us and we need you. You can help Solar Sister Entrepreneurs get through these unprecedented times so that they can continue empowering communities with clean energy for years to come! Donate here. No dollar amount is too small. 

Written by: Alicia Oberholzer