By Lauren Clark
Despite positive trends in electrification and gender equality in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) over the last two decades, the region lags behind the rest of the world in both dimensions. Recent economic assessments of the efficiency of pursuing universal electrification in SSA show the costs outweigh the benefits. This paper argues that, in the context of SSA, gains in women’s empowerment may strengthen the case for electricity expansion, but are not captured in standard cost-benefit analyses. The paper reviews existing literature to identify four channels through which positive externalities and equity gains may arise from electrification: (1) alleviating time poverty, (2) expanding labor market opportunities (“economic empowerment”), (3) improving maternal health and women’s safety, and (4) changing social norms. Findings indicate that electrification can alleviate women’s time poverty, create opportunities for women and girls to enter the labor force or focus on school, decrease exposure to harmful indoor air pollutants, improve maternal health, reduce exposure to and acceptance of gender-based violence, and change social norms through access to information. Expanding electricity access using renewable energy sources (“sustainable electrification”) presents additional opportunities to enhance women’s economic power by mainstreaming gender in the industry’s development. Falling costs of renewable technologies may also shift traditional cost-benefit analyses of electrification. Based on these findings, the paper recommends that policies continue to promote universal electricity access by prioritizing sustainable technologies that can support high-power household appliances, and integrating gender into every stage of the electrification process.
Compelled by the potential of household electrification for human and economic development, the United Nations (U.N.) aims to ensure universal electricity access by 2030 (U.N. n.d.). Electrification is promising for economic development because it may boost household productivity, especially in rural and agricultural areas. With electricity, household members can farm their land more efficiently, have more opportunities to work off their farms (Cabraal, Barnes, and Agarwal 2005, 118-120), access modern information and communications technologies (Blimpo and Cosgrove-Davies 2019, 92), and tap into financial systems (Sy et al. 2019). These potential benefits of electrification may accrue differently among household members because women are traditionally responsible for energy-intensive household tasks. As international efforts focus on achieving the U.N.’s electrification goal, academics have investigated whether investments in this goal are warranted from a cost-benefit perspective. Surprisingly, results from recent economic studies have found that the benefits of providing electricity in developing countries do not outweigh the costs (Lee, Miguel, and Wolfram 2020b; Grimm et al. 2020). However, despite gendered patterns of electricity use, these economic analyses of household electrification do not incorporate a gender lens. This paper argues that, in the context of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), gains in women’s empowerment may strengthen the case for electricity expansion, but are not captured in standard cost-benefit analyses. 
Despite gendered patterns of electricity use, these economic analyses of household electrification do not incorporate a gender lens.
From existing literature that addresses the effect of household electrification on women’s empowerment in SSA, this paper identifies four channels through which positive externalities and equity gains may arise: (1) alleviating time poverty, (2) expanding labor market opportunities (“economic empowerment”), (3) improving maternal health and women’s safety, and (4) changing social norms. This framework is then used to compare the benefits of non-sustainable electrification with those of sustainable electrification. Findings indicate that electrification can alleviate women’s time poverty, create opportunities for women and girls to enter the labor force or focus on school, decrease exposure to harmful indoor air pollutants, reduce acceptance of gender-based violence, and change social norms through access to information. Expanding electricity access using sustainable off-grid technologies presents additional opportunities to enhance women’s economic power by developing the nascent industry in a gender-inclusive way. Additionally, falling costs of sustainable energy sources may change traditional cost-benefit analyses of electrification. Based on these conclusions, the paper recommends continued progress towards universal electricity access, a focus on sustainable electrification technologies that can support household appliances, and integrating gender into sustainable electrification efforts at every stage of the process.
The definition of women’s empowerment used herein is provided in Winther et al. (2017, 392): “a process towards gender equality, understood as women’s and men’s equal rights, access to and control over resources and power to influence matters that concern or affect them.” In the context of developing countries such as those in SSA, electrification refers to expanding access to electricity either by improving or building out existing electric grids, or by using “off-grid” or “standalone” technologies such as generators or small electric grids (referred to as “mini grids”) that can service a local area. Off-grid technologies are well-suited for rural areas that are located far from existing energy infrastructure (IRENA 2019, 1-2). “Sustainable electrification” refers to expanding electricity access using renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, or hydro power.
The electricity supply available to an end-user depends on the capacity of the generating technology. Table 1 summarizes the types of appliances that can be used at different levels of capacity. Most commonly, low-power appliances such as lights and televisions are the first two uses of electricity, comprising 80 percent of rural electricity consumption (Köhlin et al. 2011, 30). Appliances such as refrigerators, food processors, and water pumps require greater power than lighting and television, and electric cookstoves require greater still (Bhatia and Angelou 2015, 71). Some of the benefits of electrification discussed below are therefore only attainable at higher levels of capacity. Ideally, electrification efforts in SSA would provide tier 4 or 5 access to all, but the U.N.’s universal access goal does not currently specify a tier.
Trends in Electrification and Gender Equality in SSA
SSA is home to 580 million, or 75 percent, of the 770 million people worldwide without access to electricity (IEA 2020b, under “Access to electricity”). Many of these people live in rural areas that cannot be easily reached by expanding existing electric grids (IEA 2019, 117). Endowed with high solar energy resources (IEA 2019, 72), off-grid solar-powered technologies thus hold great potential for expanding electricity in SSA. Additionally, SSA has the highest regional level of gender inequality in the world, as measured by the U.N. Development Programme’s (UNDP) Gender Inequality Index (GII) (UNDP n.d.). In light of these statistics and the established need to understand the gendered effects of household electrification, it is important to understand the impact of household electrification on women’s empowerment in SSA.
The U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) target access to energy (SDG 7) and gender equality (SDG 5). In SSA, progress has been made towards both of these goals in recent years. The number of people with access to electricity has been growing rapidly in SSA over the last two decades, as shown in the left-hand graph of figure 1. The average percent of the population with access to electricity in SSA increased from 17 percent in 1990 to 50 percent in 2019 (U.N. Statistics Division n.d.). Improvements in access are attributed to ambitious policy targets in a handful of countries including Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Senegal, and Côte d’Ivoire (IEA 2019, 116-117). Expanded electricity access in these countries has included both increasing connections to existing electric grids and building off-grid solutions. Despite this progress, there is still great variation across countries (shown in the purple dots), with electrification rates around 10 percent in some while others have achieved full access.
The GII assesses women’s status relative to men’s based on several metrics for women’s health, empowerment, and labor market opportunities (UNDP n.d.).  The index ranges from zero to one, with higher values indicating greater inequality. The evolution of the GII in SSA is shown in the right-hand graph of figure 1. From 1995 to 2019, the average GII in SSA declined from 0.66 to 0.55 indicating some improvement, though at a slow pace. While gender equality is a product of many social, cultural, economic, and institutional factors, identifying ways that electrification can contribute to greater equality creates opportunities for development policy to efficiently address both goals at once. The positive trends in electrification and gender equality in SSA make the region an ideal place to implement such policies.
Economic Motivation for Electrification
From an economic perspective, pursuing universal electrification is a worthwhile investment if it is efficiency or equity enhancing. Achieving electrification for all worldwide by 2030, as the SDGs aim to do (U.N. n.d., “Goal 7”), will cost an estimated $52 billion USD per year, with 95 percent of the costs directed towards SSA because it is the least electrified region (IEA 2017, 13). However, simply supplying electricity does not ensure that households will purchase it. Recent research on electricity demand in SSA has not been assuring. Lee, Miguel, and Wolfram (2020b, 1557) estimate the cost of connecting rural households to the existing electric grid in Kenya to be about five times the consumer surplus, even with high subsidies. Grimm et al. (2020) perform a similar welfare analysis, but for off-grid solar electrification in rural Rwandan communities.  Testing various wattage solar devices and the effect of a zero-interest rate credit scheme, they find that median willingness to pay (WTP) for electricity is about 30 to 40 percent of market prices, though relaxing liquidity constraints by extending the repayment period increases WTP by 13 percent. This leads Grimm and his co-authors to conclude that off-grid solar technology is preferable to grid extensions for mass electrification because costs are lower and come closer to consumers’ WTP, though demand is still insufficient to fully recuperate the costs (Grimm et al. 2020, 419-421). These cost-benefit assessments of electrification measure consumers’ internalized benefits. Theoretically, if the positive externalities from electrification were large enough, subsidizing electrification would still make economic sense. The benefits to society not internalized in consumers’ WTP could tilt the cost-benefit analysis in favor of electrification.
Even if the efficiency argument for electrification is tenuous, the costs may still be justified by improvements to equity. Figure 2 shows the relationship between electrification and the GII in SSA for 2005 and 2019. As previously discussed, there are many factors other than electrification that affect gender equality, this exercise simply demonstrates that higher equality is at least correlated with greater electricity access. The correlation between electricity access and GII is negative in both 2005 and 2019 and statistically significant at the five-percent level.  This implies that countries with higher levels of electricity access have a lower GII, or are more equal, on average. The statistical significance of the correlation between electrification and gender inequality has prompted scholars to investigate possible mechanisms underlying the relationship. The next section reviews this scholarship, which provides insight into positive externalities and equity gains that may come with electrification in the form of women’s empowerment.
Electrification and Empowerment
There are several reasons that electrification should be considered through a gender lens. First, women tend to be the primary energy users in a household, but are rarely the deciding voice in energy purchasing decisions. Based on evidence from Nepal, Kenya, and India, Winther et al. (2020, 1, 10-16) find that “women generally had less power than men to make decisions about electricity and appliances,” as reflected by deprioritized kitchen lighting, purchases of gender-neutral or “male” appliances over “female” appliances, and norms around women’s ownership of items. Another survey done in Kenya found that 82 percent of respondents’ household electricity supply connection was in “the man’s” name (ENERGIA 2020, 30). Additionally, as the primary providers of household care work, women are more likely to be responsible for chores such as washing clothes, retrieving water, cooking, and cleaning, all of which are energy-intensive (Dutta, Kooijman, and Cecelski 2017, 2). Traditional gender roles, therefore, result in different patterns of energy use between men and women and imply that women stand to gain disproportionately from electrification. Finally, from a policy perspective, even if energy policies do not actively exclude women from energy access, they risk institutionalizing or exacerbating disparities in power over energy decisions and use. The results from Kenya about male ownership of electricity supply contracts can be attributed to the fact that such contracts must be in the homeowner’s name (ENERGIA 2020, 29). In this case, women’s lack of homeownership translates into lack of decision-making power over electricity. An example of a gender-sensitive energy policy is Nigeria’s 2013 National Energy Policy, which calls attention to the specific energy needs related to household tasks (ENERGIA 2020, 29-31). The intersection between electrification and women’s empowerment creates space to further both goals within the same policies.
Alleviating Time Poverty
Time poverty refers to a scarcity of time for rest due to excess time spent working in the household or labor market (Habtezion 2012, 6). Electrification can alleviate women’s time poverty by either speeding up or eliminating the need for routine tasks. These tasks and the time required to complete them are generally referred to as “drudgery” in the literature on this issue (Winther et al. 2017, 393). In developing countries, women on average spend 4 hours and 11 minutes on unpaid household and care work per day, while men spend just 1 hour and 31 minutes (U.N. Women n.d.). In SSA, women spend three times as long as men on unpaid work (Jagoe et al. 2020, 1). Thus, the ability to purchase and reliably use appliances such as electric kettles, rice cookers, refrigerators, and blenders can significantly reduce the burden of activities like milling, grinding, food processing, and tailoring (ENERGIA 2020, 2; IBRD 2017, 2-3). A survey of time use in Nigeria found that women spend many hours processing foods: 2 to 3 hours a day to prepare grains for pounding, a cumulative 82 hours to process a drum of oil palm fruits, and 2 hours to grate a basin of cassava by hand that a grating machine could process in a minute (IBRD 2017, 8-9). As noted in table 1, these types of appliances would require at least tier 3 electricity supply, which can be produced with a generator or mini grid. While the acquisition of specific household appliances to reduce drudgery is relevant to women’s time use, there is not much research on this topic. Instead, academic studies have focused more on the changes in fuel and water collection induced by electrification.
Even if energy policies do not actively exclude women from energy access, they risk institutionalizing or exacerbating disparities in power over energy decisions and use.
In addition to the time saved by purchasing appliances that hasten cooking and cleaning tasks, electrification can reduce or eliminate the need to spend time collecting cooking fuel and water. A survey of households in Kenya found that female cooks were responsible for collecting firewood in a majority of households, which usually involved walking to and from woods far from home (Jagoe et al. 2020, 8). Examining the effects of post-apartheid electrification in South Africa, Dinkelman (2011, 3100) found that the introduction of household electricity reduced the use of firewood as the main fuel for cooking by 3.9 percent, and increased the use of electricity for cooking by 5.6 percent. Though marginal, these figures portray a substitution away from wood-based cooking with electrification, eliminating the need for women to trek substantial distances for fuel. Because electric cookstoves require a high supply of electricity, the effects of electrification on reducing firewood collection may depend on significant grid expansions.
Additionally, at the community-level, electric water pumps allow water to be retrieved more quickly and reliably (World Bank 2018, 7). This can reduce the travel time to wells, which women and girls collectively spend approximately 200 million hours traveling to every day. In SSA, it takes an average of 33 minutes round trip to collect water in rural areas and 25 minutes in urban areas (UNICEF 2016a). Unsurprisingly, access to electric water pumps and taps in a Zanzibari village thus freed 20 to 25 hours per week per household (Winther et al. 2017, 402). Women’s physical safety is also at risk when they must walk great distances to collect fuel or water. Instances of violence while standing in line for water, sexual harassment and rape along the way, and threats of domestic violence if not enough water or fuel is brought home have all been documented (Sommer et al. 2015, 109). Reducing the amount of time and distance required to retrieve cooking fuel and water by using electric appliances may therefore eliminate or at least lower related time and safety costs to women.
Although the evidence presented thus far shows that electrification can lessen the amount of time women spend on drudgery, if electricity access solely translates into lighting, women may instead time-shift their drudgery. This is a likely scenario if only low tiers of electricity supply are available. Electric lighting expands productive hours, which can result in women doing other tasks during the day, and then returning to household chores in the evening once it is dark outside (IRENA 2019b, 57). While this allows women more control over their time, it might expand the number of hours they work in total (unpaid and paid). One study on children in Madagascar found that for girls, electric light allowed increased time spent on homework, but did not reduce the time spent on household chores, indicating an expansion of women’s labor rather than a reduction (Daka and Ballet 2011, 2869). Policy interventions that combine electrification with the provision of appliances might thus succeed in reducing drudgery, rather than just producing time-shifting benefits. This is particularly important because an actual reduction in time spent on unpaid labor can free up time for women to become active in the labor force and contribute more “productively” to the economy.
A direct result of alleviating women’s time poverty is that their time can be put towards paid work by entering the labor market. Literature addressing the effects of electrification and reduced drudgery on women’s labor force participation has produced mixed findings, with results varying both within SSA and across regions. On the one hand, Dinkelman (2011, 3095) found that in South Africa, women’s labor force participation increased by approximately 9.5 percent over five years following household electrification. She found no such effect on male labor force participation, indicating a disproportionate benefit for women. On the other hand, an analysis of nine developing countries by Koolwal and van de Walle (2013, 395-402) revealed no association between reduced time spent on water collection and women’s labor market participation.  The authors note that women did benefit in the form of more leisure time and reduced labor on their own farms. The analysis by Koolwal and van de Walle (2013) does not specifically address the effects of electricity, but addresses how a potential outcome of household electrification (reduced time collecting water) may affect women’s labor force participation. More direct research is needed to fully understand the effects of household electrification on women’s labor supply in SSA.
Studies on the effect of electrification on women’s labor force participation in other regions offer similarly inconclusive results. Significant improvements in women’s labor market participation occurred with household electrification in Nicaragua, but not in India (summarized in Winther et al. 2017, 398). Lee, Miguel, and Wolfram (2020a, 131-134) postulate that the divergence in studies’ findings on female labor force participation may be due to variation in research methods, electrification programs, or regional characteristics. Another explanation for the varied findings offered by Rathi and Vermaak (2018, 358) points to macroeconomic conditions in a given country. They examined electrification in South Africa from 2008 to 2012 (two decades later than Dinkelman (2011)) and found little improvement in women’s labor force participation, but noted there was high unemployment at the time. In poor macroeconomic conditions, the market has little capacity to absorb additional labor supply; even if electrification resulted in more opportunities for women to enter the market, there would be no work available. Together, these studies imply that the effect of household electrification on women’s labor force participation may depend on local contexts. It is possible that under good macroeconomic conditions, electrification in SSA produces positive results, as found by Dinkelman (2011). Future research should continue to investigate this relationship in SSA.
In addition to augmenting the labor supply, electrification may create jobs and boost labor demand. The introduction of electricity may generate new jobs in the energy sector or other sectors that rely on electricity to operate, and create opportunities to start entrepreneurial enterprises. Electric lighting may also allow firms to extend operating hours, which would increase labor demand by expanding the number of hours that firms need workers (i.e., along the intensive margin). Dinkelman (2011, 3101-3102) found that female market wages fell with household electrification in South Africa, indicating that an increase in labor demand did not accompany the increase in labor supply previously described. However, the same study found evidence that women may have begun producing market goods at home after electrification, potentially starting microenterprises. This would signify an increase in self-employment opportunities among women that may not show up in formal labor market data. By expanding opportunities for women to earn income, household electrification may contribute to economic empowerment.
By expanding opportunities for women to earn income, household electrification may contribute to economic empowerment.
Employment opportunities traditionally associated with electricity tend to be concentrated within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and are male-dominated (IRENA 2019b, 9-10, 29). Women’s employment in the energy sector in SSA appears consistent with this trend: surveys completed in 2019 and 2020 in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Zambia showed that women constitute an average of 21 percent of the workforce in energy utilities, and make up only 15 percent of technical positions (Baldinger, Vaidya and Schomer 2020). For female labor demand to substantively grow with electrification, hiring practices may need to intentionally target women or provide training for energy sector positions. For this to be successful, creating an educational environment that supports women pursuing STEM fields is also necessary. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has made improving the number of women employed in the energy sector a priority through its “Engendering Utilities” program (USAID 2021a). One of USAID’s partners in this program is a power utility in Mozambique, which has adopted strategies to integrate gender equality into its business model. Through practices including implementing gender quotas for hiring and providing additional training for women in meter reading and collection roles, the utility expects to increase its revenue by $2 million USD annually from improved financial performance (USAID 2021b, 1-2). These results indicate that programs designed to increase the representation of women in the energy sector may enhance female labor force participation rates and help businesses increase profits.
The Long-Run Labor Market Potential of Education
Some scholars have investigated the effects of household electrification on educational attainment. If children assist with household chores—which disproportionately fall on girls (UNICEF 2016b)—less often due to electrification, they may allocate more time towards studying and remain in school longer. Increased educational attainment among girls may lead to higher wages and better labor market outcomes in the long run. While studies outside of SSA have found positive effects on children’s school enrollment and study time from household electrification, recent studies in India and Kenya have produced less certain results (Lee, Miguel, and Wolfram 2020a, 130). Using a randomized controlled trial, Lee, Miguel, and Wolfram (2020a, 130) found a surprising negative effect on girls’ test scores in Kenya when households were electrified. As with women’s labor force participation, the different results may be due to study methods or region-specific effects. In another paper, the same set of authors speculates that positive effects on children’s test scores may simply take longer to materialize than the Kenyan study’s timeframe (Lee, Miguel, and Wolfram 2020b, 1527).
Other research on SSA supports the hypothesis that children time shift studying with electricity. As previously mentioned, Daka and Ballet (2011, 2869-2872) surveyed 100 households in Madagascar, finding evidence that children study more when households have electric lighting. They further concluded that girls accrue much of the benefit because they are able to study at night and still assist with chores during the day, and mothers are able to provide children with studying assistance at night. This analysis, however, does not attempt any causal estimation. Peters and Sievert (2015, 86-87) examine how the amount of study time before and after nightfall differs in households that have electricity in Burkina Faso, Rwanda, and Senegal. Their results indicate that children do shift study time into the night when electric lighting becomes available, though these results are not disaggregated by gender. If time shifting allows girls to perform better academically and stay in school longer, then it may have positive long-run effects on their labor market outcomes, and potentially those of future generations.  This is not to say that more direct measures to increase female education and labor force participation should not be pursued, but rather expanding electricity access may have positive secondary effects on women’s wellbeing.
Improving Maternal Health and Women’s Safety
Much of the benefit of household electrification for women’s health accrues from shifting to cleaner cookstoves. This shift requires a relatively high level of electricity capacity, as shown in table 1. Pollution from coal and woodfire burning cookstoves has negative effects on health. For example, cooking with biomass has been shown to increase the risk of pneumonia by 80 percent relative to cooking with clean fuels or improved stoves (Köhlin et al. 2011, 23). Other harmful effects of indoor pollution include stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer (WHO 2018). Indeed, household air pollution from traditional fuel cookstoves kills an estimated 490,000 sub-Saharan Africans annually (IEA 2020b, under “Access to clean cooking”). Women’s typical household role as the cook exposes them directly and disproportionately to this pollution. Duflo, Greenstone, and Hanna (2008, 10) summarize conclusions from studies of a randomized control trial in Guatemala that provided some women with improved cookstoves that expelled harmful smoke outside the home, and then followed their health outcomes. After 16 months, slightly more than half the women who had received the improved cookstoves saw health improvements, as compared to 24 percent of those in the control group. Reducing indoor air pollution by using electric cookstoves in SSA could have similar positive health outcomes, though more research should be done in the region.
Beyond the household, community-level electrification that powers health clinics and provides the ability to refrigerate medicines can have a strong beneficial effect on maternal health and women’s wellbeing (IBRD 2017, 3). According to the UNDP, as of 2017 around 58 percent of health care facilities in SSA did not have access to electricity (UNDP 2017, 4). In SSA, obstetric complications are a leading cause of maternal death which could be mitigated by expanding prenatal care, and making emergency obstetric procedures and skilled birth attendants more available (WHO 2014, 82). A study by Essendi et al. (2015) interviewed mothers, their partners, and healthcare workers in Kenya about their access to obstetric and newborn healthcare services. The interviewees cited lack of electricity as the main challenge for safe deliveries, storage of intravenous drugs at the correct temperature, and performance of resuscitative and regular newborn care services (Essendi et al. 2015, 6-7). These findings reveal that providing more reliable electricity to healthcare facilities would positively affect maternal health and may generate longer-term benefits by improving newborn care.
Providing more reliable electricity to healthcare facilities would positively affect maternal health and may generate longer-term benefits by improving newborn care.
Electrification may also reduce the incidence and social acceptance of gender-based violence (GBV). GBV is an unfortunately common phenomenon around the world, with 35 percent of women likely to experience some form of violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime (U.N. Women 2020). These statistics vary widely among countries in SSA: as many as 43.6 percent of ever-partnered women and girls report being subjected to intimate partner violence (IPV) in the last 12 months in Equatorial Guinea, and as few as 7.6 percent in Senegal (UNFPA n.d.). Sievert (2015) provides a theory for how electrification and wider access to televisions could reduce the incidence of GBV in SSA. Sievert’s theory of change hypothesizes that improved electricity access and accompanying exposure to information from televisions or radio leads to the transmission of different gender roles and women’s increased labor force participation, which in turn changes women’s preferences for independence versus remaining in a violent relationship, ultimately leading to societal changes in attitudes towards IPV (Sievert 2015, 8). To test this theory, Sievert studied rural electrification’s effect on domestic violence in SSA using Demographic and Health Surveys that asked about attitudes toward IPV. She found that women in houses with electricity reported significantly lower acceptance of IPV by about three to four percent. In particular, those with a television in their home had about a five percent lower acceptance of IPV than those who did not (2015, 24-29). Women also report feeling safer in public spaces with increased lighting, thus increasing their mobility (Power Africa 2017, “Safety”), and potentially contributing to increased labor force participation and educational attainment if walking to work or school is safer. As noted previously, less time spent collecting firewood and water may also reduce women’s exposure to violence.
Changing Social Norms
Electrification has the potential to change gendered social norms by increasing access to information and changing intrahousehold bargaining. A body of research has investigated the effects of watching television on gender norms and found promising results in regions outside of SSA. In Bangladesh, India, and Brazil watching television resulted in more equal status or valuation of girls and boys (summarized in Winther et al. 2017, 398). This outcome follows the same line of reasoning as Sievert (2015, 8) presented for television’s effect on attitudes towards violence. Although there is not a great deal of evidence of television’s impact on social norms in SSA, studies have found that following household electrification in South Africa, men were more likely to help with cooking and ironing, indicating a shift in gender roles (Winther et al. 2017, 402). The extent to which television or other household appliances affect gender norms will depend on the types of appliances that can be supported given a household’s tier of electricity supply. Many of the results previously discussed—women’s increased labor force participation, reduced time spent on household chores, and the ability to start entrepreneurial endeavors—can shift social norms and reorient bargaining power within households (Doss 2013, 52-78).
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that by 2030, renewable energy sources will provide over 60 percent of new electricity access, with almost half produced by standalone and mini-grid systems (IRENA 2019a, 5). Prior to the use of renewable energy, electrification was largely powered by diesel generators or extending existing grids that rely on fossil fuels. The climate in SSA, outside of central rainy regions in central Africa, is especially favorable to solar electrification (IRENA 2014, 25, 27). Rapid innovation has significantly reduced the cost of renewable energy solutions in recent years with prices for solar photovoltaic modules falling by over 80 percent, and the cost of the power a module produces falling by 73 percent from 2010 to 2017 (IRENA 2019a, 7). Costs will likely continue to fall in the near future due to economies of scale as off-grid solutions become more widely used (IRENA 2019a, 7-8). If costs associated with implementing renewable energy production and purchasing renewable electricity continue to decline, the calculations done by Lee, Miguel, and Wolfram (2020b) and Grimm et al. (2020) may eventually find that WTP is higher than market prices. Given the potential of renewable energy for widespread electrification in SSA and its falling costs which may improve cost-benefit analyses of electrification, it is necessary to consider whether it distinctly affects women’s empowerment.
The SDGs aim to provide energy access for all by 2030, a goal that cannot be achieved unless women are brought into the policymaking process and the gendered decisions around energy use are addressed thoughtfully (ENERGIA 2020, 1). Renewable energy’s share of total final energy consumption in SSA has declined since 2000 (seen in figure 3) as more of the continent becomes connected. That said, the share is quite high (about 75 percent), especially compared to countries such as the United States, for which the share was 10 percent in 2018 (U.N. Statistics Division n.d.). This high share is mainly due to the use of traditional biomass fuels such as firewood (IEA 2020a, “Total final consumption (TFC) by source”), which is not carbon emitting. Across the entire African continent, residential energy use constitutes 54 percent of final energy consumption (IEA 2020a, “Total final consumption (TFC) by sector”). As residential electricity consumption has increased, this energy supply from natural gas has mainly met the growing demand (IEA 2020a, “Electricity generation by source”). The positive trend observed earlier in electrification over the last two decades (see figure 1), alongside this negative trend in renewable energy’s share in final energy consumption further illustrates the need to continue pushing for sustainable electrification from an environmental standpoint. By elevating gender equity in this transition to sustainable electrification, progress can be made towards both gender equity and electrification.
Sustainable Electrification and Empowerment
Reviewing the areas of women’s empowerment previously discussed, the most apparent avenue for sustainable electrification to have a substantially different effect than non-sustainable electrification is through labor force participation. With respect to time use, all the same arguments hold for sustainable electrification’s potential to reduce the amount of time women spend on drudgery. Differences could arise if sustainable electrification offered better or worse levels of electricity capacity, affecting the types of appliances that can be purchased and used. However, recent iterations of solar-powered mini grids provide more reliable energy access than hooking up to unreliable main grids in SSA and are more dependable than diesel generators that require the separate purchase of fossil fuels to operate (ESMAP 2019, 12; IFC 2019, 4). The health benefits of electrification mostly stem from improved cookstoves, which can be “improved” and “clean” along a scale. Improved cookstoves mainly use cleaner fuels than biomass or various technologies to scrub the smoke of pollutants (ACCES 2014, 9). Solar-powered cookstoves are among the cleanest options, but the substantial health benefits come from switching away from biomass fuels, so sustainable electrification only marginally improves health. Electrification’s ability to affect changes in social norms will depend to a large degree on its labor market impact.
Sustainable Electrification and Economic Power
There were an estimated 11.5 million jobs worldwide in the renewable energy sector in 2019, a marked 58 percent increase from just 7.28 million in 2012 (IRENA 2020, 7). A deliberative job growth strategy that centers female representation may provide opportunities for women to enter the workforce and become integrally involved in the energy value chain, as was done through the Engendering Utilities program in Mozambique. The decentralized nature of off-grid energy solutions like solar-powered mini grids creates more opportunities to engage women than grid expansion projects (IRENA 2019b, 14) by employing women as salespeople, training them as technicians, and mainstreaming gender throughout the entire value chain as discussed below. There are many programs run by governments, international organizations, and domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that focus on incorporating women into the solar value chain. One such example is the Solar Mamas program, administered by the Barefoot College, an NGO based in India. The program offers training for installation, operation, and maintenance of standalone solar systems. So far, Barefoot College has trained over 2,200 Solar Mamas from 93 countries, who have provided at least 18,047 households with light in their communities (Barefoot College International n.d.). If women become more involved in building, installing, and managing mini grids or home systems, gender norms surrounding what is “acceptable” work for women may eventually shift. ENERGIA conducted a small survey of Kenyan villagers after several women from the village were trained by Barefoot College. The survey found that 77 percent of respondents (11 of 13 interviewees) agreed that having women involved in the energy supply chain changed their perceptions of women and their abilities (ENERGIA 2019, 38). Ultimately, the positive and long-lasting results of creating sustainable energy jobs for women will depend on whether the jobs persist beyond immediate construction and installation needs.
Some models for solar energy deployment have identified women as valuable salespeople who can reach rural, disconnected households that would otherwise not use modern energy solutions (IRENA 2019b, 70-71). For example, the Clean Cooking Alliance found that in Kenya, women sold three times as many clean cookstoves as men, and the stoves that women sold were more likely to be used efficiently and to be preferred to traditional stoves. This is in large part because female salespeople are seen as more knowledgeable about cooking technology (IRENA 2019b, 61). People may have greater trust in women to provide quality services (ENERGIA 2019, 37), and women may be able to more closely interact with female end-users due to cultural and social norms (IRENA 2019b, 70). Greater trustworthiness and access to customers make women valuable for electrification efforts. In India, the company SELCO trained female solar technicians in the early 2000s because it was more acceptable for women to enter other peoples’ households for maintenance (IRENA 2019b, 70). While employing women in this manner provides more jobs and income-generating opportunities, it also plays directly into the gendered household roles and social norms that have historically held women back from gaining social standing.
For sustainable electrification to meet its full potential of expanding access while empowering women, policies should mainstream gender throughout the entire renewable energy value chain.
For sustainable electrification to meet its full potential of expanding access while empowering women, policies should mainstream gender throughout the entire renewable energy value chain. ENERGIA and the UNDP found that in Cambodia, gender mainstreaming throughout the entire design phase was most successful for energy access projects (IRENA 2019b, 68-69). Based on this finding, IRENA developed a model of gender entry points into the development of renewable energy mini grids. This model demonstrates how gender-sensitive practices can be integrated at the project level from consultations and planning, to construction, operation, and development of productive uses for the mini grid (IRENA 2019b, 67-69). Generally speaking, the renewable energy sector has had a greater gender balance in employment than the fossil fuel industry (IRENA 2020, 6). Not only does sustainable electrification provide women with more job opportunities in the energy sector, but off-grid solutions have multiplier effects for everything from farming to healthcare and communications (IRENA 2020, 5). Skepticism that the rising tide of sustainable electrification jobs will lift all boats is warranted, but with intentional policies that mainstream gender into all aspects of electrification, the labor market prospects appear promising for women’s empowerment. All told, it may take years for substantial effects of gender mainstreamed sustainable electrification to be realized.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Despite recent findings in the economics literature that suggest the costs of providing electricity in developing countries are greater than the benefits, the evidence summarized in this paper points to positive externalities and equity gains of electrification in the form of women’s empowerment in SSA. Electrification alleviates women’s time poverty, allows them to enter the labor force or become entrepreneurs, decreases exposure to harmful indoor air pollutants, reduces exposure to and acceptance of gender-based violence, and can change social norms through access to information and improved intra-household bargaining power. Electrification using renewable energy sources may more substantially foster women’s empowerment through labor market participation if gender is mainstreamed throughout the electrification process. Further research and longer-term analyses are needed to provide more conclusive and quantifiable effects.
Countries in SSA should continue working towards universal household electrification by 2030 while prioritizing electrification policies that will enable women’s empowerment, such as:
- Building mini grids in rural areas that can provide households with enough electricity for higher-power appliances that have potential to reduce women’s time poverty, and can provide community-level electrification.
- Providing women with subsidized appliances along with electrification to reduce cost barriers and increase their agency to purchase household appliances.
- Using solar energy or other renewable energy sources to bring households electricity, and providing women with technical training and job opportunities throughout the renewable energy value chain.
- Encouraging women and girls to enter STEM fields through education programs centered around women in STEM.
In addition to these policy recommendations, academic research should fill in gaps and remaining questions in the existing literature by prioritizing studying the educational and labor market effects of household electrification for women in SSA.
*This article was edited by Suparna Dutta (Pennsylvania State University), Sofia Alessandra Ramirez (Princeton University), and Sherrod Smith (Princeton University).
Lauren Clark is pursuing a Master of Public Affairs at Princeton University's School of Public and International Affairs, where she focuses on economics and issues of equity. She has experience researching U.S. payment systems at the Federal Reserve and gender equality at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The author would like to thank Suparna Dutta, Sherrod Smith, Sofia Ramirez, and Amy Craft for their helpful comments and contributions to this paper.
1. This paper considers SSA to include the 46 countries identified by the United Nations Development Programme as part of the region. See https://www.africa.undp.org/content/
2. Health metrics are maternal mortality ratio and adolescent birth rate, empowerment metrics are educational attainment and representation in parliament, and labor market metric is labor force participation rate.
3. Examples of off-grid solar technologies include solar-powered mini grids and solar home systems. Grimm et al. (2020, 424) test three types of solar home systems that provide between 0.5 and 20 watts.
4. In 2005, the correlation between electricity access and GII was -0.531 (p-value = 0.0018), and in 2019 was -0.577 (p-value = 0.0002).
5. Of the nine countries Koolwal and van de Walle examine, four are in SSA: Madagascar, Malawi, Rwanda, and Uganda.
6. The relationship between female education and labor force participation in developing countries is discussed in Heath and Jayachandran (2016, 16).
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