Women are driving the change we need to close the energy access gap

A world where everyone—and every woman—has access to energy is within reach, but the energy sector is still far behind other parts of the economy in women’s participation.

women carry hay back home
Women carry hay back home in Kushinagar, India. In many homes around the world, women are at the heart of the household’s nexus of water, food, and energy – and thus often know firsthand about the challenges and potential solutions in these areas. Image: Pisit Boonma / Shutterstock.com

Cast your mind forward. It’s International Women’s Day six years from now – 2024 – the last year of the UN Decade of Sustainable Energy for All. Many women around the world will turn on the lights as they wake up, cook a meal for their families and go to work at the business they own, or their job, or in the fields they cultivate. 

For those in rural areas – especially across Africa and South Asia – who just a few years ago had no energy access, their local health clinics work day and night with reliable, affordable and clean power generated locally. Vaccines and medicines arrive safely in new coolers, clean and reliable. Their children study more.

At home, the evenings are full of activity. It’s safer to walk back from the bus-stop with street lighting shining into the dark corners of the towns. There are more businesses operating from home. There is better irrigation in the fields with solar devices. Electric chillers on electric bikes and light trucks carry produce safely to market. In short, there is more income coming in.

It was harder to get clean fuels for cooking, but even that has happened. First, gas prices came down and there was a way to pay a little every day to access enough to cook without soot in your nose. Then, new solar cookers appeared. Women had a choice, just like those women on TV beamed in from another part of the world.

Back to International Women’s Day 2018.

That world where everyone – every woman – has access to energy is within reach. Today 1 billion people globally still lack access to electricity, and over 3 billion lack access to clean cooking fuels. More than half of these people are women. The same systemic social barriers in many countries that restrict women’s access to resources, to bank accounts, to land ownership, restrict their access to energy.

Energy access is essential in supporting women to increase their productivity, saving time and improving their health. Access to energy allows them to choose more freely how they will invest their time and labor.

Ensuring women have access to energy has a ripple effect across their communities. Women make the bulk of household purchasing decisions, reinvest 90 percent of their income in their families and communities, make choices around health care and are the vast majority of small farmers and micro-business operators.

They are also more likely than men to invest a large proportion of their household income in the education of their children, including girls. And in local communities across the world, thriving enterprises selling clean, sustainable energy solutions are increasingly run by women.

Women want seats at the table – as entrepreneurs, as leaders in energy companies, as community leaders, elected leaders and financiers.


At the same time, the energy sector is far behind other parts of the economy in women’s participation. Gender balance is an issue ranging from girls’ and young women’s participation rates in science, technology and mathematics education, to women employed in the energy-sector workforce, all the way up through women in management and on the boards of energy companies.

In new research last year, ODI, Power for All and Sustainable Energy for All showed the dividend from investing in energy access early – savings to the household, to society and more hours of study. Put another way, if energy access is not made a fast-track priority, those savings and hours of education will be squandered – another generation in the dark.

Women can drive faster progress, and move us further towards our global goal. Here are three obstacles we need to clear out of the way.

First, we don’t have enough women in decision-making positions. We cannot build the energy systems of the future without the views, patterns of use and needs of half of the population included in that design. As energy companies navigate new business opportunities within the energy transition, the risks and opportunities are complex and different from those of our energy past.

Building diverse teams that will make better risk management decisions is critical for business success and is another reason to ensure a good representation of women in management and on boards.

Second, finance. From decentralized rural business models to enterprises devising super-efficient products for the energy market, many women are developing businesses in clean energy solutions, but face challenges in attracting investment. It’s a triple whammy of small businesses, a new market and a woman business-owner.

The work of our People-Centered Accelerator, a gathering of over 40 organizations, business and governments all committed to gender-inclusive efforts to serve the last mile first, is trying to address this.

Third, data. We need to know more about the female face of the 1 billion who don’t have electricity and the 3 billion who don’t have access to clean cooking. How many of them are women? Disaggregating the data on energy access is a critical priority.

It is exciting to see the rising tide of women recognizing and investing in the business opportunity of sustainable energy solutions. Through an entrepreneurial spirit, driven to support their own families and communities, businesses across the world are growing in this sector and changing lives. But there is room for more.

Women in foundations or with their own net worth and women of faith will soon be able to engage directly through a new campaign to mobilize finance and technical support from philanthropy and the faith communities. SHINE will launch at the SEforALL Forum, taking place in Lisbon from May 2-3, 2018.

On this International Women’s Day, there is real evidence that when it comes to closing the energy access gap, it is not a question of the world organizing to solve a problem for women, but of women organizing to solve a problem that has been ignored for too long.

Women want seats at the table – as entrepreneurs, as leaders in energy companies, as community leaders, elected leaders and financiers. For all our sakes, between now and 2024, let’s make sure it happens.


Rachel Kyte is the CEO and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All – the global platform working to achieve universal access to sustainable energy, as a contribution to a cleaner, just and prosperous world for all. This article is republished from the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

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