Cultivating Change: Increasing Women’s Access to Off-Grid Productive Use of Energy for Agriculture
Simusolar supplies renewable energy-powered productive use of energy (PUE) technology to farmers and agribusinesses in Tanzania and Uganda. Power Africa’s assistance helped Simusolar better understand its market and develop a gender strategy to increase the share of female farmers benefiting from PUE. Power Africa’s roadmap for developing a gender strategy helps clean energy companies make gender equality a business priority.
Joyce*  cultivates seasonal crops, mostly green leafy vegetables, pigeon peas, tomatoes, and roots such as cassava. Her produce is largely rain fed, but she also collects water from a shallow well for manual irrigation. Like many female farmers living in Tanzania’s Morogoro region, Joyce would like to acquire a water pump to reduce her workload and improve her farm’s yields.
“We use water buckets for irrigation; my children help me sometimes. We fetch water from a nearby well. When I have money, I rent a water pump and I must buy my own fuel, which is expensive.”
To understand Joyce’s and other women’s needs and challenges in accessing PUE technology, Power Africa helped Simusolar conduct a gender-focused market assessment in the Morogoro and Pwani regions of Tanzania.
For this assessment, Power Africa contracted the consultancy E Co. to investigate female farmers’ understanding and opinion of PUE and its effect on women’s lives. The research involved a mix of interviews and focus group discussions with female entrepreneurs, farmers, and representatives of agricultural cooperatives and savings groups, some of whom are Simusolar customers. The study included interviews of Simusolar’s personnel and several partners, including seed suppliers, crop aggregators, and capacity-builders working with smallholder farmers and fishers to improve their productivity and income.
Adopting a gender-inclusive business approach offers several benefits. A gender-inclusion strategy drives off-grid energy companies to prioritize the unique needs of women as consumers and to develop new products and services for an expanding customer base. Gender inclusivity can increase a company’s market reach, improve sustainability, and enhance financial performance. Companies that have adopted a gender-inclusion strategy can deepen engagement with impact investors and development finance institutions, especially those that demonstrate a commitment to gender equality.
Enhancing Women’s Agricultural Productivity
In Tanzania, three-quarters of the population is involved in agriculture, and more than 80 percent of economically active women work in the agricultural sector. Female farmers are consistently perceived to be less productive than male farmers because of inequality in accessing technology, land, labor, agricultural inputs (e.g., fertilizer and improved seeds), and information.
With access to PUE and the financing to make this technology more affordable, local entrepreneurs, micro-enterprises, and farmers can generate local jobs and income, and thereby promote development. Moreover, PUE can support and enhance the profitability of women-owned enterprises by extending the workday or enhancing agro-processing, manufacturing, or service delivery. Access to PUE such as solar-powered water pumps and grain-milling machines allow women to establish their own businesses by reducing time and labor spent on farming and processing crops.
Understanding Female Farmers’ Energy Needs and Preferences
Simusolar’s customers fish, farm, and run agribusinesses in off-grid areas of East Africa. Active in Uganda and Tanzania, Simusolar supplies farmers and off-grid businesses with appliances such as solar water pumps and solar fishing lights via lease-to-own financing plans. According to the findings of the market assessment informing Simusolar’s gender strategy, more than 63 percent of Simusolar’s customers were below the Tanzanian poverty line at the time of purchase, and 78 percent of its customers said it was the first product they had bought on credit. Simusolar’s customer financing model makes PUE systems more accessible. With a predominantly male customer base (in 2021, just 17 percent of its customers were women), Simusolar wants to offer its products and financing model to a wider customer base and bring the benefits of PUE to women in particular. To do so, the company needs a deeper understanding of female farmers and entrepreneurs.
Field work and market research in Tanzania helped Simusolar learn more about the socially constructed roles of men and women in agriculture. Understanding these roles can help companies identify which technologies reduce women’s labor burden (where women are involved in planting and weeding, for example), and which products companies can offer to support them. In Tanzania, although women tend to be involved at every stage of the agricultural value chain, the extent of their involvement differs depending on the commodity type. In vegetable farming, women’s roles traditionally include planting seedlings, tending to vegetables in the field, and harvesting and transporting the crops. Men prepare the land, spray pesticides, and market the crops, meaning that men tend to control the revenue from selling vegetables.
Companies must understand women’s priorities for investing in their own farms if they wish to tailor products and services to meet women’s needs. Most of the study respondents who are not Simusolar customers indicated that they prioritize water pumps as a future investment, followed by increasing the size of their farm plots. However, 68 percent of the non-customer female farmers considered the high cost of water pumps to be a major investment barrier. This group of women was also concerned about complicated loan procedures, long payback periods, maintenance costs, and a lack of customer support.
Interestingly, Simusolar’s customers do not share these concerns, indicating that the company needs to adapt its marketing messages and customer engagement to allay the impressions of non-customers. Simusolar has attempted to solve many of these issues by providing solar water pumps through more accessible financing that does not require collateral beyond the pump itself. The systems are easy to use with no maintenance costs. Moreover, Simusolar provides ongoing support to operate the systems, reducing the risk to farmers.
Translating Data Into Action: The Gender Strategy
A customer journey map is one tool that can help to develop a gender strategy. It illustrates how customers feel at different stages of purchasing a product. A company should prototype its gender strategy by involving staff to build, test, and rework its policies and practices to be more gender inclusive. In Simusolar’s case, the company developed female customer “personas” to guide the marketing team in understanding the perspectives of customers like Joyce and to design products and services to meet their needs (such as advising customers on financing plans that match their income patterns).
Once Simusolar identified and agreed on actions for its gender strategy, the team allocated responsibilities, timeframes, budgets, and indicators to each activity. Simusolar will implement the following actions with technical assistance from Power Africa.
- Customize the company’s marketing and sales strategies to appeal to a wider female customer base. Simusolar can enhance its sales strategy by building the capacity of the sales team to engage a larger segment of female farmers and also counsel couples on the benefits of joint household decision-making, which can empower women economically.
- Pilot new approaches to consumer financing. Simusolar can accept lower down payments or allow two down-payment installments, enabling farmers — and especially female farmers who often cultivate less profitable crops, according to Simusolar’s market research — to save incrementally to pay the amount due. The company could also expand partnerships with savings groups and formal financial institutions to offer loans for PUE.
- Collect sex-disaggregated data and analyze sex-disaggregated feedback from customers on product use and satisfaction. The company can use these data to improve female farmers’ confidence in using and maintaining technology by offering hands-on training, visual aids, customer care contacts, and peer support.
- Analyze female-dominated agricultural activities to identify new opportunities to serve women. Determine women’s share of the labor burden in specific agricultural activities and map their needs in each stage of the value chain. The company should introduce a gradation model for asset ownership so that female customers can purchase larger systems.
- Formalize new partnerships with organizations that work with female famers. Simusolar can partner with agricultural organizations to broaden its customer base.
- Adopt a policy on diversity and inclusion. Simusolar should set targets to increase its share of female sales officers and raise awareness within the company about its commitment to gender equality. The company should translate its inclusive ethos into corporate procedures.
Applying Lessons for the Off-grid Solar Sector
Simusolar’s six-month journey to understand female customers’ PUE demand yielded the following lessons:
- Management’s willingness to change company policy and practice is a prerequisite to closing gender gaps in a particular market and within the company.
- Being intentional about delivering PUE technologies and services to female customers, including identifying where gender gaps exist, takes commitment (and time) of staff at all levels.
- The returns on gender equality are long term; prioritization is essential, lest the urgent overtake the important.
- Companies should seek feedback from customers when designing and testing new products and policies.
- Companies can consider using contracting experts to help them understand the economic and societal norms of their markets.
“A gender-inclusive business model can expand, as well as impact, the market. It’s good commercially and socially. Moreover, the act of developing the strategy and capabilities to realize it forces the organization to grow operationally, mature in market segmentation, and deepen client relationships in terms of team empathy. These benefits result in additional impact. It’s a multiplier effect,” Michael Kuntz, Co-CEO & Co-founder, Simusolar.
For more information on how to develop a gender strategy and a step-by-step approach to prioritize female customers, see “Increasing Women’s Access to Productive Use of Energy for Agriculture: A Roadmap for Developing a Market-focused Gender Strategy.”
*1. Name changed for anonymity.