Case Study | COVID-19 Recovery, Poverty Alleviation, & Clean Energy

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Clean energy is an integral part of COVID-19 recovery, both for the patients and the economy. One-fourth of the healthcare centers in sub-Sarahan Africa (Solar Sister operates in Nigeria and Tanzania), have no electricity, which is essential for facilitating medical equipment like ventilators. Plus, clean energy’s positive economic impacts extend far before this pandemic hit the world in 2020.

More than 600 million people don’t have access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. Another 700 million rely on kerosene lamps and other tools fueled by harmful chemicals to get light and heat. In these regions, women primarily work inside the house and face the most significant exposure to these toxic chemicals that pollute the environment. Expensive solar panels get covered by dust, and energy generation drops or fails. Portable solar lamps are the solution, and they are affordable. 

Historically, women might not have permission to work outside the home; they might not have agency or control over their household income spending. It’s not uncommon to hear of a husband who drinks away his earnings, leaving women and children in dire conditions. This issue of agency is why Solar Sister adopted an Avon-style model of female empowerment.

Avon-Style Clean Energy Program

From the time Solar Sister began in 2010, the organization has recruited, trained, and supported over 5,019 women entrepreneurs who have sold 402,626 solar lamps and related clean energy products to 1,765,304 people living in rural Africa. By 2022, Solar Sister expects to have 10,000 entrepreneurs reaching seven million people with one and a half million products across five countries. However, the metrics the organization tracks and how the team measures success goes beyond these top-level numbers.

Supporting Women in the Last Mile 

Measurement and impact metrics in sub-Saharan Africa aren’t as straightforward as one might assume at first glance coming from the developed, Western world. While 5,019 female entrepreneurs in the scope of 1.3 billion people without proper access to clean or any energy seems like a small on the surface, Solar Sister traces large impacts through field data and entrepreneur retention to continue in these “last mile” communities. 

Solar Sister blog images 1Last-mile communities have three interconnected factors: lack of access to grid power, low-income or seasonal economies, and remote or isolated geography. Not all last-mile communities are rural or remote. Many are peri-urban or urban communities where many cannot afford to connect [to the power grid] or pay monthly bills. Even those who can connect can experience regular outages” (SolarSister.Org). In an equatorial climate where sunlight shines from 6 am to 6 pm, if a household doesn’t have access to electricity, workers cannot extend hours to increase earnings, and students cannot study after sundown. “Working in the off-grid energy industry in hard-to-reach communities is not easy, so we have to be very resilient and overcome a lot of challenges, but that’s also what’s so rewarding about it,” says Alicia, Impact Associate at Solar Sister.

Perceptive and sensitive to these challenges, Solar Sister continually adjusts processes, programs, and technology to align with the cultures in which they operate. “Everything that we do programmatically is in response to the needs of our Solar Sister entrepreneurs. We are constantly rediscovering how to best support women,” explains Alicia Oberholzer, Impact Associate and stand-in Salesforce Admin at Solar Sister. Her team’s big questions often surround the goals of helping women grow and generate as much income possible from their clean energy businesses. 

Business Booster and Lending Programs

In response to local needs, Solar Sister developed additional programs. The first works with internally displaced women in the Bauchi State of Nigeria who don’t have the initial capital to start a business. As internal refugees, Solar Sister bolsters them with a starter kit of solar lights. The organization uses evidence of lack of funds to decide when and where to provide these starter kits because they’re trying to stimulate entrepreneurship. When Solar Sister “gives” products away without women possessing the skills or drive necessary to sustain a business, entrepreneurial attrition is steep. All other women go through an application process and showcase commitment to the business model.

Solar Sister also started a three-year Business Booster program for women who applied and showed exceptional drive to doubling their clean energy business. Once they’ve purchased a certain amount of product while in the program, they are eligible for product credit free of collateral and risk to help them scale their efforts.

Education and Empowerment Programs

Solar Sister also runs a variety of programs for both men and women. For example, they engage and educate men on why women’s employment is vital for poverty alleviation. To support women, Solar Sister facilitates “Yes I Can” and Dream-Weaving workshops in which women spend time envisioning and planning a better future for themselves and their families. The result? Better entrepreneurial retention.

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Complex M&E in Salesforce

Mogli’s nonprofit-focused Implementation Services started building Solar Sister’s CRM, Sales, and Supply Chain systems on Salesforce in Uganda in 2012. In 2020, with advances in Salesforce’s declarative automations, Solar Sister and Mogli are refreshing the overall org architecture to simplify processing and existing code.  While continuing to meet the unique cultural environment that drives business and captures real-time data for decision making, Mogli architected new strategies for the organization to scale and self-manage.

As Impact Associate, Alicia monitors impact and evaluations by creating survey tools, analyzing the associated data, creating indicator frameworks from research on quantifying the results best, and having all data represented to clean cohesive Salesforce dashboards and reports. Local context informs answers. To capture this data and refine the process, Solar Sister enhanced NPSP with TaroWorks (for offline data capture), Mogli (for SMS communications), and Classy (for fundraising management).

Solar Sister used to gather data in excel spreadsheets, but now, with a more mature Salesforce system, they track everything from invoices, inventory, sales, and training attendance. It was previously complicated to track entrepreneur invoices because “women would come in to pay whatever they had, not associated with any specific invoices.” Solar Sister now keeps a rolling sum in which women can pay off debts starting with the oldest bill. 

Using Gogla, the organization also quantifies multi-layer data sets like the number of households reached with clean energy, the resulting cost savings per household from solar energy, the increased number of available study or work hours from having access to light, and the quantified CO2 mitigation. With Mogli’s support, Solar Sister is further refining its reporting capabilities by transitioning from a cumbersome product inventory system (organized by ownership and type) to a categorical product structure for easy filtering that automatically-incorporates metrics into Salesforce. 

The process from last-mile to Salesforce

When Solar Sister business associates make sales, they usually walk or bike miles to places without reception. They use Samsung Tablets (enabled TaroWorks) with geolocation capabilities and a camera. The offline tablet takes pictures, gathers signatures, gives and collects documentation to track sales, syncing data to Salesforce when online.

Local Intelligence to Technological Sophistication

Solar Sister also benefits from local field teams who provide a cultural intelligence feedback loop to its Salesforce systems.  For entrepreneur success, qualitative data has proven to be as important, if not more, to Solar Sister. Their culturally appropriate approach to technology and programming determine outcomes, not only the sum numbers. 

Alicia recalls, “The other day, I had a business development associate text me about a group of Solar Sister Entrepreneurs who pooled together the profits from their clean energy businesses, saved up money, and then started a cattle business. Now, on top of selling clean energy, they’re also generating additional income. Anyone who’s familiar with poverty measurement knows that livestock ownership is an excellent indicator of moving up in economic status. I love stories like that because I can tie them to quantitative measures like livestock ownership, but they’re more meaningful to me than knowing how many solar lights we’ve distributed. Of course, that’s important, too.” She continues to describe how stories are beneficial in painting a straightforward impact story for donors and the public who don’t possess in-depth knowledge of poverty indicators. 

Understanding Impact for Donor Growth and Retention

Educating the donors and the general public on economic improvement indicators is an integral part of the fundraising and awareness process. For example, donors might want to know about metrics “that aren’t in line with what we’ve discovered to be indicative of successful performance due to our knowledge of how empowerment plays out in context-specific situations.” It’s one thing to have many people reached with clean energy, but empowerment is hard to measure. Solar Sister needs to retain women past the natural attrition rate, keeping females working outside the home against cultural barriers. It’s harder to put a number on “empowerment,” yet tracking long term retention and outcomes is a start. 

Lighting the Future

Retaining women in the workplace is paramount to economic success everywhere in the world. When you empower women, everyone rises. Solar Sister recognizes that continuous development and engagement are necessary elements in the solution. Staff uses Mogli’s text messaging app to send their women associates and entrepreneurs bulk SMS messages with updates, reminders, and encouragement, or happy birthday wishes.

This Mogli SMS implementation is only the beginning, however. With goals for incredible proliferation by 2022, Solar Sister plans to communicate with its female sisterhood in many more ways. For example, they plan to roll out Mogli survey functionality to better track and understand the solar lamp warranty processes, helping women swiftly resolve outstanding issues. They also plan to use one-to-one text messaging to support the women in their business growth, enabling them to navigate obstacles in real-time. 

Shining Light on Possibility

SMS-based education drip campaigns would also assist in business and product orientation education.  There’s also the possibility of nurturing donors through similar text messages or MMS-rich campaigns. They could even fundraiser directly through text-to-pay.

Solar Sister notes, however, that literacy is an issue for the entrepreneurs. Women might rely on household members to read text messages to them. Since Mogli works with many global impact organizations, it developed a new feature called MogliVoice. Organizations that similarly struggle with literacy and accessibility obstacles now have text-to-speech and file-to-speech options, in which recipients receive a call to either a mobile or landline. The message will automatically play for the listener in their native language and accent.

Regardless of the obstacle, however, Solar Sister’s hunger for data-driven innovation and Mogli Service's creativity in applying culturally appropriate technologies serves as a powerful combination for discovering and navigating the sub-Saharan landscape. 

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