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Renewable Energy Projects Are Uplifting Maasai Women

Solar panel and clean cookstove programs are reducing emissions, electrifying remote parts of Kenya and Tanzania

Not so long ago, few remote Maasai villages in southern Kenya or northern Tanzania had access to electricity. But now, women in these villages are championing the use of clean, renewable energy in the form of solar panels, as well as clean, efficient cook stoves.. At the same time, they are forging new roles for themselves as community leaders and entrepreneurs.

photo of women installing solar panelPhoto Christabel Ligami Maasai women install a solar panel on top of a house in Tanzania.

This is a unique development in a community unaccustomed to women taking on leadership roles. The Maasai are a marginalized, nomadic community that is almost entirely dependent on livestock for its livelihood. Raising livestock is an occupation performed exclusively by the men of the community. Customarily, the only work open to women has been taking care of their homes and children.

In Tanzania, an international collaborative called the Maasai Stoves and Solar Project has begun to change that norm by introducing the use of clean-energy cookstoves and solar power to the Maasai community. The project trains women to distribute and install cookstoves and solar panels in their manyatta (traditional mud houses), work that in the past would have fallen to men.

According to Kisioki Moitiko, the project manager in Tanzania, in each of the villages, the Maasai women work in groups of five to ten, selected by fellow women during a community meeting. Within these working groups the women elect their own leaders, who manage them and organize their daily work. The women are trained in approximately ten days to install the stoves and solar panels.

Leah Laiza from Ngarash village in Tanzania, a widow and mother of five, is a leader in her group. Her job is to ensure that all requests for installations of cookstoves and solar power are honored in a timely fashion. She also manages the workflow of the members of her group, ensuring that they work efficiently and effectively.

Esupat Loseku, a 29-year-old mother of six from Enguiki village, has been installing solar panels in her village for the last six years. She says that her team can install solar panels and cookstoves in at least four homes a week, and that they even get requests from other villages where the project has not yet been initiated. “People come to us asking for solar because they have seen it work well at their neighbors’ [house] or through referrals,” she says. “Compared with kerosene and firewood, the cost is now low and it is more convenient, which is what people really like.”

In the villages, the use of solar power has brought a sense of security at night. Previously, the men would have to stand guard over their cattle all night in order to protect them from wild animals. But by using solar energy to light their bomas (cattle enclosures), predators are kept at bay, thus helping to insulate the community from any economic impact incurred through the loss of their cattle.

Another benefit to the community is a reduction in air pollution. Traditional wood burning fires used for cooking are a major source of indoor pollution. The new stoves reduce cooking-related particulate pollution by 90 percent. They also reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 3.6 metric tons per year, and save the woman of the house ten to twelve hours of labor each week, time that was previously spent gathering wood. Conserving firewood also reduces deforestation

According to Loseku, “The cookstoves are smokeless, and our kids don’t get coughs as much as they used to when we used firestones.” She also adds that she is now able to provide for her family, unlike before, when she relied entirely on her husband to sell livestock.

The Maasai Stoves and Solar organization invests approximately $200,000 into the project annually, and plans to serve the whole Maasai region in the coming years. “For every installation the customers pay $11, which is a subsidized rate under the program, but the actual cost is $52,” says Moitiko.

Robert Lange, a retired physics professor from Brandeis University and the founder and initiator of the project in Tanzania, says the aim of the program is to promote the use of clean energy in rural, remote villages. “The cookstoves are our priority,” he explains. “So we emphasize that before installing the solar light in their cattle bomas, they must have the cookstoves first.”

“We chose to use women because after conducting a few workshops in the villages, we realized that women were more willing and open to the idea than men,” he says.

As in Tanzania, Maasai communities in Kenya have been battling consistent attacks by wild animals that kill and eat their livestock at night. In Tikoishi village, about 100 kilometers from Nairobi, the men have been using all possible means to combat this problem, including lighting fires the whole night near the bomas, lighting the enclosures with lanterns, and chasing the animals away using spotlights. This is a dangerous occupation. Many women in this region have lost husbands and sons who have been killed by wild animals while guarding their herds; other men have sustained serious injuries.

photo of light in boma Photo Christabel Ligami A solar-powered light in a boma in Tikoishi, Kenya. Lighting has helped reduce human-wildlife conflict in the village.

But a solar project being spearheaded by the German-based company Suntransfer is changing lives in this region, and men are now starting to spend more time in their homes. Since beginning the project in 2014, Suntransfer has brought solar energy to more than 500 homes.

The project offers customers a pay-as-you-go financing model that enables families in rural, off-grid areas to purchase a solar-energy system via an installment credit. With the money otherwise spent on fuel for kerosene lamps the credit can be paid off within three years.

As in Tanzania, the project is being led by women who are helping to raise awareness about the use of affordable, renewable energy in the homesteads. Beatrice Marpe, 55, has long been a community leader in Tikoishi, mainly helping women in this village resolve their marital issues. But her role became complicated as more and more women lost their husbands due to the wild animal attacks. Still others complained that they rarely saw their husbands, who were out the whole night guarding their livestock as well as the whole day grazing them.

“When Suntransfer approached me in July 2014 with their solar idea and how I could use it to protect my livestock against the wild animals, I decided to install and try even though I was not sure it worked,” says Marpe, a mother of four who lost her husband five years ago. She is now the ambassador of renewable solar power in this region.

“With the solar energy,” she explains, “the light not only scares away the wild animals and keeps off our worries about losing our cattle at night, it has enabled my sons to spend the nights in the house with the rest of the family members.”

Compared with kerosene and firewood, she says, “the cost is now low, and it is more convenient. We are also able to watch TV unlike before. Something that is rare in this area.” Before installing solar power, she used to spend at least 50 cents a day on kerosene to light the bomas.

She has also noticed health benefits. Since installing the solar panels, the health of her youngest son has improved — he no longer suffers from frequent coughs.

“The Kerosene lamps we were using had so much smoke and my son used to cough so much and complained of headaches all the time while studying in the night but now with the solar lamps, there is no smoke and he rarely coughs,” she said.

Sikampe Kotikash and his family, who live in the same neighborhood as Marpe, are beneficiaries of a solar-power system in their home, and echo several of the same benefits, particularly when it comes to protecting the family’s livestock.

“We needed the light for the livestock more than for our household use,” says Kotikash, who has two wives, Sylivia, 20, and Purity, 24. He says that since installing solar power, not only has he not lost any cattle to predators, he is happy that he now spends most of each night in the house. Sylivia agrees: “This has helped a lot because our husband doesn’t have to sleep outside, and our cows and goats are now safe from the wild animals.”

The lights also seem to have reduced human-wildlife conflict in a region where wild animals can pose a real safety threat, and as a result, can become targets themselves.

“My neighbor’s wife was attacked one night and was killed by a lion as she went out to the toilet in the night and my friend was killed too as he tried to chase away leopards that had come to eat his sheep,” said Kotikash.

The initial success of the program has some participants hoping that it will lead to similar initiatives. Maimuna Kabatesi, East Africa advocacy officer for Hivos, an international organization that seeks solutions to persistent global issues, says more attention needs to be paid to how renewable energy can improve the lives of women, She points to the example of clean cook stoves, which address  “their need for cooking energy that is less labor intensive, convenient, and safer.”  More renewable energy organizations and governments should come to realize this, she says, and invest more in women. Involving women in the use of renewable energy will not only enable them have access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy but also promote gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Indeed, according to the World Bank, women in developing countries spend between two and nine hours a day collecting fuel and performing cooking chores, yet they are underrepresented when it comes to decision making on energy matters. Both the Maasai Stoves and Solar Project in Tanzania and the SunTransfer project in Kenya aim to ensure that women have a access to clean energy and a voice in energy decisions. And the result, they hope, will be both improved gender equality and environmental conservation. 

This story was supported by a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation Reporting Grants for Women’s Stories.

Christabel Ligami
Christabel Ligami is a Freelance Kenyan journalist based in Nairobi whose reporting work focuses on gender, human rights, science/health, development, environment, climate change, culture, regional integration issues and business in Africa.

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