When Lindsey and I first arrived in Tanzania, we drove past endless fields of sunflowers stretching alongside the two-lane highway bound for Arusha, a city in northern Tanzania. A week later, the same sunflowers or “alizeti” as they are called in Swahili, bid us farewell as we headed into the rural areas of the country. It finally felt real—after preparing for the past three months, we were headed out to meet face-to-face with Solar Sister entrepreneurs, their customers, and their communities.

Solar Sister engages the issue of energy poverty

Solar Sister is a social enterprise that provides access to clean energy, while simultaneously providing a way for women in isolated communities to earn an additional income through the sales and distribution of solar lanterns and clean cookstoves. Access to clean, sustainable energy is a huge issue in Africa considering 70-80% of people living in Tanzania remain off the electrical grid. Even those connected deal with regular power outages. As a result, people burn kerosene or wood for light and cooking, both of which present a range of health and safety problems.

What sets Solar Sister apart from other solar/clean energy distributors is their direct sales distribution model. Solar Sister enlists the aid of existing networks of women like African Wildlife Foundation, Village Life Outreach, and World Vision to find potential entrepreneurs. Once this connection is established, Solar Sister trains and mentors the women in business techniques and entrepreneurial skills, creating a new salesforce—Solar Sister entrepreneurs. These new entrepreneurs sell clean energy products through their existing social networks, friends and friends of friends, families, and others in their communities.

This system’s success speaks for itself. Since its inception in 2009, Solar Sister has built a network of over 1,200 women (and men) entrepreneurs benefiting over 200,000 people in Uganda, Tanzania, and Nigeria.

Meeting Solar Sister

After we left Arusha, we drove over six hours, stopping in districts in the Kilimanjaro and Tanga regions. Each of the stops offered a new glance at Tanzania: a dusty farming village, a rainy forested village in the Usambara Mountains, and finally a secluded Maasai village. Our first field visit was to a district in Kilimanjaro region called Mwanga, which means “light” in Swahili. Here in Mforo Village, we met with our first four Solar Sister entrepreneurs: Grace, Mwanaidi, Grece, and Fatuma. As wives and mothers from farming households, they supplement their seasonal income with their profits from working as Solar Sister entrepreneurs. This gives them them the purchasing power to spend, to provide, and to invest in their families and themselves throughout the year.

In our meetings with the Solar Sister entrepreneurs, we learned of their successes and challenges. These conversations are supplementing our surveys, which enable us to attain both qualitative and quantitative data on their personal background and the different ways they utilize their social networks. We are also interviewing customers to gather data on how the Solar Sister products are being used in people’s homes and businesses. We seek to understand the social impact of Solar Sister in the most complete way possible. Ultimately, what we want to understand is, how has Solar Sister affected your life?

The heart of Solar Sister

Each Solar Sister entrepreneur holds a unique story, and she has blossomed because of her own personal background, social networks, and skills. She is a teacher who sells solar lanterns to her students and their families. He is a Solar “Brother” who works with his wife to further their sales of solar lanterns. She is the first Solar Sister entrepreneur in her village, who inspires other women in her community to also become Solar Sister entrepreneurs.

Chasing the sun:

 A SOLAR SISTER DEMONSTRATES HOW SHE ADVERTISES SOLAR SISTER LANTERNS AT MARKET DAY EVENTS, WHICH ARE LOCATED AN EIGHT-HOUR WALK AWAY FROM HER HOME IN THE MAASAI VILLAGE IN HANDENI (TANGA REGION) This is just the start of more field research to come. In only four days, we have already visited drastically different communities and spoken with entrepreneurs and customers with such unique stories to share.

The Solar Sister entrepreneurs reveal to us the resilience and innovative characteristics that make them the successful entrepreneurs they are within their communities. Like alizeti, they turn toward the sun, toward safe, clean solar energy, and they work to spread solar and clean technologies throughout their communities.

About Solar Sister:

To learn more about Solar Sister, visit their website here. You can stay up to date with my photos from my experiences as well.

About the Author:

Serena Chan is a Global Social Benefit Fellow and a Santa Clara University senior. Her field research is part of a nine-month program to work with a social enterprise alumni of the Global Social Benefit Institute at Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship.