Solar Sister

Research Activities

Solar Sister works toward saturating the East African energy market with off-grid alternatives while simultaneously facilitating social and financial capital gain for women, who are most affected by lack of access to both clean energy and economic opportunity. Since women are the chief consumers of energy, they are also the primary catalysts for technology adoption. Thus, the enterprise deliberately centers their distribution model around women’s entrepreneurship and their ability to sell products to their local community networks. The women utilize their existing local social networks to sell and distribute the clean energy products to their communities, much like the Avon or Mary Kay models. Through distributing the product to their communities, the Solar Sisters, or microentrepreneurs, are able to develop and nurture important relationship with their customers and build trust between the customer and the product. This element of the Solar Sister model has been key to their success and ability to achieve last mile distribution in three African countries over the past five years – Uganda, Nigeria, and Tanzania.

Through assessing and documenting social impact, Solar Sister can better understand why their program experiences success across multiple cultural contexts and continue to scale their operations. Solar Sister sought to learn more about who their microentrepreneurs and beneficiaries are and how they are impacted both by clean energy technology and entrepreneurship. Collecting data about the beneficiaries was especially important to the enterprise, as they have never before investigated how clean energy technology impacts customers’ lives.

In Tanzania and Uganda, we conducted twelve focus groups and distributed fifty surveys to Solar Sister entrepreneurs. We also held twenty one semi-structured interviews with Solar Sister customer. We traveled to five East African regions in Tanzania and Uganda: Kilimanjaro, Tanga, Singida, Manyara, and Rakai.

The number of microentrepreneurs in each focus group ranged from 2-9 people. The focus group questions were designed to facilitate discussion amongst the microentrepreneurs about their entrepreneurial experience with clean energy products. After each focus group, we distributed a 33-question paper survey to each microentrepreneur to gather data in three categories: baseline monitoring and evaluation, the social impact of clean energy technology, and their local community networks. The survey was originally written in English, then translated to and administered in Swahili. Our semi-structured interviews with customers revealed how Solar Sister’s clean energy products are used by the end beneficiaries.

Our findings highlight the observed social impact trends through Solar Sister microentrepreneur narratives: Productivity, Purchasing Power, Education, and Community Empowerment. The survey results will enhance Solar Sister’s monitoring and evaluation of Tanzanian microentrepreneurs. Through crafting customer profiles, we will provide insight on the beneficiary’s experience and the extension of social impact which addresses Solar Sister’s need for more customer information.

Key Findings

Bonding characteristics of microentrepreneur teams. Some teams were all farmers who sold to neighboring farmers. A group of Maasai tribe members spread clean technology in their remote villages. Another was a group of teachers who worked together to sell to students. Each group held a deep commonality such as their profession or tribe, which forms deep bonds between microentrepreneurs within the same team and with their customers.

Different patterns of social impact. In different contexts, social impact materializes in different forms. Purchasing power drastically impacted women microentrepreneurs particularly in farming households. Teachers who sold solar lanterns to students witnessed firsthand improved test scores. This vast range of social impact is hard to capture completely.

Emergent themes that link the patterns together. We interpreted the patterns we observed and collected to establish six distinct themes that characterize the unique impact Solar Sister makes in lives of individuals and their communities.

Description of Deliverables

Microentrepreneur and customer profiles: From our interviews, we created profiles of microentrepreneurs and customers to document social impact. These profiles are grouped by commonalities, such as occupation, as these similarities are echoed in their social impact stories. With microentrepreneurs, we sought to capture how the economic opportunity working as a Solar Sister affected their lives. We also explored the ways Solar Sister microentrepreneurs utilize their social networks to foster relationships with their customers. Solar Sister had no prior information on their customers, so we created profiles to explain how customers use their Solar Sister product and how this impacts their families, businesses, and livelihoods.

Survey data: We surveyed each microentrepreneur we interviewed, and the survey data has been updated in Solar Sister’s Salesforce database. The survey data includes information on demographic, monitoring and evaluation, and microentrepreneur use of social networks for sales.

Photos: During our time in the field, we took nearly 2,000 photos. We have sorted through, picked out the best ones, and delivered them to Solar Sister for their use.

Solar Sister Logo



Social Enterprises:
Solar Sister

Lindsey Allen
Political Science

Serena Chan
Public Health Science

Faculty Research Mentors:
John Farnsworth and Leslie Gray
Environmental Studies and Sciences