Women entrepreneurs are essential to last-mile distribution of renewable energy technologies

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As the global death toll from Covid-19 passes one million, the world’s “last-mile” communities — remote, rural and without access to electricity — have been among the hardest hit and the least likely to receive government and international aid dollars.

Targeting this nexus of health care, energy and equity, a new fund has been launched to provide microgrants of $3,000 to $10,000 to the women entrepreneurs and community organizations working to provide clean, reliable and primarily off-grid power to these communities. The Shine Campaign Covid-19 Recovery Fund aims to promote renewable energy as a foundation of local economic recovery and resilience, said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, who keynoted a recent online launch event.

“Covid-19 has basically pulled a Band-Aid off the lack of inclusion, the inequality and the lack of fairness in our energy systems,” said Kyte. “You can’t have sustainable health care systems without energy; you can’t have sustainable and robust value chains or food systems without energy.”

Founded in 2018, the Shine Campaign is a coalition of faith, finance and philanthropic organizations focused on improving energy access for last-mile communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The Wallace Global Fund, a member of the coalition, is providing the Recovery Fund with an initial $100,000 in grant money.

The Shine Campaign reports that applications are already rolling in and will be accepted through the end of the year, with grants then awarded on an ongoing basis. According to eligibility guidelines on the organization’s website, clean energy projects that power health clinics, ventilators, and cell phones for medical workers are among the fund’s top priorities. Grants will also be available to local clean energy entrepreneurs to pay workers and buy personal protective gear and hand sanitizer.

This kind of targeted microfunding will fill a critical gap, said Shine Campaign members speaking at the launch event. For example, by current estimates, about 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa — and a high percentage of the region’s health clinics — do not have access to electricity.

Black entrepreneurs in Africa and the United States have begun speaking out about inequities in their access to venture capital and other investment funding. In last-mile communities the challenges are compounded. Women-led businesses are mostly in the informal sector and don’t have the scale or growth potential that would attract traditional investors, said Sheila Oparaocha, international coordinator of Energia, a nonprofit working to improve women’s access to sustainable energy.

At the same time, she said, women entrepreneurs with deep ties to their communities are “essential to last-mile distribution of renewable energy technologies. Our research within energy has shown that gender-blind policies are not going to achieve universal development goals. Women need to have a place at the table in energy transition and post Covid-19 economic recovery decision making.”

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