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‘I want to tackle it in a big way’: Meet the Nigerian women spearheading solar projects

‘I want to tackle it in a big way’: Meet the Nigerian women spearheading solar projects

32-year-old green energy entrepreneur Yetunde Fadeyi will never forget what inspired her to start a clean energy company in Nigeria.

As a six-year-old, Fadeyi’s best friend, Fatima, was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning in her Lagos home, along with her father and pregnant mother.

“She often came over for sleepovers. But that day she didn’t,” says Fadeyi. “It was the time that they were stealing people’s generators, so they kept [the generator] in an enclosed area and by the time it was morning they were dead.”

Petrol-powered generators like the one Fatima’s family had are valuable assets because of the country’s energy problems, making them targets of theft if left outside the house.

More children die from air pollution - mainly inside the home - in Nigeria than in any other African country, and Fadeyi made it her life’s calling to end the energy poverty causing such deaths.

After a childhood in Lagos plagued by intermittent electricity, a degree in chemistry and training in solar panel installation, Fadeyi started Renewable Energy and Environmental Sustainability (REES). The non-profit is dedicated to climate advocacy and providing clean energy to poor communities in rural Nigeria.

Bringing solar energy to Nigeria’s poorest homes

Since its inception in 2017, REES Africa has provided solar energy to over 6,000 people in the poorest parts of Nigeria, funded by grants and philanthropic donations.

It supplies solar microgrids, which generate energy through solar panels and store them in battery banks for distribution. The small grids bring high quality, cheap and constant power to up to 100 homes each, powering light bulbs, radios, sockets and other low energy appliances.

Fadeyi says that energy companies don’t see any potential for profit in poor and marginalised communities. With around 40 per cent of Nigerians living below the national poverty line, it’s up to companies like Fadeyi’s to fill the gap for now.

Solar energy is transforming women’s lives in Nigeria

In the village of Aba-Oje, a rural outpost in southwest Nigeria, 76-year-old community chief Muritala Ojeleye says life has changed completely since REES Africa installed a solar grid in 2018.

“We had not had light here since the history of this village - not even electric poles. Life was very difficult for us,” he says.

Mary Ojo, a 46-year old trader, agrees. She has given birth to her five children by the light of a kerosene lamp.

“The closest hospital here is two to three hours away,” she says. “The midwives deliver babies here, and [previously] if it happened in the night they used atupa [kerosene lanterns] to see well.”

A kerosene lamp previously used in the communities.
A kerosene lamp previously used in the communities. - REES Africa

Thanks to the electricity, she can now work longer and earn more money because she doesn’t have to stop working at nightfall.

It’s making differences like this, especially for women in the communities she works in, that drive Fadeyi.

“Each time we do field work, we end up crying,” she says. “I'm literally envisioning what's happening now in the dark in some of these places.

“Maybe a woman’s husband is beating her because she didn't get food on time. These are the issues, of gender-based violence, people getting bitten by snakes, women getting raped - and so these are the issues, and just having access to electricity can change that.”

An oil rich but energy poor country

Despite being Africa’s top oil producer and holding the continent’s biggest gas deposits, Nigeria has the lowest access to electricity of any country in the world. It generates only about one-third of its grid capacity, leaving over 92 million people living off-grid.

Nigeria’s electricity production still relies heavily on fossil fuels, and its power supply is unreliable: over 200 grid collapses in the last nine years resulted in widespread blackouts and an annual loss of $29 billion (€26.8 bn), according to the World Bank.

The government plans to switch to renewable energy sources, reaching for net zero emissions by 2060 while ending energy poverty in the country. But this requires investments of around $400 billion (€370 bn), and the energy access gap continues to grow as the population increases.

Meet the former oil expert scaling up solar microgrids

Solar panels are installed in a community in Nigeria.
Solar panels are installed in a community in Nigeria. - EtinPower

Professor Yinka Omoregbe is hoping to bridge this energy gap as CEO of Etin Power, providing energy to offgrid communities using mini solar grids. She brings a wealth of experience to the role as a former national advisor on the reform of Nigeria’s petroleum sector and a former state attorney general.

In its first year, Etin Power provided electricity to over 5,200 people in three neglected coastal communities in Edo State, southern Nigeria.

While the results so far are small, Omoregbe’s ambitions are far bigger. “We'll have grids all over the place, everywhere, and we will still be in vulnerable communities. We will have proven that it is possible to profitably give green energy to vulnerable communities.”

We will have proven that it is possible to profitably give green energy to vulnerable communities.

True to her private sector roots, Omoregbe is here to make a profit, as well as a difference.

“I'm not in there just to look at two communities and be very happy with myself. I'm not an NGO. I don't want to be disrespectful, but a lot of the time, the NGOs are very content with minor outcomes or small outcomes. I'm not, because it's a huge problem, and I want to tackle it in a big way if I can, and also invite other people to tackle it in a big way.”

She sees energy provision as a key factor in ending poverty; especially in rural Nigeria, where almost half of the country’s population lives but only about 34 per cent of people have access to electricity.

"These rural communities have been completely left out of the climate change conversation, even when they are the most affected," says Omoregbe.

"In all of these, women and their children are the hardest hit. Women suffer the brunt of anything that is poverty. The face of poverty is actually the face of a young girl, because they are the most disadvantaged… but the truth is that the entire community suffers.

“There are gender dimensions to poverty, in every sense, as there are gender dimensions to energy poverty.”

Creating solar energy entrepreneurs

Women being disproportionately affected by energy poverty is the inspiration behind Solar Sister, a US-based NGO that fights energy poverty while lifting women in Africa out of financial poverty too.

Founded in 2009 by former US investment banker Katherine Lucey, the initiative aims to make women in rural communities solar entrepreneurs, owning and running businesses selling solar-powered products like lamps, torches, chargers and radios.

Solar Sister currently works in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria. Since its launch in Nigeria nine years ago, the NGO has trained over 3,000 women to run their own small solar businesses, and they now operate in 29 of Nigeria’s 36 states.

“When we started nine years ago, most people involved in energy would be men,” recalls Olasimbo Sojinrin, Solar Sisters’ Chief Operating Officer in Nigeria.

“But we found that women were particularly and disproportionately affected by the challenges associated with this energy poverty. So for us, it only made sense building this network of women entrepreneurs that will not just be victims of energy poverty, but will be at the forefront of solving these problems,” says Sojinrin.

It's not only about economic empowerment for women when they make money selling their products; but all the benefits that clean energy affords, she explains.

“Saving time, saving money, the fact that they now have clean lights and the ripple effect of that which spans [...] through health or education of the children or just for the household not having to inhale harmful fumes.”

Nigeria’s government needs to ramp up renewable funding

Nigeria has significant renewable energy potential, as a recent report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) states.

The agency recommends that Nigeria’s government significantly ramp up investment in renewables to keep up with a rapidly growing population.

"Funds to deploy large scale renewable energy projects required to power these communities is one of our major challenges," says Yetunde Fadeyi.

Omoregbe agrees. “The general obstacle you might find.. is financing.”

But, she continues, she won’t let any obstacles get in her way.

“I haven’t got any complaints, I've just started out. I'm moving. If I see any big obstacles at a point, I will scream out, and I will shout…whatever I can see that I need to do, I go ahead and do it. It’s if I cannot do it, that I'll call it a challenge. That is the way I see it.”

This piece has been published in collaboration with Egab.