More than 1.3 billion people around the world live without electricity. Another 1 billion endure prolonged periods without power, up to 18 hours per day. Most of them are in the developing world in countries such as Nepal.
In that developing world, kerosene lamps—dirty, dim, noxious, relatively expensive, and dangerous—often provide an only source of light. Kerosene consumes up to 30 percent of families’ income. Its harmful fumes cause more deaths each year than malaria. In Nepal, kerosene causes tuberculosis rates nines times the average for women. And it causes some 70 percent of fires and 80 percent of burns.
In other words, it’s a serious problem that needs both a solution and a viable pathway to make that solution reality.
Enter Empower Generation, a nonprofit organization founded by RMI alum Bennett Cohen and his wife, Anya Cherneff. Call it a love story of two ideas.
The first idea is this: a solution to the problem of kerosene. That solution is solar LED lighting—small, portable, bright, renewable, and inexpensive (the payback is less than one year and it’s cheaper than kerosene per unit of energy).
The second idea is this: a pathway to make the solution a reality; namely, distribution for the solar lights. EG’s name hints at that pathway … empower. Specifically, EG is empowering entrepreneurial women to take the lead. In the developing world, women tend to be responsible for finding energy for the household—they collect firewood and buy kerosene, cook over the dangerous fuel, and light the house.
This marriage of two ideas—clean energy and women’s empowerment—is a reflection of Cohen and Cherneff as a couple. He worked at RMI from 2008–2010 as the Assistant to the Chief Scientist and is now at Shell’s Corporate Venture group working on alternative energy investments. She earned a master’s in international human rights. They founded Empower Generation in 2011 and got married in 2012.
Now they’re bringing clean energy to the people who need it, not through charity, but via small businesses run by women. They get low-interest loans from Empower Generation. These loans pay for the purchase of clean technology products such as solar lights. The entrepreneur then sells the products in her community, pays back the loan into a revolving fund, and frees up money to give to another entrepreneur.
“We were inspired by the idea that women entrepreneurs could be the change agents in developing countries, and lift their communities from energy poverty and dangerous fuels to clean, modern energy and economic development,” says Cohen.
The first entrepreneur they worked with, Sita Adhikari, started with funding from Empower Generation and a goal of selling 500 solar lights and phone chargers in her first year in Chitwan, Nepal. She easily reached that goal, selling 825. She aims to sell several thousand this year and the money she paid back supported several new entrepreneurs this year, including Pabitra Aryal, a married mother of three and subsistence farmer.
Cohen makes an easy connection between Empower Generation’s work and that of RMI. Whole-systems thinking, which he learned when working in RMI cofounder and chief scientist Amory Lovins’s office, guided him to combine women’s issues, entrepreneurship, cleantech, and microfinance into one venture. “We are reinventing fire in a very literal and personal sense,” he says, by getting dangerous dirty fuel out of people’s homes and instead lighting them with the sun. Plus, fellow RMI alum Lionel Bony is a member of EG’s board.
And through May 15th, you can be a part of the change as well. Empower Generation has launched the Get One, Give One campaign. You can buy a WakaWaka solar-powered LED light that can also charge a smartphone, tablet, or any other USB-chargeable device. For every light consumers like you and me buy, EG will provide one to a family in Nepal. For more information, visit www.empowergeneration.org/our-work/technology
This is the 6th post in a series highlighting the work of Rocky Mountain Institute alumni.