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Economy & Labor , Environment & Climate Change , World

India’s solar power push delivers an unexpected bonus – empowering rural women

by Disha Shetty May 11, 2023

Co-published with Scroll

It is only 9 a.m., but already the sun is high in the sky and Lad Devi and her co-workers at the Dooni dairy cooperative are hard at it. As milk arrives from the surrounding farms, they work quickly to get it weighed and into the refrigerators without which it would spoil within hours in the intense heat of India’s desert state Rajasthan, where temperatures reach highs of 45 degrees Celsius (113 F).

Just a few years ago, these women rarely ventured outside their homes. When they did, they covered their heads and faces in line with the local culture in one of India’s most socially conservative states. Now, they chat loudly as they work, their bare faces showing confident expressions. 

The women say their lives have been transformed since 2014, when they came together to form a dairy cooperative. Each kept cows and buffaloes, which they had received as a dowry when they married, according to local tradition. Any milk their families did not consume was theirs to sell for extra income, and it made sense to combine forces. But there was a problem – electricity from the grid was both expensive and unreliable, cutting into their profits and making it hard to keep the milk chilled. Frequent power outages meant the milk that didn’t sell quickly often had to be thrown away. It wasn’t until they got solar-powered refrigerators in 2021 that everything changed.

An employee cleans a solar-powered fridge at the dairy in Rajasthan, India. (Photo by Rebecca Conway for The Fuller Project)

The dairy’s monthly electricity bill fell to 5,000 rupees (about 60 dollars), a fraction of what it had been before. Reliable power meant the women could double their income by sending in more milk, knowing it could be stored if it didn’t sell that day.

Now, they each make around 400 rupees a day – income that has helped change lives in this poor rural community. Just as important is the change that earning their own money has made to the women’s social status.   

“Before, if I had to go out, I would have to wait for my husband to give me money for the journey. Now I have my own,” says Devi, a 45-year-old mother of three.

“I am illiterate, but today I have so much confidence that I can speak to any man without hesitation and I can speak to people who come to my village from outside.”

Female literacy rates still lag those of men in India, despite decades of progress. In Rajasthan, the gap is particularly wide, with just 65 percent of women able to read and write, according to government data. More than one in four girls in the state marries before the legal age of 18, another indicator of gender inequality.

Experts believe India, which in April overtook China as the world’s most populous nation, will have to address those inequalities if it is to reap the economic rewards of a rapidly-growing youth population. In rural areas, where job opportunities are more limited, improving energy access could be key, according to research published this year.

Self-help groups

India remains a predominantly rural society – more than two-thirds of the population lives in the countryside, according to World Bank data. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has touted bringing power to every village as one of the major achievements of his time in office, but for many in rural India, electricity from the state grid remains expensive and unreliable. Instead, rural communities are increasingly adopting solar power, and there is growing evidence that women are among the biggest beneficiaries.

India already ranks fourth in the world for solar power capacity, and has been scaling up access to renewable energy to wean itself off a longstanding dependence on fossil fuels like coal for environmental and economic reasons. By 2030, it aims to meet 50 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources, the bulk of which will be solar-generated. The government is also providing subsidies and incentives for solar-powered water pumps and promoting the use of off-grid solar devices including rice mills and refrigerators for micro-enterprises.

In recent years, it has installed over 700,000 solar powered water pumps, meaning women no longer have to walk long distances to fetch water and expose themselves to sexual harassment and abuse. Solar lighting makes it possible to do away with candles and kerosene lanterns, whose toxic fumes disproportionately impact women and children because they spend more time in the home. And labor-saving devices from electric breadmakers to solar-powered refrigerators have made housework easier while opening up new possibilities for paid work. 

The potential they offer for developing small businesses is particularly relevant to rural women because it enables them to operate locally rather than relocating to places with more reliable power – something social norms often prevent.

Many, like the women in Dooni, start with self-help groups – collectives formed under the aegis of the Indian government’s National Rural Livelihood Mission to empower rural women and reduce poverty. The scheme, started with support from the World Bank, was launched in 2011 and provides a mechanism for the government and development organizations to channel aid and training to rural women. Around 87 million women are members of self-help groups, according to government figures. 

The Dooni self-help group began looking for a solution to their electricity problems in 2020 and were put in touch with the IKEA Foundation, a charitable organization linked to the Swedish furniture retailer, which provided money for six solar refrigerators costing 480,000 rupees in total. “Before, half our milk would go bad because of frequent power cuts. Now, even if we have leftover milk, we can sell it the next day and because our wastage is down to almost zero, the profits for most of the women have doubled,” says the dairy’s chair, Meera Devi.

A woman sits in a white chair with brown bags piled behind her.
Meera Devi, 31, chairman of the Dooni dairy, takes a break at the Dooni dairy in Rajasthan, India. (Photo by Rebecca Conway for The Fuller Project)

‘I have more courage now’

The Indian company that made the solar fridges used in Dooni, Devidayal Solar Solutions, didn’t set out to target women. But founder Tushar Devidayal says it soon became clear that women were behind much of the demand for their fridges. The company also operates in Uganda, Tanzania and Somalia and says more than half its global users are women. “How did we do that? We actually just stumbled upon some value chains that started to make sense for us, and they happen to be predominantly run by women,” says Devidayal.

Devidayal works with Powering Livelihoods, which connects communities with companies that provide solar-powered livelihood solutions, with a focus on rural women. Prachi Singhal, who until recently headed Powering Livelihoods’ gender work, says it’s mostly women who come to the marketing events. “They are excited by the potential,” she says. “They are excited by the scope of a new technology, how the technology can improve their lives, how it can help them save their time.”

Selco India, another manufacturer of solar appliances, estimates that around 60-70% of users of its products are women. Chief project manager CR Parthasarathy says women’s self-help groups like the one in Dooni drove the demand for solar-powered home lighting over the past two decades, and are now doing the same for solar appliances that can support small businesses. 

The company’s solar-powered products range from printers and photocopiers to sewing machines and roti rollers – devices to roll out the dough for Indian flatbreads. The initial outlay is high – some of the devices can cost tens of thousands of rupees. But the self-help groups allow women to pool resources and raise funding from financial institutions or seek assistance from the government or charities, says Parthasarathy. Without such systems, it is more difficult for poor rural communities to reap the benefits of solar power. In Kenya and Senegal, for example, research has shown poor communities find cost to be a barrier.

The women behind the Dooni dairy cooperative are clear that it has changed their lives. Inspired by them, other villagers have begun buying solar lamps at a cost of around 1,500 rupees and setting up solar panels strong enough to power a fan, charge mobile phones and run a few lights.

A woman holds a blue solar lamp while standing in the sun.
Sumitra Devi shows a solar lamp at her home in Dooni. (Photo by Rebecca Conway for The Fuller Project)

It may also change the lives of the next generation. Several of the women say they are using the proceeds of the dairy business to send their children to school – an opportunity they were never given in a culture that has historically prioritized boys’ education.

“When I started making more money, I could send all my children to school. I was able to give them good food and a good education and I decided to not marry my daughter off early,” says 48-year-old Geeta Devi Gujjar, a mother of three who never had the chance to go to school.

“Before, everything was a big struggle, she says. “I had to depend on my husband for everything, but now I know I can handle things myself. I have more courage now.”

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