Access to energy plays an important role in a country’s economy and security, which is why we see countries around the world urgently increasing their electrification rates. However, there is a significant gap between energy access in urban and rural areas.
Energy planning is centralized, which means that it is often focused on increasing the supply of fuel and electricity for industrial and urban purposes. Meanwhile, the energy needs of rural areas for domestic, agricultural and small-scale informal production activities are generally low priority.
This urban-rural divide helps to widen gender inequality because these small industries are mostly run by women. Of the 1.2 billion people living on the equivalent of US$1 a day, 70% are women. In rural areas, women’s responsibilities traditionally include fuel and water collection. Fewer women have stable jobs than men, which makes women more vulnerable to poverty.
Currently, grid-based electricity does not reach many poor rural and urban areas in developing countries, especially in Asean. Coupled with the inadequate distribution cooking and heating fuels, many young girls are driven out of school to collect firewood.
Women and girls would benefit the most from access to improved energy services as it would lighten the burden of their daily chores to free up more time for other social and economic opportunities.
Success Stories of Gendered Energy Access Programs in Asean
Many initiatives have been taken to boost women’s participation in energy access programs, but much remains to be done. In Indonesia, where more than 50 million people live without reliable access to electricity and more than 100 million people are still cooking on three stone fires, the Wonder Woman Program by ENERGIA and Kopernik has helped more than 600 women to become social micro-entrepreneurs.
Trained women are selling technologies such as solar lamps, water filters and clean cookstoves to more than 176,140 people in their community at as close to retail price as possible. This allowed the women to earn a small margin on each sale, increasing their income to support themselves and their families.
Moreover, Asean, especially Indonesia, is abundant in biomass. This has led many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to develop small-scale bioenergy projects that require relatively little capital. The use of biogas has saved women over an hour a day, giving them more time to engage in social activities, entrepreneurship and other income-generating opportunities.
Biogas also has other revenue-generating benefits through the sale of bio-slurry as organic fertilizer. According to a 2014 IDBP final report, 5% of biogas users, including women, were able to improve their income between Rp20,000 and Rp600,000 each month through this process.
Institut Bisnis dan Ekonomi Kreatif (IBEKA) is one of the most influential gender energy access organizations in Indonesia. IBEKA works with UN-ESCAP providing rural communities with access to sustainable energy solutions under the 5P (Pro-Poor Public Private Partnership) initiative. Currently, IBEKA operates 88 energy access programs throughout Indonesia, including installing micro-hydropower projects, solar photovoltaic systems and wind turbines.
In Vietnam, the Green Innovation and Development Center (GreenID) has launched several rural electrification projects all over Vietnam. In partnership with the European Union and the United Nations Development Programme, GreenID’s rooftop solar project has helped improve local community incomes and ensure energy security while promoting sustainable development.
In Burma, Renewable Energies, Environment and Solidarity Group (GERES) has partnered with the French Development Agency (AFD) to train more than eight businesswomen in the promotion and sale of Sustainable Energy Solutions (SES) such as solar lamps and kits, as well as an improved wood-burning fireplace. This has allowed women in the most remote villages to charge their phones safely, allowing them to work in the evenings.
GERES has also initiated energy access programs Cambodia facilitating community access to biomass energy and improved stoves that consume less fuel. As part of their approach, GERES takes into account the local culture of rural communities by engaging producers and distributors of traditional pottery to disseminate new and improved products. This resulted in the creation of 3,000 producer, distributor and retailer jobs, 52% of which went to women.
The case studies claim that small-scale, decentralized energy technologies and devices could help ease the daily burdens of women, especially in rural areas, and increase their economic and social opportunities. However, one of the main difficulties faced by people in rural areas is the lack of capital to finance these programs.
Funding as the main obstacle
While the lack of inclusive energy policies within ASEAN is a major impediment to improving gender equality at the structural level, funding is the most significant barrier to developing gendered energy access programs that create impact at the local level. One problem is that despite the dominance of Asian banks, their financial system lacks a well-developed capital market, which limits the ability to fund energy projects that typically require high upfront costs.
Although banks are the main source of financing for large energy projects, financing can also come from donations or development aid. Although funding for energy projects with a specific gender equality objective has increased over the past decade, there is still a small share (2 to 11 percent) of total official development assistance (ODA) to the energy sector.
In ASEAN, with a smaller inflow of ODA spent on energy projects, the share is only 3.3%. The share is reduced to 2.7% of total ODA for gender equality initiatives, as indicated in ASEAN Report on Gender Equality and Energy: Financing for Development by the ASEAN Energy Center.
To increase funding for women’s energy access programs in ASEAN, a roadmap for planning and reporting the results of women’s energy access programs needs to be created. This will assure investors that they are actually funding improvements in gender equality.
In addition, business models should also be developed to attract private investors, with a strong emphasis on research and development as well as partnerships between all stakeholders. Innovative financing such as microcredit can further reduce the risk of new business models because they are more affordable for women who were previously considered bad credit risks. Noting the importance of empowering women in rural areas, we should also not forget to increase the participation of women as they hold a major role in the development of gender energy access programs. .
Giving women the platform to voice their needs will result in increased participation in the energy sector, improving the quality of life for women around the world.
Crescencia Valentina is currently an intern at the Asean Center for Energy (ACE) and a student at Universitas Indonesia specializing in bioprocess engineering. Gabriella Ienanto is Associate Head of Energy, Fossil Fuels, Alternative Energy and Storage (PFS). Monika Merdekawati is responsible for sustainable, renewable energy and energy efficiency at ACE.