Interview: Suhela Khan on UN Women’s renewable energy initiatives, gender equality, and women’s leadership

IUKDPF’s Supriya Roychoudhury speaks with Suhela Khan, who currently leads the EU’s WeEmpower Programme at UN Women – a programme which aims to enable women’s access to business and leadership opportunities in the private sector. She has previously worked with the Central and State Governments and has extensive experience in managing large-scale transformational programmes on women’s economic empowerment. Suhela has a deep interest in integrating feminist principles and strategies in programmes, and has provided technical inputs and edited several publications on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. In this interview, she analyses some of UN Women’s celebrated renewable energy initiatives that integrate gender equality and women’s empowerment, highlights opportunities for amplifying women’s leadership in this space, and discusses the potential to replicate best practices across multiple sites and geographies.

SR: Could you walk us through the inspiration behind UN Women’s interventions in the renewable energy space in India?

Suhela Khan

SK: The vision underlining our work in this area was that women should have access to safe productive spaces which are well lit, and can be used for domestic and productive purposes. When we launched the Women Entrepreneurship for Sustainable Energy Programme, we undertook research in terms of understanding what women’s energy needs are. We looked at existing policies and practices and tried to identify gaps in those policies and practices. How do women view energy as a commodity within their families? What kind of decision-making power do women have? We noticed that in renewable energy training programmes being offered by various training institutes, there were issues of both quality and cost. These institutes were often located quite far away from where the women were based. Many energy enterprises operating in Uttar Pradesh reported that they had failed to hire women in different positions within their organisation due to socio-cultural issues as well as lack of skills. We heard from our other partners as well that the lack of adequate skills among women was indeed a challenge. In terms of credit and finance too, we noticed that bankers’ confidence in women energy entrepreneurs was quite low. They did not demonstrate much confidence in women being able to take up certain financial products. Loans were often given only if these women possessed a kisan credit card or if they had a pre-existing connection with the bank. Unfortunately, not many women met these criteria.  We also found that there was a lack of awareness among women on the benefits and cost effectiveness of renewable energy financial products. This resulted in overall reduced demand for such products. We also found that although most distributors and retailers were highly aware of the market potential for renewable energy among rural women – they too felt that these women lacked the technical knowledge required for the upkeep, maintenance and care of renewable energy products such as solar lanterns. We observed gaps in the policy landscape as well. One thing that came across quite strongly in our research was that existing energy policies do not always intentionally focus on women as stakeholders. For example when we look at policies focused on enhancing agricultural productivity via solar pumps or solar devices, there is hardly a focus on the specific needs and requirements of women operating in this space. We also observed that government schemes and policies which did focus on women’s needs often fell short of a much more ambitious remit. For example, while the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana of the Government of India is a very good scheme that is oriented towards women, we noted that it is still largely limited to meeting domestic consumption needs. However, we do note that there is political will to integrate issues of gender into policymaking on renewable energy.

SR: We would love to learn about UN Women’s most celebrated examples of integrating gender equality and women’s empowerment into the renewable energy space in India. Could you tell us more about these and also what factors underlined their success?

We realised through our scoping that there were opportunities to train women to be gainfully employed in the renewable energy sector; to ensure that skills development was taking place in a way that overcame bottlenecks of cost, mobility, and distance. We were also looking at models that were already working – for example SEWA Bank’s energy loans – to enable women to access finance and loans at lower interest rates and procure renewable energy assets and products. We realised that gram panchayats and women’s groups and organisations could play an important role. Women-to-women outreach could play a valuable role in creating awareness and mobilising interest around these issues.

One of our flagship projects was the solarisation of Anganwadi centres in Madhya Pradesh. We realised that soaring temperatures makes it really difficult for children to be attentive and engaged. Our vision was to convert these Anganwadi centres into places which were not only equipped with electricity but which acted as safe community spaces for women to come and undertake productive activities. One of the challenges we wanted to address through this intervention was the fact that many Anganwadi centres did not have a budgetary provision to pay for electricity. While Anganwadi centres situated in panchayat or government buildings, or in cities, could pay for and access electricity, centres located in hamlets or standalone rooms found it much harder to get an electricity connection because they simply did not have the budgetary provisions to do so. UN Women partnered with Department of Women and Child Development, Government of Madhya Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh Urja Vikas Nigam Limited, to undertake a SMART Anganwadi pilot. While UN Women provided the capital investment for the installation of solar rooftops, Urja Vikas Nigam Limited provided the subsidy for the annual maintenance cost for 5 years. 24/7 provisioning of electricity allowed the Anganwadi centre workers to improve the quality of the work that they did with children and mothers. We realised that the political will to mainstream gender into existing energy interventions was an important factor in the initiative’s overall success. We at UN Women also explored alternative income-generating options for these women to pursue. So for example, one of the ideas that we explored was whether they could use the same infrastructure to develop a solar water purification business model.

The other initiative that I wanted to talk about is UN Women’s work on solar drying of agricultural produce. This intervention is very close to my heart because I personally witnessed its transformative potential for our target group of women. This intervention engages women farmers and agricultural wage labourers who do not possess their own land but work on farms for wages, majorly irregular. In case of good harvest and demand-supply mismatch, farmers are often forced to throw away their produce due to the lack of sufficient warehousing and storage facilities. Our intervention tried to address 2-3 issues: minimising losses to agricultural farmers and ensuring that women farmers had access to nutritious food (we learnt that when food is scarce at home, it is often women who end up eating last, or don’t eat at all) and a regular source of income to sustain themselves and their families. This intervention provided solar dryers to women farmers and transformed them to agri preneurs by training them in drying the agriculture produce. spices, fruit etc.  We partnered with an organisation called S4S Technologies (based out of Mumbai) which has developed and patented solar dehydration technology. We undertook a small pilot in Orissa and Maharashtra where 60 women entrepreneurs were involved, providing them with 60 of S4S’ solar dryers. The business model works like this: if women have access to their own grown agricultural produce, they can use these dryers to dry it. If not, then S4S provides the raw material which the women can dry. Once the produce is dried, S4S buys it from them – so there is an assured income for these women. And when they buy this produce, S4S markets it under their own brand and supplies to various hotels. We have seen an increase in the income of women farmers in a range of Rupees 5,000 – 10,000 a month (it depends of course on the quantity of produce and the availability of sunshine). We are keen to replicate this model in other parts of India as well, for which we are trying to raise resources.

SR: You mentioned a couple of times that there has been political will to engage more women in renewable energy initiatives. In your opinion, are we seeing an amplification of political interest in gendering renewable energy schemes or is this merely a continuation from previous years?

SK: Wee launched the Women’s Entrepreneurship for Sustainable Energy Programme at COP 21 in Paris, with the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), Government of India. This showcased the Indian government’s commitment towards enhancing women’s integration into energy value chains at all levels. With the International Solar Alliance (ISA) too we have seen a significant focus on gender issues. UN Women was actively involved in the high-level UN inter-agency mission that was set up to help carve out the ISA’s operational mandate. UN Women brought a gender lens to the discussions and deliberations. Our recommendations were not limited to ensuring that the ISA’s interventions involved women in an effective way but were also oriented towards ensuring that the ISA’s own HR framework incentivised women to take up senior management and leadership positions. So I would say that there has been an appreciation of the fact that it is important to include gender into these conversations.

SR: I understand that UN Women has also been collaborating with the Government of India to connect women energy entrepreneurs to resources, information, and investments. What can you tell us about that?

SK: Yes, Niti Ayog has set up the Women’s Entrepreneurship Platform which provides women entrepreneurs – from all sectors, not just renewable energy – with information on mentorship and networking opportunities, trainings, conferences, and workshops to strengthen women’s entrepreneurial capacities. Of course, this is a very good repository of valuable information for entrepreneurs, but it needed to have a systematic mechanism to connect entrepreneurs looking for funds, with investors. UN Women, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Niti Ayog came together to form a consortium of investors comprising angel investors, social impact investors, venture capitalists etc. to enable women entrepreneurs to access. The process entailed inviting applications from women entrepreneurs to submit their ideas through Niti Ayog’s web platform, providing them with one on one mentoring support, and organizing pitching sessions. We recognize that there is a need for greater attention to applying a gender lens to investing, within the investor community. There are not many women occupying senior leadership positions within investing companies. Evidence suggests that there is a positive correlation between gender diversity levels of fund managers and their portfolio companies as well as their performance. UN women is working in bring a gender-lens to investing by sensitising investors through trainings and dialogues around promoting gender equality within investing firms.

SR: You have flagged some really interesting interventions that UN Women is leading here in India. What opportunities might there be to share some of these practices and insights with other countries? I’m thinking, for example, whether there might be interest from solar-rich African nations in adapting the solar dehydration model you alluded to earlier?

SK: That’s a fabulous idea. knowledge sharing is a part of UN Women’s strategy around communications. Globally, UN Women has partnered with Barefoot College to expand their model of Solar Mamas in select African countries. The solar drying initiative that UN Women has undertaken with women farmers in India in transforming them as agri entrepreneurs through access to clean dehydrating technology has tremendous potential for replication. We’d be very happy to share our learning and observations with other interested stakeholders.

SR: Suhela, thank you so much for your time.