Strengthening women’s access to rural energy sources and technologies in Ethiopia: From research to action

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By Tiruwork Arega and Dr Claudia Ringler

Universal access to affordable clean energy is a global challenge. Access to clean energy services and green technologies by women and marginalized groups remains constrained by their social positions and gender norms as well as by gender-blind energy policies and institutions. The cost to women’s well-being and rural economic growth from these inequities is considerable. The CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains is supporting the development of more equitable food systems by promoting gender-transformative energy access and policy in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Energy use in rural Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, around 43 percent of rural communities are connected to the electric grid. However, only a subset of households in grid-connected communities have household connections, and then mostly for basic service, which typically limits use to lower-tier appliances such as lights, phone chargers, and radios. On top of limited purchasing power, low voltage supply, voltage fluctuations, and often limited daily hours of electricity supply prevent households from adopting higher-voltage appliances such as electric stoves or refrigerators. These factors also prevent productive use, which relates to the utilization of energy sources and technology for agricultural and non-agricultural purposes such as lifting water for irrigation, milling grain, shelling maize, and processing washed coffee. Understanding the gendered benefits and gaps in the existing energy infrastructure could help pave the way for more equitable and inclusive energy access and wider adoption and usage of energy technologies.

To discuss entry points to strengthen women’s access to energy in rural areas, NEXUS Gains hosted a workshop in Addis Ababa in February 2024 on the interplay of rural energy and gender. The event brought together actors from the government, the private sector, academia, and civil society organizations through a role-play exercise, presentations, and discussions.

Power Walk: Adaptation for the energy sector

The workshop began with a Power Walk – a group role-playing activity designed to prompt reflection on power dynamics, privilege, and social inequalities. This activity has been adapted by NEXUS Gains for the water sector in Pakistan, and extended here to the rural energy sector in Ethiopia, based on the experiences shared in qualitative fieldwork implemented by NEXUS Gains. The exercise demonstrated a remarkable gender gap across different members of society, highlighting the urgent need to understand intersectionality in domestic and productive access and uses of rural energy.

Presentations: NEXUS Gains papers on gender and energy

The next segment of the workshop featured three presentations of papers recently developed under NEXUS Gains. The first study, on closing the gendered energy technology gap in rural Ethiopia, identified gendered gaps in the awareness, initial try-out, and continued use of domestic and productive energy technologies in rural settings. Whereas women often make autonomous decisions on improved biomass energy technologies, men appear to be the sole decision-makers on irrigation energy technologies, particularly pumps. Entry points for strengthening women’s access to such technologies include providing information and training – possibly through health extension workers, who are already instrumental for the promotion of improved biomass stoves to rural women.

The differential benefits of electricity access for boys’ and girls’ schooling, for women’s non-farm income in dual-headed households, and for women’s empowerment were revealed during a presentation on gendered benefit streams of rural electrification. In particular, improvement in boys’ education is associated with village-level access to electricity (regardless of household access), likely due to their greater mobility, while improvement in girls’ education is associated with household-level electricity connections. Similarly, women’s decision-making agency is strongly associated with household-level (but not community-level) connections. These findings bring home the critical need for targeted interventions that consider the specific needs of women and girls, given their differentiated roles at home, on the farm, and in the community.

Both studies highlighted the lack of gender-disaggregated data that prevents the formulation and implementation of gender-responsive clean energy interventions. The subsequent discussion on metrics for tracking progress on gender-disaggregated energy access and decision-making identified areas such as women’s information on energy technologies, physical access to these technologies, and practical action in decision-making and equipment acquisition. The participants also discussed the use of energy technologies for domestic and productive purposes as potential indicators to consider when developing the Women’s Empowerment in Energy Index in Ethiopia.

The final presentation highlighted entry points for developing productive uses of renewable energy (PURE) technologies that could empower smallholder women and men farmers. The facility aims to scale solar photovoltaic energy through: 1) creating an enabling environment for market uptake through the coordination of relevant off-grid actors; 2) establishing groundwater monitoring facilities to support climate-resilient groundwater management; and 3) deploying financing options directed at smallholder women farmers for the purchase of solar water pumping systems for the production of nutrient-dense crops and other productive uses.

In the resulting discussion, participants emphasized the significance of identifying a broad set of clean energy technologies that could help rural women, including in the postharvest space where women often engage, and ways to reduce their initial cost to overcome a key access barrier. Learning from success stories of similar programs in other contexts was also noted as a factor for developing successful PURE facilities that could transform the lives of rural women in the country.

Key takeaways and recommendations

The workshop participants agreed that there is a lack of awareness about the benefits of clean energy technologies in rural areas, and called for efforts to improve information on accessible technologies. They suggested making credit more accessible to women, developing skills for after-sales maintenance and repair services, and considering women’s mobility and time constraints. Moreover, building capacity for women to participate in agricultural value addition, as well as providing targeted subsidies to women, were proposed as viable options for women to benefit from the adoption and sustained use of clean energy technologies.

The workshop concluded with statements highlighting the massive amount of work that needs to be done to improve women’s access to clean energy technologies. Public- and private-sector actors, together with academia, civil society, and development partners, are beginning to pave the way.

Further reading


Tiruwork Arega is a PhD student at Maastricht University; Dr Claudia Ringler is the Unit Director for Natural Resources and Resilience in the Transformation Strategies Department at IFPRI, and NEXUS Gains Co-Lead.

 This work was carried out under the CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains, which is grateful for the support of CGIAR Trust Fund contributors: www.cgiar.org/funders

 

Header image: Workshop participants take part in the Power Walk activity. Photo by Bethlehem Ayele/IFPRI.

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