NAIROBI, Kenya – On a hot Tuesday afternoon in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, Oyesa Oluchina is busy mixing sawdust, charcoal and shredded paper to make briquettes. The compressed blocks are a source of clean energy, burning hotter and emitting less carbon than fossil fuels.
As co-founder and director of operations at Mazingira Safi Initiative (MSI) – which gets its name from the Swahili for “clean environment” – Oluchina is one of only a few women leaders in Kenya’s renewable energy industry.
“I always wished to make a contribution to the conservation of nature, no matter how small,” Oluchina says.
In a country where only 63 percent of households are connected to the national electricity grid, women are overwhelmingly responsible for collecting and using household fuels such as charcoal, oil or wood. But very few women work in the emerging market for safer, cheaper and greener renewable energy sources. Women’s participation in the green energy sector is so low, there is no official data on their numbers.
One reason for the dearth of women in Kenya’s renewable energy industry is that many have trouble raising funds from banks and other financial institutions, which are reluctant to loan to women. To overcome that obstacle, some women entrepreneurs are bypassing banks entirely and turning to an easier, faster and fairer source of capital: crowdfunding.
Since the launch of MSI in 2013, Oluchina, her co-founder Purity Wanjohi and their two employees have been using a manual machine that makes 200 briquettes a day and is “very difficult to operate,” Oluchina says. Only a few months after the business launched, demand for MSI’s briquettes had grown so high the manual machine couldn’t keep up. By June 2016, the women decided they needed to buy an electric version.
At first, the plan was to use the monthly contributions from the women on MSI’s board, as well as dip into their savings, but they realized that would take too long.
Oluchina presented a proposal for funding to local bank officials who were enthusiastic on the phone, but in person asked if there was anyone older running the company. When she told them that it was just her and Wanjohi, both in their 20s, the bank managers said they would consider her proposal. She didn’t hear from them again.
Banks know that women usually have no collateral and often assume they have little managerial experience, making them too risky for loans. “Young women in particular are treated with a heavy a dose of suspicion,” Oluchina says.
Searching for another way to grow their business, Oluchina and Wanjohi joined Women Integration into Renewable Energy (WIRE), a two-year program operated by the international nonprofit Energy 4 Impact (E4I). Under WIRE, clean energy micro-entrepreneurs in rural Kenya and Tanzania get training in bookkeeping, marketing and creating networks.
To find much-needed funding for the women-led enterprises in the program, E4I partnered with U.K. Aid’s Crowd Power initiative and M-Changa, Africa’s leading crowdfunding platform, and launched a series of campaigns to raise money directly from the public.
Davinia Cogan, Crowd Power program manager at E4I, says the key obstacle for women entrepreneurs trying to get funding from traditional sources is a lack of collateral. In most families, land, property, livestock and vehicles are under a man’s name.
The International Federation of Women Lawyers has found that women head about 32 percent of households in Kenya but hold only 1 percent of land titles individually. “In the case of women who were previously married, they may have no [documentation] at all if their previous partner handled the finances,” Cogan says.
Crowdfunding allows women to raise funds without collateral, she says, and also means they can get their money faster than they would by applying through a bank or micro-lending institution.
Along with MSI, other women-led businesses in the WIRE program include Silver Solar, which sells solar-lighting products; Sabina Cookstoves, a portable cookstove company; and Nyalore Impact, a group that raises environmental awareness and helps communities access clean energy products.
Since joining the program in October 2017, MSI has collected 57,000 Kenyan shillings (around $445), more than half of the 100,000 shillings ($1,000) it needs to buy an electric briquette machine. Oluchina is optimistic they will reach their target by the end of April.
But crowdfunding has its limitations, she says. One issue is that many would-be donors, especially in rural areas, are not familiar with M-Changa, the platform used to pay contributions to the campaigns.
And while banks tend to distrust women entrepreneurs, MSI co-founder Wanjohi says, people in the community are wary of anyone asking for money over the internet, with many saying they worry about being conned. “It is easier to get people outside your country to fund you than locals,” she says.
Despite the challenges, Oluchina says women in Kenya are increasingly venturing into renewable energy. “It is one of the fastest growing sectors in Kenya. We are noticing an increase in women-led and owned ventures emerging in the last two years, going by the number of businesses we encounter at exhibitions and open days,” she says.
“They are a source of inspiration to us.”