Women in Tanzania demonstrating to Clough the use of the kuni mbili energy efficient cookstove.

Engineers without Borders: one graduate's journey into Africa

Continuing her placement in East Africa, graduate engineer Laura Clough considers how dispelling the region's concept of traditional male/female work roles could lead to new business and a new source of skills for its energy industry.

Back in March, on International Women’s Day, I read an article on the Engineers Without Borders website that got me thinking about my role as female engineer and the women that I have met during my travels in East Africa. Over the past two months, as part of my research into marketing in small energy businesses in East Africa, I have travelled to the coastal region of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Here I have visited entrepreneurs that GVEP International is supporting through the Developing Energy Enterprise Programme East Africa (DEEP EA). We discuss their business, their approach to marketing and the challenges they are facing with the intention of better understanding how small energy businesses are undertaking their marketing and the factors that contribute to this, and to subsequently improve the marketing support DEEP EA offers entrepreneurs.

How traditional male/female roles are evident

When analysing the responses collected during these visits, associations can be made between the technologies people are working in, mainly solar, cook stoves and briquettes, and also relating to gender - for example what percentage of customers are male and female for each technology. For the entrepreneurs visited in Kenya and Tanzania, 80 per cent of those involved in solar businesses such as solar phone charging and solar products said that the majority of their customers were male.

Conversely for those involved in improved cook stoves, 83 per cent said that women were their main customers. When asked about the reasons for this, most entrepreneurs spoke about traditional male and female roles within the household, for example men are the ones that make decisions about money in the household whereas women are in charge of the cooking. Others reasons given included lack of access to finance for women and awareness of the technology.

How they influence purchasing and marketing trends

It is not surprising that within rural East Africa traditional male and female roles within the household prevail. From a marketing point of view it is interesting how these traditional roles influence purchasing trends in the energy sector and how small businesses are accounting for this. If an entrepreneur can identify that their target market is a specific gender they can tailor their business and promotion strategies towards them. For example selling complimentary products that would attract a particular gender or targeting groups of women in product demonstrations could increase their effectiveness in reaching their main customer base and raising awareness of their business.

On the other hand, by only targeting one gender as the market for your product, businesses are ignoring a large consumer pool in the other gender.

An untapped resource

Take solar products for example. If entrepreneurs concentrated some efforts on educating women about solar products and their benefits they could profit from a large and mainly untapped market, and increasingly these days in East Africa women have more access to finance than before.

This can be demonstrated in the case of a fund manager entitled the Women Enterprise Development Institute (WEDI). In partnership with GVEP International it has started distributing solar lanterns to women’s groups in Central Kenya.

Representatives from WEDI visit the groups and educate members about the benefits of solar lanterns as well as providing a credit scheme for the women to purchase them. By removing the barriers of technology awareness and access to finance for women they have successfully tapped into a new and large market selling over 400 lanterns to women in Kenya.

An important role to play

As I think about the debates around gender in engineering I can draw parallels with some of the findings from my study. It is clear to me that women represent a large potential resource whether it is as energy consumers, energy entrepreneurs or engineers. Dispelling traditional ideas on the roles of men and women in the work place and providing awareness and education on the opportunities for women in engineering is opening up a large skills resource for the industry. As many of the challenges we face at the moment across the globe are energy related, getting more women involved in these issues whether as engineers or at a consumer level can have an important role to play.

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