“Climate change is a man-made problem with a feminist solution,” B Team Leader and former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, often says. Robinson is an ardent champion of the women at the helm of action for climate justice, but has the world embraced her approach? How are women driving the shift toward a net-zero economy and how can we better integrate them into the growing clean energy sector? What does this work look like at the local, national and international levels?
This month, we joined government, civil society, finance and clean energy leaders in Abidjan at the annual Ibrahim Governance Weekend to address these increasingly important questions. Together with The Elders, we co-convened a dialogue around the importance of considering gender and integrating women’s concerns in Africa’s transition to a new green economy. With investments in infrastructure and clean energy growing across the continent, considering the gendered impacts of climate change as well as developing solutions to address the needs of women and other marginalised groups is as urgent as ever.
The solutions and challenges discussed ranged from supporting Africa’s female entrepreneurs working in clean energy to focusing on the innovations women need in their daily lives. But one thread ran through the conversation—the need to break down the barriers women face in accessing positions of power in both business and government. Marcia Ashong, Co-Founder of The Boardroom Africa, emphasised that women only make up 16% of the boardrooms across Africa and in her home country of Ghana, only four of out of the country’s 120 ministers are women.
Minister Anne Désirée Ouloto, Minister of Sanitation and Environmental Health, Côte d’Ivoire, also stressed this noting that while women occupy a number of the seats in her ministry, there’s a very low percentage of women working in clean energy—‘an invisibility’ of women in this sector. To ensure the transition to clean energy in Africa is just and inclusive, participants agreed that there’s a pressing need to increase women’s leadership across the continent.
To continue the conversation, two of our speakers—Monica Maduekwe, Program Officer at ECOWAS Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency and Allison Robertshaw, Senior Policy Advisor, Climate Change at The Elders—sat down with each other to discuss why we need women’s leadership to realise our vision for a just transition in Africa.
Allison: What is at stake if we fail to consider the impact of gender on clean energy development in Africa?
Monica: To put it simply: the propagation of more harm than good, which is a sad situation, considering that some of the arguments for clean energy development in Africa is that it has the potential to support local economic growth and place the continent on a path to sustainable development.
Of course clean energy project promoters do not set out to bring harm to a community. The issue is that, in development of these projects, many forget to appreciate (or under-appreciate) how energy infrastructure projects can significantly alter the social, economic, cultural and political dynamics in the community where the project is sited. Furthermore, your typical project developer may not fully be aware of the effect that could come from not integrating the development challenges and needs of members of the community—specifically of women and other marginalised groups. These projects can lead to severe consequences for these groups and produce gender-related impacts that perpetuate inequalities and social injustice.
For a continent where universal energy access continues to remain a challenge and the rate of investment in the power sector continues to lag behind demand for electricity, I strongly believe that the energy projects that get financed should be designed in ways that ensure they yield optimal benefits and avoid unnecessary adverse impacts.
I have been asked by well-meaning people if electrification projects do not benefit everyone at the end of the day. My response is that the only way a developer can confidently answer that question is by assessing projects against the number of women and men who might be impacted through land displacement, loss or alteration of source livelihood, employment through the project or increased access to energy products and services among other factors. It is only when we start to assess the impacts of an energy project from a gender lens that we can truly justify that our projects benefit both males and females equally.
Monica: The conversation emphasised that we can no longer discuss climate change without discussing gender. As a convener of discussions that address both, what’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in getting these off the ground and the biggest learning for you personally?
Allison: For me it’s been interesting to see how so many of the gender conversations don’t address climate change or energy considering the impact it has on so many other issues. Perhaps coming from a climate change background, it’s more striking to me—this absence. You hear people talking about women’s health issues in rural communities and they don’t talk about how you need energy to power up hospitals and clinics. Or you see conversations about agricultural development and women that aren’t taking into account the massive changes that are occurring to rainfall and plant productivity due to climate change. I think the climate change community needs to be much better at communicating to the gender community how much this is going to impact all the other work they’re doing. It’s still the biggest challenge I see in the work that I’m doing—how to expand the circle talking about these issues.
Allison: From your perspective in the clean energy sector, what solutions around the integration of gender in Africa have you seen really work? What initiative would you say you’re most proud of among these?
Monica: West Africa as a sub-region in the African continent has done remarkably well in advancing the principles of mainstreaming gender in energy development. In 2017, the Heads of State of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) adopted the ECOWAS Policy for Gender Mainstreaming in Energy Access with the goal to address barriers to the equal participation of men and women in the expansion of energy access in West Africa. Since the policy’s implementation , governments of the region have continued taking significant steps to ensure that the way energy projects are planned and implemented incorporates and addresses the concerns of the male and female members of its community.
In 2018, ECOWAS Energy Ministers reviewed and adopted the ECOWAS Directive on Gender Assessment in Energy Projects, which establishes the legal framework for the ECOWAS Policy for Gender Mainstreaming in Energy Access. Broadly, the Directive aims to avoid or mitigate negative gendered impacts while optimizing and spreading the effect of positive impacts. The Directive recognizes “gendered impacts” as those impacts, results or outcomes which, though deriving from the same action or set of actions, have consequences, whether negative or positive, which are dissimilar across affected groups of men or women in degree and/or characteristics. It also aims to improve transparency in energy planning and implementation processes and encourage the development of harmonized policy, legal regulatory frameworks and operational strategies in each ECOWAS Member State.
Monica: When you hear about these efforts in Africa, what’s the one thing you want a global audience to take away? What do you think is the best way to reach a broader audience and potentially scale these solutions in other regions?
Allison: The leadership and unwillingness to give up of the African women would be the thing I’d hope a global audience would really recognise and look to emulate. And if I’d need to point to a way that we can help export that experience, energy and learnings to other areas of both the global south and the global north, I’d say one of the most important things we can do is give African women a platform to share their lessons in other areas of the world. Too often workshops, conferences and roundtables around gender are made up of speakers from the global north—they have the money to get to these events and to get their message out there. We’ve got to support more voices from the global south on the international stage.
Allison: What would your advice be to policymakers around how they can better integrate women in climate and clean energy solutions? What does government stand to gain by doing so?
Monica: Policymakers have the unique opportunity of influencing the qualities and features of a certain environment. And they can certainly influence how women are viewed in the clean energy solution discourse—whether as mere beneficiaries or, preferably, as beneficiaries and active participants in the promotion of clean energy solutions.
Let’s take for example the issue of women as clean energy entrepreneurs. Unquestionably, one of the goals of gender mainstreaming in energy development is to ensure that women-owned businesses can also participate in providing solutions. However, it is well known that, globally, the energy sector is male-dominated, with fewer energy businesses being established and operated by women. Fewer women energy entrepreneurs does translate to a lesser contribution of women entrepreneurs deciding the form a business-related policy would take and how it influences them.
Policymakers can most effectively turn things around through long-term clean energy push and pull strategies, with a specific goal of creating a market where more women-owned businesses can take root and grow. By push and pull strategies, I mean policy incentives that increase the demand for clean energy products and services, while putting in place support frameworks that enable women-owned businesses to supply these products and services (e.g. capacity building, access to finance, gender-sensitive procurement policies, etc.). Such a strategy is likely to be effective because women-entrepreneurs are supplying the market with a needed product and service—meaning that it is lucrative and worth their time and investment—and they are being equipped with the skills and resources to compete strongly in the market.
It is important to note that a gender-blind clean energy strategy is more likely to benefit incumbent energy businesses, who already have the skills, experience, networks, etc., to immediately take advantage of the market opportunity. Such strategies might further deepen male dominance in the sector. But with gender diversity increasingly being recognised as a stimulator for innovation, policymakers who are truly intent on transforming their energy system should be keen on increasing women’s participation in the sector.
Allison: What personally drove you to take on the cross section of gender and clean energy? How have you seen things change, or not change, since you’ve taken this work on?
Monica: I started out my career as an Energy Efficiency Officer at the ECOWAS Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (ECREEE), specifically as the Assistant for the Supporting Energy Efficiency for Access in West Africa (SEEA-WA) project. During this time I had some of my earliest exposure to women and energy topics. Sitting in some of those meetings I wondered if I really wanted to associate myself with some of the narratives that were being promoted—furthermore, if any woman at all, whether in rural or urban communities, would truly associate themselves with the narrative of being poor and helpless. In formulating the ECOWAS Programme on Gender Mainstreaming in Energy Access (ECOW-GEN), I wanted to push a different narrative. One which says, “Yes, there are limiting gender-related barriers. However, women are more than willing and capable of engineering their own solutions if the barriers to their representation, participation and access to resources or opportunities are cleared out of their way.”
We launched ECOW-GEN in 2013 as a ‘push and pull’ intervention to increase the number of women benefiting from and participating in the West African energy industry. The programme’s activities include developing the ECOWAS regional policy and directive, and, on the other hand, spearheading investment promotion and business development initiatives targeting women entrepreneurs in the rural and urban areas.
How have things changed since then? We are increasingly seeing a dismantling of the myth concerning women’s lack of interest in the clean energy sector—either in the public or private sector, as technicians or in decision-making roles. With women ready to harness the potential of this new industry, the onus now lies with those who set the environment (i.e. the policymakers) to operationalise the so-called support frameworks to make this possible.