S1E4: From Energy Scarcity to Entrepreneurial Success for 10,000 Women

June 20, 2024
Banner: She Powers Africa - Season 1, Episode 4

IFC chats with Olasimbo (“Simbo”) Sojinrin, Chief Operating Officer of Solar Sister, a leading provider of portable solar home systems in Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania that is working at the intersection of gender equality, climate justice, and energy access. Working with over 10,000 women entrepreneurs in Africa, Solar Sister has distributed clean energy products to nearly 5 million people, many living in last mile communities. Simbo shares why she is passionate about her career in renewable energy, the importance of leadership, training, and mentoring, and making women’s voices heard.


Terry Ann Chebet: Hello and welcome to She Power's Africa, the IFC podcast celebrating the inspiring stories of Africa's leading women in renewable energy. I'm your host, Terry Ann Chebet. This podcast is fueled by IFCs Energy to Equal Program and the Women in Renewable Energy in Africa network, which are both dedicated to amplifying women's roles in the renewable energy sector. Through this podcast, we shed light on the transformative power of renewable energy featuring women driving Africa's energy transition.

Our guest in this episode is Olasimbo Sojinrin, or Simbo, the Chief Operating Officer at Solar Sister, a social enterprise that centers local women in the distribution of clean energy. Simbo is introducing portable solar light products and clean cooking to millions of homes. She's a powerful voice promoting renewable energy and women's empowerment in Nigeria, Tanzania, and Kenya. In this conversation, she shares the secret sauce on how women leaders are bringing energy prosperity to millions, one woman at a time.

Simbo, it's a pleasure to have you on the show today. As someone who grew up without a reliable source of power, you turned scarcity into a career opportunity. How did that experience feed your passion to deliver renewable energy solutions for women?

Olasimbo Sojinrin: Thank you, Terry Ann. So good to be here. I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria where we had a maximum of 10 hours of electricity each day. I grew up with a single mom who inspires me in every way taking care of me and my three siblings, but I was only eight years old when she returned home one day and shared a story about one of her clients who was a lawyer and went into labor in the middle of the night. [She left the house] with her husband and left an unattended candle at home, which caused the fire that led to the death of her three older children. This was when the use of candles as a form of lighting or kerosene lanterns was banned from our home.

In the eighties when I grew up, this was the means of lighting especially since we had very few hours of electricity, so everyone used candles and kerosene lanterns. My mom invested in touch lights and rechargeable lights, as a primary source of lights when the grid was out. I remember thinking it was quite an expense for her. Energy constituted about 30% of the household income and I remember thinking, “There must be a better solution. There has to be something.” I really think this is where the seed was planted in me to go along this path of eradicating energy poverty. In fact, ‘till this day, I joke with my husband that I don't see any romance in candles. I just picture a house burning down and so growing up without reliable access to power deeply influenced me and my perspective to energy and its impact on everyday life, especially when it comes to women and children.

Terry Ann Chebet: Thanks for sharing that inspiring story. Tell us a little about Solar Sister and your initiatives to attract women to the sector.

Olasimbo Sojinrin: Solar Sister is an organization that provides women with economic opportunity, training, technology, and support to distribute a range of clean energy products to underserved communities here in Africa. We usually would recruit ambitious, hardworking women, and train them through customized monthly training programs, equipping them with the essential skills needed to generate income for themselves, as well as for their families. The training and ongoing mentorship [we provide] will equip these entrepreneurs with the important skills like financial management, technical product knowledge, and as a result, women will gain confidence and also serve as role models and change agents in their community.

Solar Sister has existed since 2010, with operations in Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania. Late last year we celebrated a big milestone of reaching 10,000 women entrepreneurs here in Africa. Our entrepreneurs have distributed clean energy products, that have reached almost 5 million beneficiaries. This has in turn mitigated more than 1.6 million tons of CO2. For us, the organization is driving impact in three of the most important issues of our time, if I may say so myself. It's gender equity, it's climate justice, and it's also energy access.

Terry Ann Chebet: Simbo, you were a key player in the startup of Solar Sister. Now armed with a new business model, you set out to leverage the power of women entrepreneurs in their communities. What would you say is most rewarding about your work in social entrepreneurship?

Olasimbo Sojinrin: I think I'll start with another story. I'll tell you the story of Rebecca, the Rebecca Chicken story, as we call it here in Solar Sister, is what actually inspired the formation of the organization. Katherine Lucey, the founder, came to Africa on the mission with an organization to provide solar kits - and this was for charity.

A local pastor, who happened to be Rebecca's husband, lived in an off-grid location in Uganda and was selected to receive a three multiple light system, which had three bulbs. On getting to the house, the pastor said that they should install one of the lights in his living room where he receives his church members, another one in the passageway, and the third one in his bedroom.

But Rebecca immediately interjected and said: “I have an alternative suggestion. Why don't we do it like this. Why don't we put one in the living room. Yes, you are a pastor, you can receive your guests, but let's put the second one outside, so that I can have light when I'm coming back from the farm in the evening. Then the third one let's put it in the chicken room.” Everyone was surprised, “why the chicken room?” What Rebecca knew and others didn't is that chickens eat only when they see - they eat only when there's light. The mere fact that Rebecca's chicken room had light [meant that] her chickens were the biggest in the community. She ended up selling eggs and having enough money to start a farm. Today, Rebecca has a school, she has a farm, and she's very successful.

It's just that singular perspective that a woman brings to how we apply renewable [energy], how we use renewable [energy] was the inspiration for Solar Sister. It really highlights that female view - resulting in economic growth. That is our inspiration story.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my work in social entrepreneurship, particularly with Solar Sister, is seeing the tangible impact it has in the lives of the women and their communities. We leverage this power of women entrepreneurship, especially in underserved villages where regular economic models don't get to because they're too far out. They're literally last mile communities and they have this pressing issue of energy poverty but by using women to be at the forefront of distributing clean energy, we position them as the solution providers to energy in their communities.

I have witnessed the journey of several women - women entrepreneurs - who have started with little or no prior business experience and watching them grow their business and become leaders in their communities - I find that incredibly fulfilling.

The women are not only providing access to clean energy solutions, but they are now serving as role models. Usually when we have our meetings you will see that there is a little girl or little child sitting there just looking up in awe at her mom and understanding what energy is even at that little age. These women are challenging the traditional gender roles they provide. They're bringing income into their families. They are being more respected and they're driving positive change across their societies.

Terry Ann Chebet: Simbo, clearly, you are in a space that you are extremely passionate about. Tell us why should women pursue, based on your story, a career in renewable energy?

Olasimbo Sojinrin: I think aside from the meaningful impact, there are numerous other compelling reasons why women should pursue this field. If you think about innovation and growth, the renewable energy sector is very dynamic. It is rapidly evolving. I remember when we started about 11 years ago, we would go into communities where they have never had the touch and feel of a solar solution. I think that's changing today. Even the communities are getting more and more aware women should be at the forefront of this.

As I always say, we shouldn't just be victims of energy poverty or being the ones bearing the brunt of how energy is managed in the home, but also be at the forefront of providing the solutions to help alleviate energy poverty in our communities. I also think pursuing a career in renewable energy is not only professionally fulfilling, but it also gives that chance for you to be part of a transformation or a transformative movement - which is what's happening right now towards a cleaner, more equitable and sustainable world.

Terry Ann Chebet: Let’s look at the skills now. What would you say are some of the skills that one needs in order to grow into a leadership role within the renewable energy space today?

Olasimbo Sojinrin:  So, my advice for women starting out in the renewable energy space will be three things.

I think [the first] one is educate yourself, attend training programs. For training programs, I always say there is the one for self-leadership and then there is also the sector specific training. I can recommend one, Acumen Fellowship, which is about self-leadership and I think that really helps. Then for the sector one, there's the Power Africa Energy Sector Women's Leadership Initiative which equips women with essential skills and knowledge so that there is a range of trainings available. I think educate yourself. I'll put that out as first thing; just seek that out.

The second one is mentorship. Seeking out mentorship. I think it's really important to find role models and mentors in this sector to help propel the journey. In Nigeria, when I started, there were very few women at the forefront of renewable energy. I remember being in a room - I can name a few of them in Nigeria - women like Ifeoma Malo, Habiba Ali, Hannah Kabir-  there are a number of women who in a room of say a hundred men, you'd find this handful of women making their voices heard - today I can say – [they were] paving the way for other women in the sector so please seek out mentorship as the second skill.

The third one is networking -networking, networking, networking. We have seen people transition from other fields into renewables. When I was in school, there wasn't any course in my university that was [on] renewable energy. Finding this path, I kind of fell along into this path along the way. It's networking, getting more information, joining groups. I think LinkedIn is always a great resource. Networking groups like the Women in Renewable Energy. If you are a woman and you're interested in renewables, you should be on that group learning and networking with other like-minded women.

Terry Ann Chebet: Simbo, you coach other women and you've mentioned some key guides into if one is starting out in the industry how can they do that? What would you say are some of the challenges that the women that you coach have experienced within the space that they're in?

Olasimbo Sojinrin: I think for women it's usually around where to start, how to start, and I dare say limiting beliefs. Sometimes I think this is something that … we call the imposter syndrome, where we don't think that we are enough, or we don't think we are [good enough] even when we have that deep passion and deep desire to find a solution.

I will go back to the story of my mom and grit. Like looking at my mom, tending to four children and making sure that every day we had three meals to eat. It took that grit, that determination, that resilience, which I feel like many women have. Sometimes the imposter syndrome or the limiting beliefs holds us back, but I feel that where we are now in the world with the resources, [and] with the role models, we can break free of that. We can shake off those limiting beliefs and take the bull by the horn and be whatever we want to be.

There are so many successful women right now in energy sector and I feel like this podcast has showcased a few of them who are leading, and are leaders in every step of the way. I feel [that] as women, we need to shake off those limiting beliefs and just go for it.

Terry Ann Chebet: Simbo as we come to an end, what parting words of wisdom do you have for our listeners, who may be from a cross-section of the renewable space, or thinking of getting into it, or curious about it, or have been in it and are just thinking of new opportunities? What words of wisdom would you have for them?

Olasimbo Sojinrin: Embrace your unique strength. I think we all recognize and embrace our own unique strengths, our perspectives, our experiences, and everything that we bring to the table as women in the renewable energy space - our diversity is an asset. I've seen it. I've seen this happen. At work I'm surrounded by women every day. I work with women in the energy space [and] their resilience, their creativity is unquestioned. Tap into that unique strength. Our emotion, our empathy, which sometimes the world sees as a weakness, I've seen it as a strength so many times. I've seen it propel women to do amazing things. I'll always say, “Embrace it.” “Embrace your full womanhood and use that and propel that to positive change in the world.”

Terry Ann Chebet: It's been such a pleasure to have you on She Powers Africa, Olasimbo. Thank you so much for joining us.

We hope you've gained valuable perspectives on the remarkable journey of Olasimbo Sojinrin and her impactful contributions to the renewable energy sector. As we navigate the dynamic landscape of Africa's energy transition, let the stories inspire and propel you forward. The path to a sustainable and inclusive future is paved by the passion and dedication of individuals like Simbo who continue to break barriers and shape the renewable energy narrative.

If you enjoyed this episode, you will enjoy our previous episodes of She Powers Africa. Do listen and share, and together let's amplify the voices of women driving change in Africa's energy landscape.

Until next time, I'm Terry Ann Chebet, your host on She Powers Africa, signing off. Keep shining and powering the future.