06/18/2010 04:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bright Potential for Women's Empowerment

Several years ago, I became intrigued by the transformative potential of small-scale solar devices to improve life for the nearly 2 billion people who live without regular energy access. Take solar cookers: today, hundreds of millions of people, mostly women, prepare meals over open flames. This often requires foraging for firewood, leading to destructive deforestation and exposing women to danger, particularly sexual violence, as they are forced to search for kindling farther from home. Open fires and traditional cookstoves also generate black soot, a leading cause of the respiratory illnesses that amount to a pandemic in much of the developing world. Two million people each year die from smoke inhalation from traditional cooking fires--more than die from malaria. The widespread adoption of solar cookers could dramatically improve global health, women's safety, and the environment.

Over time, I have come to recognize that the benefits of new technologies for the world's poorest also extend far beyond health, safety, and environment ones. Indeed, the greatest benefit of low-cost, innovative technologies could be in addressing the time deficit afflicting those living at the bottom of the pyramid, especially women and girls. Millions of girls, for example, spend long hours every day collecting firewood and water, but with a solar cooker or a solar-powered water pump, they can instead spend those hours going to school. New, cost-effective technologies such as solar cookers, solar lanterns, and solar water filtration systems are in some ways the twenty-first-century equivalent of the 1950s washing machine for American women: time-saving devices that allow girls and women in developing countries to shift their energies to more productive activities.

You might think solar technology today is too expensive for the world's poorest. But in fact, solar is fast becoming the most cost-effective technology to meet the energy needs of bottom-of-the-pyramid consumers. During a conference I hosted at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in April as part of the ExxonMobil Women and Development series, Mark Bent, president and CEO of SunNight Solar, demonstrated his company's Bogo Light--a "flashlight" made of solar cells, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), and rechargeable batteries, capable of providing six hours of light when charged. It is virtually indestructible, entirely waterproof, and lasts between 10 and 20 years. Even better, it costs only $6 to make. SunNight Solar sells the Bogo Light in Africa for about $15 to cover shipping and distribution costs. Although $15 is a big investment for a family living on less than $2 a day, the Bogo Light pays for itself in just a few months through decreased kerosene expenditures and increased productivity from an extended work day. Just this week, a Hong Kong based company announced the world's first solar-powered light bulb, the Nokero N100 solar LED bulb. Although its specs are not quite as good, it resembles the Bogo Light and its introduction to the market is another positive sign that we are approaching an inflection point for solar devices: technology is improving and costs are coming down to a level that can support mass uptake.

The challenge now becomes how to distribute these technologies in rural areas that are hard to reach and most in need. At the CFR conference this spring, we heard from Katherine Lucey, founder of a new organization called Solar Sister that focuses on the "last mile" of delivery of solar lights. She is piloting a project in Uganda, using a consignment model to provide up front inventory for women who then sell the lights to local consumers. These "solar sisters" earn a commission plus the money to finance their next inventory.

Another innovative distribution approach is being pursued by The Kopernik, an online store that connects individuals, companies, and local distributers. Companies post product descriptions, and on-the-ground distributors choose appropriate technologies to meet local needs from a "menu," articulating how they intend to use the technology in a short proposal that gets posted on Kopernik's website. Proposals are then "crowd-funded": anyone can go online and donate toward the realization of a project. Kopernik is helping to jump-start a distribution process that ultimately should stand on its own economic feet. Just as Coca Cola is available in some of the most remote places on earth, someday solar devices will be too because people need them and are willing to pay for them.

Solar also has the potential to revolutionize agriculture in the world's poorest villages. Another organization presenting at the CFR conference this spring was the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF). In Benin and Malawi, SELF is piloting village-level systems combining solar-powered water pumps with micro-drip irrigation. Early results show that these systems can cost-effectively improve agricultural productivity in hard to reach rural areas where the nearest paved roads and electrical grids are 100 kilometers away.

As low-cost innovations meet sustainable and scalable distribution models, solar devices have the potential to improve life dramatically for those without regular energy access. The greatest beneficiaries will be girls and women, who will enjoy better health and safety, and also gain valuable time to devote to more productive activities than fetching firewood and water. Indeed, helping speed the uptake of these devices could be one of the best ways to enable girls' education and women's empowerment in coming years.