06/10/2011 03:05 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2011

Green Jobs: More Than Just Green and More Than Just Jobs

There's a growing green career in East Africa that owes thanks to an unlikely inspiration -- the Avon Lady.

Like their American counterparts of a century ago, shut out of most jobs by oppressive cultural standards, women in rural Rwanda and Uganda are going door-to-door, earning income, sharing wisdom, and evangelizing for an exciting new product.

They are part of Solar Sister, a direct-marketing initiative that pays tribute to Avon in its business model while promoting something decidedly more meaningful to the world at large -- clean energy.

Solar Sister is creating a small army of women entrepreneurs who are, neighbor-by-neighbor, converting whole villages to renewable energy. They are selling solar-powered lighting units to replace the ubiquitous kerosene lamps that burn a fossil fuel, which are highly polluting, pose a fire hazard, and are dangerous to respiratory health. Solar units provide a more consistently reliable source of light -- and at a cheaper price.

With a small investment and a bit of training, these women are not only contributing to the health of the environment and their own community members, they are doubling their incomes, reinvesting their profits, and strengthening their families.

For all the debate about whether green jobs are the key to a prosperous future and a healthier environment or not, what's unquestionably true is that some of these new careers solve many problems at once.

There's plenty of demand for solutions to our major global challenges and potential for great benefit from solutions rooted in environmentalism. Today 1.6 billion people live in energy poverty, one billion don't have regular access to clean water and sanitation, and two million people each year die prematurely from indoor or outdoor air pollution.

Connect those challenges to some of the world's 190 million unemployed and 1.6 billion earning below-poverty wages -- and do it with energy efficiency, waste management, and environmental stewardship in mind -- and we could grow our global economy and increase employment while saving our planet.

Of course that's oversimplifying things, but the reality is that green jobs make sense for more than just the green part and more than just the jobs part. While the time is right to make our global marketplace for employment more efficient -- connecting the right people with the right jobs -- it's also the right moment to create jobs that meet a variety of needs at once.

Solar Sister is a jobs-creation initiative, a women's empowerment initiative, a small business initiative, and a clean energy initiative. There are many, many more innovations like it, from energy-efficient builders in the United States that employ urban youth to initiatives that convert farm waste into biofuel in India. The global market for environmental products and services, according to the International Labor Organization, is expected to reach nearly three trillion dollars by 2020.

The "green economy" is a big concept. But it's going to happen largely through small-scale, market-based solutions (which are often where large-scale change begins). Yes, international treaties, government regulations, and incentives are part of the picture. But the ground-up change is where progress will take root. Someday soon, solar lamps will likely take the place of kerosene lamps as the ubiquitous source of light in East Africa. Women will find new opportunities for employment. And we will not be able to imagine a time when we didn't do things this efficiently and intelligently.

Solar Sister is one of three early entry winners in the Powering Economic Opportunity Competition, a partnership of eBay Foundation and Ashoka's Changemakers®. The competition is offering up to $50,000 in prize money for market-based innovations that can develop long-term employment opportunities (not just in the green economy, but broadly) for vulnerable populations. You can enter or nominate solutions until June 15, 2011.