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Interview: Empowering women in South and Southeast Asia with finance for solar

UNEP programme manager Parimita Mohanty speaks about the successes and challenges of a project that supports women from Cambodia, Vietnam and Bangladesh to use solar power for their agricultural businesses

A solar-powered mobile pump in Cambodia, which this woman bought with the help of the EmPower project to irrigate her vegetable patch (Image: UN Women / Hoang Thao)

Today, solar panels can be spotted in farms across many parts of South and Southeast Asia. Most of these power irrigation pumps, but an increasing number are used by agri-businesses, including those run by women.

EmPower: Women for Climate Resilient Societies, a joint programme of UN Women and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), is supporting women-owned solar-powered agri-businesses by helping women to get loans to buy equipment and sell their products. The programme aims to reduce women’s vulnerability to climate change in a two- phase project, with the first, pilot phase covering 2018-2022 and the second starting in 2023.  

In its pilot phase, the programme helped women entrepreneurs through 40 projects in Cambodia, 13 in Vietnam and 12 in Bangladesh. The projects promote the use of solar power to irrigate farms; access clean drinking water; and power chicken coops, among other things. The project has also supported women entrepreneurs in getting their products to market, by helping them get in touch with potential buyers and training them in checking current prices for goods.

UNEP and UN Women now plan to expand the initiative to Indonesia and the Philippines. Parimita Mohanty, programme manager at the UNEP Asia Pacific office in Bangkok, spoke with The Third Pole about lessons learned from the programme so far, and what comes next. The conversation has been edited for length.

The Third Pole: How were project sites chosen for the first phase of the EmPower project?

Parimita Mohanty: We [UNEP] did the scoping, which included talking to all stakeholders. We held focus group discussions with women as well as men. We asked the women what they would like to do, and then we saw whether it was possible to translate this into practice. Our local experts and partners carried out technical analyses and we filtered out ideas that were not viable.

The Third Pole: How did the responses vary from women in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam?

Parimita Mohanty: We faced some challenges in Bangladesh. There weren’t any women who reached out on their own. So, we worked through our partner organisations to reach them. In any case, it is part of our mandate to strengthen local groups and work with our partners. Together with our local partners, we were able to identify a few female leaders. When we went to the sites later, many more women came forward and asked to be involved in similar projects.

The Third Pole: So, did all the projects in EmPower’s pilot phase succeed?

Parimita Mohanty: It would be difficult to say that. For example, in Vietnam, out of 18 projects, 10-12 are working quite well. They have already scaled up geographically, in creating more jobs, and in turnover. But it’s not the case for all the interventions. Different sites had different contexts and the scalability potential varied.

In my view, it would not be fair to compare the performance and success of all the sites only in terms of business, because there are certain sites where the scope is smaller. Vegetable kitchen gardens with mobile solar irrigation pumps are an example. But they improve the individual’s and the community’s ability to adapt to climate change.

The Third Pole: How do you plan to scale your solar power project?

Parimita Mohanty: We have learned from the pilot phase, where we promoted 40 different kinds of renewable energy-based enterprises. We realised the importance of selecting the right technologies for the right applications and having potential markets. There is also a need to make finance affordable and accessible for women micro-entrepreneurs and women’s groups; to involve and mobilise communities from the beginning; and to build entrepreneurs’ confidence through targeted training.

Besides ensuring business sustainability, there has to be interest and acceptance from women and their communities
Parimita Mohanty

The Third Pole: Are you saying the business case is crucial if you want to scale up?

Parimita Mohanty: Yes, definitely. The question is, how can we ensure that the right business is considered [for support under the project] so that the cash flows of the enterprises are positive; the women make profit on a long-term basis; the forward and backward linkages are created and well established; and the women are equipped with the right skills and exposures to run such enterprises. Whatever handholding is required for that, we have to provide it, on a continuous, need-based basis.

Besides ensuring business sustainability, there has to be interest and acceptance from women and their communities and the entrepreneurial spirit at the individual level, which varies depending on the sociocultural context.

The Third Pole: How is the project being financed? Are banks or micro-financing institutions coming forward?

Parimita Mohanty: EmPower will provide grant finance which can be used as a de-risking instrument to leverage additional public and private finance, and can be used to soften the loan to be provided for decentralised renewable energy (DRE). Although small-scale renewable energy and other low-carbon technologies have great potential to address climate resilience and climate mitigation-related challenges, and are currently gaining attention from various investors and financial institutions, evidence and data sources to convince investors and build their confidence are still required.

When such technologies are used for business creation and expansion, and specifically through women and marginalised communities, the perceived risk for financing such combinations increases substantially. The size of the loans required by such target groups are smaller than the standard loan size of businesses, which makes it operationally challenging for financial institutions to roll out such a scheme.