If you’re looking for a highly skilled woman in the renewables, Olsasimbo Sojinrin is one of them. She is a recognised TEDx Speaker and manages Solar Sister in Nigeria. Solar Sister is an organisation that reminds us that poor people are rich enough for opportunities. In this interview, she will tell us:
- About herself and her journey
- The story about Solar Sister
- how it transforms the lives of women in the community.
Want to listen to the Live Interview? Click HERE.
RiA (Q1): Thank you very much Olasimbo for joining us today. We have watched your TEDx video and I have to say we were really inspired by the story that you share.
And we’re going to go through a set of 10 questions. Olasimbo, would you mind please introducing yourself to our readers?
OS (A1): Hello Tony, thank you for this opportunity for me to speak today to you and to your audience. My name is Olasimbo Sojinrin and I am the Country Director for Solar Sister, Nigeria. I would say I’m a gender and energy expert, even though it’s always weird calling yourself an expert but I feel like that’s what I have been doing for the past– I would say about 15 years, doing something that relates to either women’s empowerment or energy or social development. Those are the things that I’ve been doing.
More recently, within the last five years, I’ve been running Solar Sister, Nigeria, which is a social enterprise and not for profit social enterprise. That is committed to building a network of women entrepreneurs, especially in underserved communities. They will provide energy access through a range of clean energy products that they would distribute in their communities.
Solar Sister is an organization. We have this mission in Africa that we want to build a brighter world powered by women entrepreneurs across Africa.
RiA (Q2): You mentioned Solar Sister, the organisation that you represent. You’re talking about women empowerment, entrepreneurship and clean energy. That’s what Solar Sister seems to bring under the same roof. The model that you’re rolling out, would you say is scalable?
OS (A2): Yes, I will because we believe that we are creating the solution one entrepreneur at a time. You know the numbers are out there, 600 million Africans are faced with energy poverty. How do we begin to make a dent in that? In Nigeria for instance, one year the government said they needed three times the national project to be able to get the energy to 100% of Nigerians. So we know that’s not going to happen and we know we can’t wait for the government to solve the problem, so what do we do?
We don’t fold our hands and be helpless. We’ll say, how do we start finding solutions ourselves, within ourselves and things that, can make a difference? Every community has that access point where they can get energy, I believe that we will begin to change that narrative. It’s building up a business around a problem. Building an enterprise around the problem and that’s the way to scale an organization.
we are creating the solution one entrepreneur at a time.
RiA (Q3): You mentioned a Nigerian operation, was it set up by you or were you appointed into the role?
OS (A3): It’s both. I was appointed to set up the Nigerian operation five years ago. Solar Sister was founded by Katherine Lucey. She is an American and it started in Uganda. But since then, we now have operations in Nigeria and Tanzania and I started Nigeria five years ago.
RiA (Q4): As a Country Director, how would you rate your achievement compared to your ambition? Would you say you’re doing excellent or things can be improved or you’re completely disappointed?
OS (A4): I’m my own biggest critic. I would say that we are doing well. Every year I set myself a target for the country on what we hope to achieve. Of the four years, last year we did achieve that target. This year I am not yet on track because I set a bigger target.
It’s just we have a mantra which is better every day and that’s what we aspire in whatever we are doing, however, we’re trying to create this impact, we’re getting better every day. We’re growing and we’re getting better. So, for me, I take that as a success.
RiA (Q5): I like that mantra. In doing that, I’m sure you must encounter challenges on an everyday basis. So what are your main challenges for the business and how do you overcome them?
OS (A5): What is this world without challenges? There are challenges we have to deal with building a business model in the most difficult places to reach. So there is a reason why the last mile communities are the last to reach because it’s very difficult. It becomes less cost-effective for manufacturers to take the product all the way down to where the need is the most. And that’s where we have the stopgap.
We have the logistical and economic challenges. Entrepreneurship still revolves around money, access to finance or entrepreneurs getting financed, the consumers getting the finance. We also have the social and cultural issues. We have areas where we operate where it is not the norm for a woman to go around marketing her products because of either religious or cultural reasons, it’s just not the norm.
Having to fight that to build a business or having to be creative around how to build a business without actually doing the conventional way, these are all the things that we have to deal with. But we’re forging ahead and we’re using our resources. One of the things that we don’t do is dump the knowledge or try, and take, one template from one place and retrofits it into a community. We always start from getting to know what the community is, what are the peculiarities of that community.
How can we function in that community in a way that benefits the entrepreneur? We have this inverted, hierarchical pyramid where our entrepreneurs are at the top and everything that we do, is to think about how does this entrepreneur succeed in the midst of the circumstances around her. And that’s the way we’ve been able to overcome some of it. Some of it is still challenging but we just get better every day.
We have areas where we operate where it is not the norm for a woman to go around marketing her products because of either religious or cultural reasons, it’s just not the norm.
RiA (Q6): You mentioned so many times the word entrepreneurship. I know your organisation counts on entrepreneurs to bridge the gap between energy, poverty and energy prosperity. How do you recruit your network of women entrepreneurs and is there a typical profile?
OS (A6): Yes. we start from the community level. We do what we call community entrance. We have a checklist which has a set of questions on what the typical community is. What the energy access situation is there. What the occupation is. We do all the social demographics on this checklist and it comes up with a value, with a number to tell us, okay, is this community a go or not? And then, when we’re in, we go through champions, we want to know which women, would want to take up this business because ultimately it’s entrepreneurship.
The woman has to have an entrepreneurial spirit. We focus on women, we do have a few men entrepreneurs but our portfolio is always over 80% women because women are our focus. We find a woman who has an entrepreneurial spirit who is willing and able to do the business that understands the peculiarity of the challenge and is willing to be a social act or a change agent in her community and is willing to also preach this gospel of lights and opportunities.
RiA (Q7): One of the key challenges of last month’s distribution is to meet financial viability. You are in the field on a daily basis, how much the Solar Sister Entrepreneur is an opportunity for these people you’re reaching out to? Are they able to meet their entire family needs or do they need to have an additional occupation on the side?
OS (A7): We have different ranges of entrepreneurs. We have the superstars who through this business are able to cover their family needs. But we do have some other entrepreneurs who are doing two, three, multiple businesses at the same time, probably is doing her own craft and is selling it. There is a range, but I wouldn’t say every single entrepreneur on our network meets their entire needs, but they are meeting some need.
RiA (Q8): Your TEDx video, which I recommend to everybody to watch, there’s that one character that caught my attention which was Mama Solar. Is she still part of your network?
OS (A8): Yes, she is. She is one of our entrepreneurs close to Abuja. There are several other entrepreneurs like her in Nigeria, who are doing the same thing, known in their communities for bringing that light. They’re seen as Mama Solar and everybody sees them as that energy point where they can go to get their energy solutions. So, we’ve identified that energy poverty, it’s a gender issue, it has a woman’s face.
The narrative we are changing is that women should be involved in energy prosperity. And if there’s money to be made from this challenge, I think we should be at the forefront of that because for many years we’re bearing the burden of the challenges associated with energy poverty. Women are managers of energy in their homes, responsible for how the food is cooked, how the home is led, the children’s homework, and a lot of that traditionally falls on the shoulder of the woman.
So providing an opportunity for your own home, but also for your neighbours and your community and being that woman to make that change but also to make money while doing it, I think it’s a win-win.
The narrative we are changing is that women should be involved in energy prosperity.
RiA (Q9): That’s a brilliant message. And how could people contribute to your ongoing success with Solar Sister in Nigeria and with the organisation as a whole?
OS (A9): We have the website which is www.solarsister.org where you can interact with us. There’s a donate button there if you want to contribute financially or if you just want to get on board, if you have relatives, now I’m speaking to people who are not in the country. If you have relatives in the country that you’d like to empower specifically or you just want to support the organisation, that’s an opportunity to do both. So I would just recommend that they visit the website and then they can take it from there.
RiA (Q10): I’m sure they will surely do. So what advice would you give to the younger African generation, especially the women in the fight against energy poverty?
OS (A10): My advice is that there are alternatives. Like, we have this—it is part of our tenacity and endurance and we have this tendency or ability to just accept faith or accept things the way they are. But we can make that change and we should, as women, be bold and make that change. It’s not just a change that would affect just you, but it’s one that will affect others, affect your community. We owe to ourselves, we owe it to our communities and we owe it to our economy to contribute our own bit to prosperity.
RiA (Q11): Do you have a special message for Renewables in Africa audience?
OS (A11): We are all in this together. Whatever we can do, especially towards eradicating energy poverty, we should. There are lots of needless deaths, especially that are connected to energy poverty. Especially within the cooking sector, we are preaching that cooking shouldn’t kill. A lot of our mothers, a lot of our wives are in smoky kitchens; inhaling those dangerous fumes three times a day to cook meals for their family and that shouldn’t be the case. There are a lot of challenges associated with energy poverty that we can solve. So, as a community, as Renewables in Africa, I’m encouraging all of us to keep doing as we all know that it’s an energy crisis. Renewable energy is one of the ways to mitigate it so don’t give up, don’t lose hope; keep doing this, keep doing the great work.
RiA (Q12): That’s a brilliant message. Olasimbo, I would like to say thank you very much for taking the time for talking to us today. It was a pleasure. You’ve built a fantastic organization in Nigeria and also across Africa and you can be assured of our support at Renewables in Africa.
OS (A12): Thank you Tony.
Listen to the interview HERE
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Article edited for clarity.