Over 10 million people in Rajasthan, India have little or no access to electricity, with 22% of these households turning to kerosene to bring light into their homes. Women and children are the most severely affected by the side effects of kerosene, an unsafe, unsustainable, and polluting fuel, but they lack the capital to purchase cleaner forms of energy. Clean energy isn’t just necessary for climate change mitigation, but clean energy is also necessary for human development as well, especially for women, children, and low-income rural people-- those who often do not have the voice to advocate for themselves. Light brings people together; it increases safety for women, it increases productivity in work, and provides children more time to study. It is essential, but far too many people around the world live in darkness.
My interest in both environmental protection and women’s empowerment initially led me to my internship at Frontier Markets, a renewable energy NGO that provides inexpensive solar technologies to rural villagers across Rajasthan. But the program that hooked me was Frontier Markets’ “Solar Sahelis” (Solar Friends) program, which has trained 250 rural uneducated women in solar value chain, marketing, communication, and sales skills, and then employ them as saleswoman for their renewable energy products. Most Sahelis earn an average of $35 a month selling solar products part-time, and they invest 90% of their income back into their families, creating a ripple effect of improved livelihoods and empowerment.
I had the opportunity to go to Dholpur, Rajasthan on a 3-day field visit to interview ten Solar Sahelis to create case studies on them to be used for grant proposals, as well as to conduct some of my own fellowship research. Hearing these incredibly strong, inspiring, and successful women’s stories first-hand was an unforgettable experience, and I’m honored that they let me into their lives for these three days. In every interview, they spoke of how their lives have been transformed by being a Solar Saheli, with many saying they used to be afraid to leave their homes, and would not be allowed to speak with elders or other members of their community. Now, everyone in their village calls them by their name, comes to them for assistance with their solar products, and respects them and their work as a Saheli. Many of them demonstrated this transformation by covering their face with their sari veil, and then uncovering it to show how their newfound confidence has allowed them to come out of their shells and carry themselves with pride wherever they go, knowing they have made a valuable contribution to society and their families.
“There are so many changes in my life, I no longer fear going anywhere. Wherever I am called, I can go there. After going outside my home, I got good opportunities. So after seeing all these things, my family doesn’t stop me anymore and initially they used to stop me. Now they don’t stop me. Why? Because everyone in society knows what I’m doing, because of this I can talk to anyone, I even got to meet the chief minister. After meeting the chief minister I realized that I was a housewife who never went outside my own home. I didn’t know anyone, but now I am touching the sky.”
Besides documenting Saheli's stories, part of my interview was also focused on determining their baseline environmental background knowledge on climate change and renewable energy, in the hopes I could find some information that could help Frontier Markets pitch the concept of climate change in a way that is more relevant to their lives, since Frontier Markets has been unable to do this thus far. For my research question for this fellowship, I’m interested in exploring what the best ways are to market clean energy products and the concept of climate change to rural people in Rajasthan, specifically women, in a way that fits all their needs and priorities.
Main take aways:
1). While 10/10 of the Solar Sahelis had not heard the term “climate change,” I was so impressed by how knowledgeable they were and how in touch they were with their land. The district is a mostly agricultural society, so when I rephrased the question on climate change to be “Have you noticed changes in seasonality or temperature over the last ten years,” all of them unanimously said yes, it is getting much hotter.
“There is so much heat now compared to before, rainfall has also reduced compared to earlier years when it would rain more.”
2). One major effect of climate change on India and around the world will be the spread of infectious, mosquito-borne diseases, due to the rising temperatures. One of the most fascinating parts of my research was how on several occasions, Sahelis would transition on their own, unprompted, from talking about rising temperatures to how outbreaks of dengue fever and other diseases have accompanied the heat, showing a sophisticated knowledge of how the environment and climate change can impact their own health.
“Yes, temperature has increased. Many kinds of diseases have started. Earlier, people didn’t used to know about diseases like dengue, but in the last 2 or 3 years, many diseases like dengue are happening.”
3). Climate change is predicted to make dry areas even drier, having disastrous effects on agriculture in the already arid Rajasthan. I asked the Sahelis how an unusually dry or wet season affects their lives, to see if climate change's future effect on agriculture is something that could be explained to customers in the future. All the Sahelis unanimously said that it can have catastrophic effects on their lives, since many of the women and their husbands are farmers.
“It [rising temperatures] affects us because we are farmers, and we face problems in farming, and nothing gets done. Buffalo run away due to thirst. Crops don’t grow, and some households don’t even have food to eat.”
This experience in Dholpur has been the highlight of my experience in India so far, showing me a glimpse of rural life in Rajasthan-- which felt like a world apart from the bustling city of Jaipur where I have been living for the past four weeks. I will always remember sitting cross-legged on the floor of each Saheli's home, sipping home-made chai and listening to everything they had to say about climate change, renewable energy, their families, their newfound confidence and sense of purpose, their hopes and dreams. We could not be more different in terms of background, socioeconomic status, or culture, but those barriers suddenly seemed unimportant when discussing climate change, which has the potential to affect almost everyone in the world, as well as their inspiring journey from uneducated housewife to confident solar energy saleswoman. They graciously let me into their lives for those three days, and I hope I come away from it a better environmentalist, feminist, and person.
Doing a demo of a new solar product in Nangla Darwesha village