How do women use electricity for income generation in rural Nepal, and what factors are supportive?03 August 2018
by Dr. Magi Matinga
What benefits, from a gender perspective, does electrification bring to rural women? This is a question that many pro-poor investments in electrification are seeking to answer. Several benefits have been proposed, but one key outcome development initiatives often seek, is income generation. It is trusted that when women start using electricity they will generate income and thereby become economically empowered. So, do women in rural Nepal use electricity to generate income? If so, what factors supported their use of electricity for generating income? What lessons, if any, can we begin to learn?
Productive uses of electricity were not widespread among the women and men we interviewed, but some of the women do use electricity to support income generation. They include women doing tailoring, a female shop owner, and a poultry business owner. While we know that everyone will not engage in productive uses after electrification (for example, do you as an individual person make use of electricity for income generation?), we wish to pick a few things that made it possible for these women in rural Nepal to use electricity for income generation. An important context in our study areas (in contrast to many other rural places) is that many men are working abroad, sending (some of) their incomes back home. This makes disposable incomes available for customers to spend, benefitting businesses.
We found that the women in tailoring had been engaged in this business before electrification. The women benefitted from electricity by adding electric motors to their sewing machines and using electric irons instead of the traditional based on charcoal. This made sewing less arduous and more efficient by eliminating the need to pedal for hours. They also no longer needed to walk back and forth, refuelling the charcoal iron. There is no evidence that their profitability or number of customers improved. What improved were the conditions under which the business is done, hence their experienced comfort and convenience. An important factor that made these women use electricity in tailoring is that they already had business experience before electrification. Having this experience, they quickly identified the new opportunities offered by electricity. Moreover, they initially had some income, from their business, which they could use to purchase the electric motors and irons.
A Thamang woman ran and was the sole owner of a shop (rather than managing it for the extended family or her husband). When electricity became available, she invested in a refrigerator, expanding the products she sold to include cold drinks. This brought a new revenue stream to the business. Also, convenience was enhanced by electric light and her ability to use the mobile phone to speak with suppliers and customers. As with the tailor, electricity supported an existing business rather than being a catalyst for establishing a new shop. Again, like with the women doing tailoring, her past business experience was a supportive factor as the shop owner identified the opportunity for expanding her revenue stream.
Poultry farming has been a burgeoning business in the study areas for a while, and our interaction with one woman who owns a poultry business provided some interesting insights. She had started the business after having been trained by an NGO, but that training did not include the use of electricity in the business. Her husband's support - his positive attitude as well as caring for the chickens when she was away - was also critical to the establishment and survival of the business. Also important was her past experience in the business when she lost her whole stock of chickens, and based on that, learnt what not to do. The business was further anchored by an arrangement where the seller of day-old chicks - which the woman raised and sold - provided a buy-back option when the mature chickens did not sell. This acted as a risk reduction mechanism, making the business more attractive. When electricity became available, the table was set for the poultry owner to grasp the opportunity. She used electricity for lighting chicken coops and warming chicks, increasing their survival rate, improving the convenience in undertaking the work related to raising the chicks, and potentially also her profitability.
Our lessons from the field then are that the right conditions for electricity's benefits must be present for women to take advantage. Electricity alone is no silver bullet. Previous experience in income generation can help women take advantage of opportunities such as electricity. Also important is family or other kinds of (non-physical) personal support, as are risk-reducing mechanisms such as buy-back options. Women often have low incomes which makes any losses high impact. Risk reduction mechanisms for businesses are especially important for women given that they, compared to men, and the examples described above, many of them do not have business experience.