KATHMANDU, July 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of rural women in Nepal are turning from housewives to entrepreneurs to bring clean, energy smart products such as solar panels, lanterns and batteries to power-starved villages in an initiative aiming to help women out of poverty.
The social enterprise Empower Generation provides technical training and support to women in the impoverished Himalayan nation to set up clean energy businesses and provide loans to poorer customers.
Since it began operations in 2012, Empower Generation has created over 20 women-led businesses, employing 300 female distribution agents who go from village-to-village, selling, maintaining and collecting repayments for products.
In that time they have sold almost 60,000 products such as solar-powered mobile phone chargers, flashlights and rechargeable batteries, providing around 300,000 Nepalis with access to cleaner, safer light and power.
"There are many slogans to empower women. But in reality little has been done," Empower Generation's co-founder Sita Adhikari told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
"If we want to really empower women, we must train them in business skills so they can generate income and become economically self-dependent."
Wedged between India and China, Nepal - famed as the birthplace of Buddha and home to Mount Everest - is one of the world's poorest countries. One in four people live on less than $1.90 a day - the World Bank's measure of extreme poverty.
Deep-rooted patriarchy means women and girls are often marginalised and vulnerable to exploitation such as human trafficking and sexual slavery. Female participation in the formal workforce is low and few opportunities are available.
In addition, more than half of the country's 28 million population do not have reliable access to electricity and daily power cuts lasting up to 18 hours are common.
The poorest spend around 20 percent of their income on kerosene and candles which impacts women and children the most by exposing them to fumes from fuels, with millions of women and children dying each year from respiratory problems.
Adhikari, 43, a social activist and mother of two, said she and her partner, U.S. national Anya Cherneff, wanted to boost the financial independence of Nepali women by addressing the issue of energy poverty.
The entrepreneurs are trained in business skills such as maintaining accounts and inventory control while Empower Generation provides marketing materials.
They then recruit and train female distribution agents in their communities to go out and sell the products and earn a commission on each sale. They are also piloting selling "pay-as-you-go" solar home systems using mobile money.
Empower Generation's business model has received much praise and last month won the International Ashden Award for Clean Energy for Women and Girls for its innovative approach to propagate sustainable energy among Nepal's rural poor.
Adhikari said the company wanted to expand the number of female energy entrepreneurs to all of Nepal's 75 districts from the current 11 where it works. "We want to scale up to 100 entrepreneurs and 1,000 sales agents by 2020," she said. "This way more rural communities will benefit and more women will be empowered," she said.
Reporting by Gopal Sharma @imgsharma, Editing by Nita Bhalla and Belinda Goldsmith.
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