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How Entrepreneurs Are Distributing Clean Energy Worldwide

Climate resilience, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, is “the ability to prepare for, recover from, and adapt to” the impacts of climate change. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) places energy at the heart of solutions to the climate challenge, and to achieving climate resilience.

Energy accounts for more than two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions, which heightens the urgency of making sure everyone on the planet has access to clean energy. This imperative is especially daunting for the poorest countries globally, which contribute the least to climate change, are hardest hit by its impacts, and where 3.5 billion people already lack access to reliable electricity services and more than 2.5 billion have no access to clean cooking fuels.

Clearly, energy factors affecting climate resilience intersect directly with poverty factors, especially in the world’s least affluent and rural areas. Social entrepreneurship offers sustainable, on-the-ground solutions for boosting climate resilience, especially for those living in poverty.

Energy accounts for more than two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions, which heightens the urgency of making sure everyone on the planet has access to clean energy.

Energy and Poverty Are Tightly Intertwined

Overall, the impacts of climate change are expected to push 132 million people into poverty within the next decade, and inadequate access to energy and clean cooking fuels plays an outsized role in driving the cycle of poverty.

Without affordable, reliable access to clean energy, people end up relying on coal, kerosene, and wood for heating and cooking. In addition to the cost and time required to gather and use these fuel sources, burning them only adds to the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere.

On the other hand, access to reliable energy creates greater opportunities for those in rural and off-grid communities to engage in productive activities such as building businesses, creating economic livelihoods, and educating their children.

Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship has spent the past couple of decades accelerating more than 1,300 social enterprises across the globe, including more than 200 that are providing a range of affordable, reliable, sustainable clean energy solutions.

By providing solutions such as solar lights, clean cookstoves, village-level mini-grids, solar water pumps, and biodigesters, these Miller Center-accelerated social enterprises have collectively enabled more than 40 million people to:

  • Cook their food without breathing noxious fumes or generating greenhouse gas emissions
  • Work and study at night, to improve their potential to earn money either currently or in the future
  • Avoid the need to spend excessive amounts of time or money to purchase and gather sub-par fuels
  • Reduce the use of environment-degrading fuels, and generate fewer greenhouse gases, at the household, community, farm, and village levels
  • Expand opportunities to earn a better living and escape or avoid poverty

Highlighting a Few Success Stories

To understand why some organizations choose to apply social entrepreneurship business models to address energy-related climate resilience issues, here are a few real-world stories from a few enterprises:

iluméxico: Providing solar-powered light to off-grid homes in Mexico

Two women and child ilumexico

iluméxico

“Our business goal is for every family in Mexico to have clean, affordable light,” said Ana Lucia Coll Guzmán, chief of staff for iluméxico. Addressing those who lack access to the electricity grid in Mexico, iluméxico provides solar services that provide rural electrification for families and small businesses.

Ilumexico in Chiapas

iluméxico in Chiapas

iluméxico began as two separate entities, an NGO and a traditional enterprise, but merged them into a social enterprise in 2012. The reason, Coll Guzmán explained, was “to keep our purpose as our north star and to make impact an important goal in our business plans and strategies — now framed in a business model that allows us to attract investors and talented team members to invest in our growth.”

So far, iluméxico has installed more than 26,000 solar services reaching more than 123,000 people, including 14 indigenous groups and more than 2,000 rural communities. These systems not only provide households with electricity and light, they also have cumulatively offset more than 31,400 tons of CO2—which is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from more than 6,700 gasoline-powered cars driven for one year.

Pollinate Group: Empowering women in India and Nepal to meet communities’ energy needs

Pollinate group of women

Pollinate Group

Pollinate Group works at the crux of gender, energy, and poverty, identifying and training local women entrepreneurs in India and Nepal to distribute household products such as solar lights and cooking appliances to families living on less than US$1.90 a day.

Pollinate demonstrationPollinate operates as a social enterprise because “anything given away free, as in an NGO model, is not valued and not sustainable,” said Sujatha Ramani, CEO of Pollinate Group. “At Pollinate Group, we ensure that the impact we create is long-term and resounding — and that we can become a self-reliant organization with reduced dependence on philanthropy. Like many other skill-development organizations, we undertake entrepreneurship training for marginalized women. But we take it a step further by providing ‘zero interest’ clean energy inventory to help the women ‘practice’ entrepreneurship, and the women are able to build micro-businesses by applying the skills they learn in our program.”

By training 1,300 women as entrepreneurs, Pollinate has reached 753,000 people in India and Nepal, saving them US$23 million by purchasing solar lights, cookstoves, solar fans, and other clean-fuel products while preventing 1.3 million tons of CO2 emissions, equivalent to the CO2e emissions of nearly 150 million gallons of gasoline.

Gham Power: Changing lives through solar power

Gham Power community

Gham Power

Gham Power provides income-generating opportunities to rural communities and smallholding farmers in Nepal, while displacing expensive and polluting fossil-fuel systems. Gham Power’s products include affordable solar pumps that help low-income farmers meet their water needs; microgrids serving rural Nepalese who lack access to the national electricity grid; and commercial and industrial solutions that help factories and industries cut daytime energy use and sell surplus energy to Nepal Electricity Authority.

“Structuring Gham Power as a social enterprise allowed us to shift our primary focus from maximizing revenue at all costs to maximizing impact,” said Anjal Niraula, CEO of Gham Power. “In our early years we reinvested all our profits into experimenting with different business models, technology, partnerships, and strategy — which helped us understand the market much better so we could design for scale and maximize the impact of our inventions. All along, we knew that if we were able to deliver what we intended, the revenue would follow.”

Since its founding in 2010, Gham Power has installed 4.3 MW of energy capacity through more than 5,000 completed projects. Their efforts have impacted more than 25,000 lives and curbed more than 50,000 tons of C02 emissions, or the emissions equivalent of 660 tanker trucks’ worth of gasoline.

Sistema.bio: Converting agricultural waste to productive energy

Sistema Bio Founder

Sistema.bio

Sistema.bio makes and sells prefabricated modular biodigesters that take organic waste from farms and transform it into renewable biogas and a powerful organic fertilizer. Originating in Mexico, Sistema.bio has expanded its operations to Nicaragua, Colombia, Kenya, and India, and through partnerships they distribute their biodigesters to 30 other countries.

Sistema Bio Demonstration“Sistema.bio goes beyond the concept of simply selling biodigester products,” said Xunaxi Cruz, global communications director for Sistema.bio. “We deliver a holistic and proven solution that delivers waste treatment, clean energy, and organic fertilizer, resulting in improved health, environmental, and economic outcomes for farmers and better climate resilience for humanity. The key to our business model lies in capacity building and case-specific financing models.” Unlike a profit-first or a philanthropic approach, social entrepreneurship is ideally suited to supporting Sistema.bio’s goals.

Over the past decade, Sistema.bio has installed more than 30,000 biodigesters globally, providing more than 181,000 people with clean, renewable energy and organic fertilizer. The biodigesters have treated more than 17 million tons of agricultural waste; produced more than 72 million cubic meters per year of biogas; fertilized more than 330,000 hectares per year with biofertilizer; and mitigated nearly 350,000 tons of C02, equivalent to the emissions generated by nearly 70,000 U.S. homes’ electricity use for one year.

Energizing Future Climate Resilience Solutions Through Social Entrepreneurship

By balancing impact and revenue goals to allow both to thrive, social entrepreneurship offers an important approach to addressing the major global issues of climate resilience and poverty at scale. As noted in the Miller Center paper on Creating Climate Resilience Through Social Entrepreneurship: “Local institutions and organizations, driven or fueled by social entrepreneurship, are better positioned [than government policy, international aid, or conventional economic development] to enable climate resilience because each is embedded in a particular community and its social and economic structures.” In the end, it’s up to all of us to help energize future energy solutions that not only protect our planet, but also help lift those living in poverty. Find out more about how social enterprises are improving the climate resilience of the world’s most vulnerable populations at the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship website. And contact me (bhelms at scu.edu) directly if you’re an investor interested in having a more meaningful impact in addressing the climate crisis for people living in poverty.

Brigit Helms is Executive Director, Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, the premier university-based social enterprise accelerator dedicated to eliminating poverty. For 30 years, Helms has created and delivered solutions to social and environmental challenges in 45 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America, in both the private and public sectors.

This article was produced in collaboration with the Magazine's Content Partners.

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