Why a sweet treat is a harbinger of a brighter future for women in Haiti.
Ice cream flavors on offer at Madam Brisnet’s corner shop in Môle-St-Nicolas include carrot, beet, and spaghetti – a best seller. The recipe for her hot-ticket item is a smooth blended combination of cooked spaghetti noodles, condensed milk, sugar, vanilla, and most important, a reliable flow of electricity, essential for transforming the warm, thick liquid into its delectable and infinitely more desirable frozen state.
The advent of affordable and consistent power in Môle – the remote fishing village perched along the coast of Haiti’s Northwest peninsula where Sigora launched its first smart microgrid pilot – has led to a wave of entrepreneurship in the small town. Brisnet is among the ever-growing cohort of female micro-entrepreneurs who are empowering themselves with (electrical) power.
A year ago, if the 90-degree heat had you hankering for a frozen treat, you would have been hard-pressed to find a merchant able to satisfy your craving. While ice cream has long been a popular indulgence in Haiti, without electricity, vendors in Môle had to rely on solar-powered freezers, which, according to Brisnet, didn’t reliably reach freezing temperatures. Rather than a freezer full of the popular snack, Brisnet was more often than not left with a sloppy, gooey mess that did little to satisfy her would-be customers.
Today, however, Sigora’s grid delivers reliable 24/7 power and the town boasts nearly a dozen new specialty ice cream vendors.
Sigora introduced prepaid electricity to Môle in December of 2015, and since then nearly a thousand homes and businesses have signed on. Customers purchase prepaid electricity from a network of local vendors, in much the same way that pay-as-you-go phone credit is sold in the United States. The value of such a system is that it allows smaller customers to purchase electricity that is in-line with their consumption patterns. Many of Sigora’s customers draw only 200W of power; by comparison, the average hair-dryer draws around 1500W. The advantage of Sigora’s model is that even the smallest consumers can benefit from the opportunities unleashed by access to modern electricity.
In addition to launching new micro-ventures, women in Môle are making use of the opportunities afforded by affordable energy to expand their existing operations. Cold sodas are no longer a rarity, ice is easy to find, and thumping beats beckon passersby into tin-shack discotheques. If the prospect of an ice cold Prestige Lager doesn’t draw you in, the dominant thinking seems to be that an impressive array disco lights surely will. The brighter the better. If the crowds that gather on a Saturday night are any indication, these women know how to satisfy their target market.
But to what extent does access to electricity really change things for women in rural communities like Môle, geographically isolated, not connected to mains electricity, in a country with persistently high unemployment (around %40)? Can a couple a couple of ice cream shops and drink kiosks fundamentally impact a woman’s livelihood in the long term?
The short answer is yes.
An initial look at the available data from large-scale studies conducted in other countries reveals a striking gap in income for women with and without energy access.
For example, research conducted in Brazil – a country that saw a 2.8 percent annual growth in energy access between 1990 and 2010 – shows that the income of self-employed rural women with access to energy is over twice that of their counterparts without access to energy. In urban settings the gaps are even more pronounced, ranging from 148 percent to 322 percent higher incomes for those with electricity.
Other studies back the Brazil findings. During the mass rollout of electrification in South Africa, rural electrification raised female employment in electrified communities by 9.5 percent. Researchers attributed this impressive increase to the fact that access to modern electricity released women from home production and enabled the creation of microenterprise. Precisely what is happening in Môle-St-Nicolas.
As in many parts of the developing world, women in Haiti are often disproportionately responsible for household duties. Access to modern electricity allows for more efficient products, from electric cook stoves, to refrigerators, to washing machines. Such products can reduce the time and effort burdens of domestic responsibilities, freeing time for women to engage in productive activities outside of the home.
The chain of causation observed in Môle is backed by empirical studies that have examined the impact of electrification on female labor rates in developing country settings.
Across the world, the data shows that the greater the proportion of a country’s population that has access to electricity, the greater its gender equality. And in Haiti, a country that ranks 163rd out of 188 countries on the UN’s Gender Inequality Index – a measure of gender inequalities in three important aspects of human development – there is substantial room for improvement.
So whether or not Môle’s women micro-entrepreneurs are aware of it, they are playing an important role in laying the groundwork for a more equal society, one scoop of spaghetti flavored ice cream at time.
As Sigora prepares to expand its microgrid network to reach 135,000 people in Haiti’s Northwest, Brisnet is busy plotting how she can overtake her new competitors.
“I was the first” she says, referring to her position a year ago as Môle’s first ice cream seller with an electric freezer. Today the marketplace is undeniably more crowded. But according to one patron, that hardly matters, because Madam Bristnet’s ice treats “are still the best.”