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Energy poverty is a disease and a trap, especially for rural women. Though there are some favorable developments and trends, the prognosis for eradicating rural energy poverty is poor, yet the techniques to eliminate this ailment are well established and clear.

As a disease, indoor air pollution and its consequences occur in poorly ventilated conditions every time a rural woman cooks with wood, badly made charcoal, and other “traditional” fuels.

As a trap, energy poverty keeps rural women doing chores manually and gathering fuel on most days. This excludes women from paid work, small business opportunities, community participation, and well-deserved rest.

Systemic problems abound for rural women living in energy poverty. They have less access to financial services and capital to start an energy production or use enterprise. Women suffer from an insufficient agency, low confidence, too little disposable income, poor education, and training.

Modern energy access, eradication of energy waste, and energy poverty have been established as one of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (#7). Within that goal access to clean cooking and electricity have been identified as separate yet linked components, with loud evidence that the “problem is rural” and concentrated in our poorest countries. Equally important are the separate but linked goals of Health (SDG #3) and Gender Equity (#5).

Global organizations and umbrella programs (SE4All, Clean Cooking Alliance, IRENA, ESMAP, and FAO) have emerged as the leading advocates for the cause. Electrification has received the lion’s share of attention, however. Groundbreaking policies, advocacy, and coordination have built the higher-level architecture for regional and local recognition and most importantly, linkages to last-mile activities and organization capacity.

In the last three decades numerous “energy through enterprise” businesses have followed the example of entrepreneurs like Suraj Wahab Ologburo and Ernest Kwasi Kyei. More recently, scale-oriented, multi-market firms such as BURN Inc. illustrate the ramping up products and techniques that can place cleaner cooking in the hands of women while also creating paid-work and small enterprise opportunities. LPG initiatives, usually concentrated in cities, are starting to spread, with smaller container sizes, various payment, and financing schemes. These initiatives bode well for longer-term fuel switching in rural areas.

According to the 2019 SDG Status Report, three billion people are presently subjected to primitive cooking conditions, and the rate of improvement (0.5% yearly) will not keep up with the relevant population growth. And what this says for the energy poverty disease and trap that ensnares perhaps 600 million rural women face is especially telling.

According to an Innovation Law of Squares, where accomplishing two innovations is considered twice as hard and risky as attempting one, leading to the realization that attempting three innovations might be four times as hard or risky as attempting two. Energy poverty eradication may be a case that defies this advice. It may be possible – in fact experience and practice tends more toward “probable” than possible – to innovate in Health (reduce illnesses), innovate in Energy (bring modern sustainable energy supplies and uses to un-served rural populations), and level the playing field in Gender (creating jobs, enterprises, and representation).

The key difference maker in such a solution: empowering the underutilized 1/2 of humans through a multi-tactic energy-health-gender strategy built on the four pillars of enterprise development, capacity building, system reform, and impact building.

To implement such a Health–Energy–Gender strategy two bold (or not so bold, when considered) steps are required:

  • We need to knit together a high-level, global goal-setting, advocacy, and reporting, with groundbreaking regional policymaking and national action, with gender-focused energy enterprise development on the ground.
  • We need to engage women at every level of policy, planning, implementation, enterprise building, product use, and income generation.

Consider product “value chain” and “just in time” business management techniques and apply analogous methods to accelerating the implementation of SDG 7 (Sustainable Energy for All). Improved cooking (fuels and appliances) are affordable to all but the poorest of the poor, and the climate benefits (avoided CO2) readily support some if not all the costs of these improvements. In a world growing comfortable with talking about trillions of dollars for energy system upgrades, this piece of the puzzle is remarkably small and financially sound.

Or, imagine using delivery techniques analogous to vaccine and immunization delivery to eradicate the disease of energy poverty and eliminate its symptoms of lung ailments in rural women.

The truth is: we know what to do, and some are already doing parts of it well. We just don’t see it “whole” and connect the high-level part with the last-mile part very successfully.

There’s no magic to building a Policy to Practice Value Chain that knits together the too often separate parts of the solution to life-crushing rural energy poverty. We just need to do it. We can get cellphones into most households with supply chain management and clever financing. Why not clean cooking? We can undertake massive immunization programs to eradicate diseases. Energy poverty is a disease. Treat it as such.


This article is part of our 60th-anniversary series. It is written by Philip LaRocco. Philip has over thirty years of experience at the intersection of the public and private sectors, leveraging public purposes and private sector initiative, blending financial, economic, social, and environmental returns. In 1994, Philip founded the social investment firm E+Co (see Wikipedia entry), which operated until 2012, investing in energy enterprises in more than twenty developing countries. E+ Co’s tag line (created by Mike Allen, its first executive director) was “Energy Through Enterprise”. LaRocco retired as E+Co’s CEO in 2009, lives in Syracuse NY, and teaches energy, enterprise, and sustainable development at Columbia University. He is now committed to making training, education and capacity building materials readily available to energy entrepreneurs, and other sector professionals. Some of his work includes creating a step-by-step guide titled Money Management for Energy Enterprises, preparing a Toolkit for Energy Entrepreneurs for UNEP and the UN Foundation, authoring an on-line training and coaching program for energy entrepreneurs, and together with Maria Salinas, authoring a UNFCCC technology transfer financing guidebook titled Guidebook on Preparing and Presenting Proposals.  Philip would like to thank his colleague Jennye Greene for her input in creating this article and her insights on gender mainstreaming in energy projects. For more information about the author, visit or email Philip at

Copyright on photo: “Woman Cooking” by D-Stanley is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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