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Lessons from a women's empowerment exchange between Northern Tanzania and Malawi

17th November 2021

by Robert Van Buskirk, Kachione, LLC

This is the second piece of a series of blogs by the Kachione team who are pioneering Solar Home Systems inclusive of cooking. Kachione LLC is a clean cooking provider in Malawi which has received grant funding from the MECS Challenge fund. In this blog, Robert Van Buskirk shares lessons learnt in terms of advancing empowerment and clean cooking solutions from a recent South-South exchange between Malawian farmers and Maasai pastoralists from Northern Tanzania.

What can we learn when we bring together women and men from Malawi and Northern Tanzania to share experiences on clean cooking solutions and empowerment?

Just this October, such a South-South exchange was organized between Kachione, LLC, a clean cooking provider in Malawi, and The International Collaborative (The Collaborative) which provides improved cook stoves and solar systems for rural Maasai pastoralists of Northern Tanzania.

This exchange was funded as part of an Efficiency for Access (EforA) grant focused on gender inclusivity that is administered collaboratively between EforA and MECS.

Despite substantial differences between Malawi farmers and Maasai pastoralists, many of the day-to-day challenges that women and men face are similar: How to increase income and enhance the household economy? How to assure a decent education for the children – especially girls? How to share, cooperate and support one another in ways that can enhance the lives and livelihoods of all people in the community?

Both Tanzanian (TZ) Maasai women and Malawian (MW) women farmers benefit from being part of self-governed community-centered women’s groups that provide mutual support between members. Both TZ and MW women’s groups often have a strong focus on economic activities that are closely tied their community’s agro-pastoral activities. Both groups share resources and profits among group members, and provide focused assistance to members with particularly urgent needs. And both groups of women are ready and eager to be installers, assemblers and marketers of cleaner energy alternatives and are open to new economic activities that benefit both themselves and their communities.

Approach towards women’s empowerment

Figure 2: A woman technician helps install a solar electric cooker system in Lundu village in Malawi (image credit: Robert Van Buskirk, Kachione LLC, 2021).

A key question with women’s empowerment and clean cooking is whether organizing should focus on clean cooking only, or as part of a multi-pronged strategy that covers a variety of needs in addition to cooking?

Both Kachione, LLC and The Collaborative find it necessary and desirable to integrate clean-cooking-activities into a more holistic approach of supporting grassroots democratic women’s groups more generally. Clean cooking empowerment efforts explore how engaging women in clean cooking can contribute towards a larger mission that can address multiple areas of need. Clean cooking then becomes one technology that generates a portion of the benefits that address a wider range of needs.

In addition, there is the issue of how empowerment activities build individual versus collective assets and how an empowerment organization supports asset-building and wealth accumulation. In this regard, the differences and similarities between Kachione LLC and The Collaborative are both substantial and informative as described below.

Increasing women’s access and control over productive resources in Malawi

Kachione LLC focuses on empowering women’s groups by increasing their access and control over the physical, productive solar assets. Kachione LLC also works with already-established women’s groups.  The physical assets are then used by women’s groups to generate income and socio-economic benefits for group members.

Such physical assets might include: (A) solar cookers for sale or for use in a solar shop/restaurant, (B) solar pumps for irrigating collectively managed vegetable gardens (which generate both food and income for women’s group members), (C) a rented shop that the women use to generate solar product sales and earn commissions, and (D) a substantial inventory of solar panels and solar products to help facilitate sales and rapid delivery of solar systems.

Kachione engages local women’s groups in the selection of the right technologies for the community based on the specific local needs and the potential benefits which it can unlock.  Kachione then monitors the utilization of the selected technologies and the groups that generate the greatest benefits from the solar assets get increasing access to more solar assets and technology.

Increasing women’s voice by building skills and confidence in Tanzania

The Collaborative takes a much more intensive socio-cultural transformation approach to its women’s empowerment work. Traditional Maasai culture is highly patriarchal. Wealthier men in Maasai communities tend to have several wives, and young women and girls are often sold into marriage. When a husband dies or leaves his wife, women are often left without assets and the basic skills and experience needed to properly support themselves and their children on their own.

Figure 3: Women irrigate a vegetable plot near Lundu village with a solar pump (image credit: Robert Van Buskirk, Kachione LLC, 2021).

Thus, a key point of entry for The Collaborative’s women empowerment organizing is through “widows’ groups” which assist women to better take care of themselves and their families on their own by building skills, confidence and capital. Such groups engage in empowerment education, organize group savings funds, and organize collective income generating activities. The key mutual support activity is a lending circle where all members put in some amount of savings and the principal is lent to different members in turn. Meanwhile the most successful and lucrative economic activity for these groups at the moment is a cow-fattening business where women buy, fatten and sell cattle at a profit. The Collaborative runs and operates a cattle feedlot that is used by both women and men to improve the productivity of livestock rearing and increase incomes.

The Collaborative also supports and helps to grow the Moduli Women Pastoralists Association (MWPA) which markets and installs durable, highly energy-efficient improved wood stoves and creates and runs other local businesses. The improved cooking activity engages women from the communities economically as builders and installers, and also engages in cow fattening activities and other businesses such as corn grinding mills.

Key lessons from the exchange

So what lessons might we draw from this Tanzania/Malawi comparison of women’s empowerment efforts?

Figure 4: Installing a demonstration solar electric cooking system in a Maasai boma in Northern Tanzania (image credit: Robert Van Buskirk, Kachione LLC, 2021).

First and foremost: Success is rooted in concretely improving living standards, accumulating assets and increasing income for the women involved.

Second: Increasing shared assets and mutual support amongst women is key. Collective productive activity rooted in existing productive systems which increases productivity through acquiring additional productive assets greatly amplifies the benefits of empowerment efforts. For example a single shared solar water pump can efficiently shared by up to five households to benefit more than two dozen individuals.

Third: Human relationships and organizational capital are essential to the empowerment process. Economic management skills, confidence and collective cooperation contribute to the efficient functioning of women’s groups. This allows groups to manage shared assets and allows individual women to more effectively manage household resources.

And fourth: As a highly beneficial and long lasting asset, clean cooking systems can make a major contribution to women’s empowerment efforts and processes. 

Kachione LLC and The Collaborative will continue innovating to decrease the costs and increase the benefits of clean cooking solar systems in Malawi and Tanzania. As the benefits of such systems increase over time through increasing affordability, improved design, and increasing awareness and education, clean cooking technologies will make increasing contributions to both organizations’ grassroots women’s empowerment efforts in the years to come.


Featured image, top (Fig. 1): Workshop participants in Monduli, Tanzania being introduced to solar electric cookers (image credit: Robert Van Buskirk, Kachione LLC, 2021).

Opportunity: Women in Modern Energy Cooking (WMEC) initiative launched