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Ukraine to Rwanda: Integrating Renewable Energy with Gender Equity

November 27, 2023

Challenges in areas ranging from education to the environment, gender to governance, health to housing don’t exist in a vacuum. Each month, Abt experts from two disciplines explore ideas for tackling these challenges in our monthly podcast, The Intersect. Sign up for monthly e-mail notifications here. Catch up with previous episodes here.

In Ukraine, Russia’s invasion has destroyed infrastructure and threatens the economy. In sub-Saharan Africa, the climate crisis is stressing already-fragile health systems. In this podcast, Joan Chahenza and Nadiia Zaritska discuss how the establishment and maintenance of resilient energy systems—be they distributed or part of the grid—can incorporate GEDSI principles while serving vulnerable populations.

Read the Transcript

Eric Tischler: Hi and welcome to The Intersect; I'm Eric Tischler. Abt Global tackles complex challenges around the world, ranging from improving health and education to assessing the impact of environmental changes. For any given problem, we bring multiple perspectives to the table. We thought it would be enlightening—and maybe even fun—to pair up colleagues from different disciplines, so they can share their ideas and perhaps spark new thinking about how we solve these challenges.

Today, I'm joined by two of those colleagues, Joan Chahenza and Nadiia Zaritska. Joan has more than a decade of private and public sector experience in on-grid and off-grid renewable energy. She is Abt's Project Director on USAID's Health Electrification and Telecommunication Alliance, or HETA. Nadiia supervises Abt UK's delivery of FCDO Good Governance Fund initiatives, supporting domestic reform agendas to promote transparent and accountable institutions, and build open, inclusive economies and societies, as she's currently doing in Ukraine. Welcome!

Joan Chahenza: Thank you for having us.

Nadiia Zaritska: Thank you, Eric. It's a pleasure to be here with you. Hi, Joan.

Joan Chahenza: Hello, Nadiia.

Eric: Our health depends on our environment and our health systems, among other things, depend on energy. For too long, our dependence on energy has wreaked havoc on our environment. As countries belatedly look to rectify that imbalance by turning to resilient, sustainable energy systems, what other gains can we make? Nadiia, I'm going to start with you, as you're just resuming your work in Ukraine. You want to tell us about that?

Nadiia: Yeah. Thank you, Eric. Our Abt Ukraine team has been working on this program since 2020. And we started in the period of the strictest lockdown in Ukraine during COVID. And from the beginning of this program, we have been closely working with the Ministry of Energy of Ukraine, and we have been supporting the minister's work of the energy strategy in Ukraine. And, unfortunately, this work was interrupted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 but our team was able to continue this work later and as a result, the energy strategy of Ukraine was approved by the government in spring 2023.

So we consider it one of our biggest achievements working in this field, but also the main focus for the development of this energy sector has been placed on renewable energy sources right now. And this initiative aims to simultaneously achieve climate neutrality goals, but also consider the positions of women in the energy sector.

So addressing gender inequality in response to climate change is being recognized in Ukraine and it is an effective mechanism for enhancing climate resilience and reducing emissions, but also by actively involving women in the energy sector and promoting gender equality and decision making process, providing equal opportunities for women in the industry. It just becomes possible to leverage this old diverse perspectives, talents, and also different experiences.

So our goal is to create more inclusive and sustainable energy policies, programs, and projects which potentially could be run by the government, but also by different donor-funded projects. And additionally empowering women in the energy sector contributes to economic growth, social development, and overall wellbeing of communities while helping to mitigate climate change impacts.

Eric: Thank you. Joan. I know HETA has broadly similar goals. Do you want to talk about what you've been working on?

Joan: Absolutely. So HETA is the Health Electrification and Telecommunication Alliance implemented by Abt Global in conjunction with our core partners Resolve, Orange and, the social enterprise of Bechtel with the great goal of expanding energy access and digital connectivity for health facilities across sub-Saharan Africa. We have a mandate of reaching 10,000 healthcare facilities in sub-Saharan Africa and reaching them includes electrifying and digitally connecting these health facilities.

Our mission is to catalyze public-private partnerships and sustainable business models that increase access to renewable energy and internet connectivity that boosts health system resiliency and leads to improved health outcomes. We want to achieve this objective through utilizing private sector leverage, combining private sector resources and expertise and capabilities to be able to support our health systems' priorities. And we are really looking at doing this to be able to deliver sustainable business models that adapt energy as a service where the health system pays for electricity delivered rather than equipment installed.

In the past, we have seen most health facilities being electrified through traditional procurement models where donors would buy equipment and install them on roofs and without a clear sustainability plan. So you find most of these installations after year two, year five, are not working and there's no remedial measures to make sure that they're working.

So as HETA, we are looking at deploying different business models that ensure sustainability and some of these successful business models have the potential to generate revenue through productive uses to ensure that the health facility has got some revenue stream that can be utilized for routine maintenance and to make sure that the systems are working. HETA is currently deploying in DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, and looking to start up in Kenya, Guinea, Uganda, and Malawi.

Eric: Great, thank you. I know you've got a gender equality disability and social inclusion mandate. You want to share that with us?

Joan: So, a little bit about GESI, our gender and social inclusion goals. As HETA, we have several goals as a program, the very first goal is to ensure equitable access to improved health services by women, girls, and historically excluded populations. The second goal is expanding the participation of women, girls, and other historically excluded populations in the energy and telecommunication space through capacity strengthening and facilitation of employment opportunities. The third goal is supporting energy and telecommunication service providers to adopt policies that promote workforce equity.

As you know, the energy space is dominated by a male workforce and we're trying to see how to be able to change that by being able to have inclusive policies that look at gender and also bringing up and having women's empowerment policies.

So some of the concrete actions and specific steps that we've begun taking and that we plan to take in the countries where we'll deploy is up-skilling the workforce, up-skilling women to build operation and maintenance capacity. We have tailored programs in Sierra Leone and DRC that have specific work streams that are looking at working with grassroots women's groups that are working in the space of operation and maintenance and really working with these groups to be able to hone their skills for them to participate in this value chain.

Eric: Thank you. And maybe before we turn it back to Nadiia, if you could just give us a sense of the scale of what you're trying to solve for in terms of energy poverty, health facility electrification, and the number of people who could be benefiting from energy and its byproducts, which include reliable health systems and economic opportunities.

Joan: We have over 600 million households in sub-Saharan Africa that lack access to clean, affordable, and reliable power. And we do know that, of course, net-zero will only be possible if we look at eliminating energy poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and providing a sustainable pathway to electrification of households in sub-Saharan Africa.

There is a great promise for decentralized renewable energy systems to be able to support this ambition because they provide electrification pathways for rural households. The World Bank estimates that 490 million will be served at least cost by 210,000 mini grids, mostly solar hybrids requiring maybe close to an investment of 220 billion by year 2030. And bringing it closer to the health electrification space, it is estimated that close to 100,000 health facilities in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity, and globally 1 billion people are served by health facilities that are not connected to the grid or are connected to unreliable sources of electricity.

Nadiia, from your perspective, is this something that you're seeing within Ukraine?

Nadiia: Yeah, thank you, Joan. Unfortunately, Ukraine also experienced energy infrastructure destruction last year and right now Ukraine, before the winter, also is in that position that we expect very heavy Russian attacks, which can destroy energy infrastructure that was just renovated after last year.

And from the GESI perspective, I can say that destruction of the energy infrastructure significantly worsened the situation with the combination of work and family responsibilities. For example, due to the blackouts Ukraine experienced last year, a significant role in their organization of children's educational process was assigned to parents and this made them feel an additional burden due to the need to redistribute professional family duties, and it's important to know that here the children and at-home education mostly falls on women who are parents, but also caregivers.

Also the risk of power outages encourages seasonal migration of women with children, which has various negative consequences from economic to demographic. Here also, the problems of their lack of the data about women and population which immigrating that made it difficult for the government to develop a proper policy in this case.

So under our work with the Ministry of Energy, currently we're working on the roadmap for the energy strategy of Ukraine. So we are trying to take into account the results of previously conducted analysis, but also develop a separate section with a list of initiatives aimed at addressing these problems and also attracting more women in the energy sector, but also increasing their level of awareness and some professional development. I would be very interested, Joan, to hear about the regulatory framework you are working in. And I know you mostly working in the private sector, so that would be very, very interesting topic to hear about.

Joan: Absolutely. Nadiia, before we go to the regulatory framework, you've talked a little bit about energy poverty and how it affects women in Ukraine, and maybe we can talk about that just to tee off from the conversation that you've just had. You had really amazing points looking at the displaced populations and how that would affect women. So if you are okay with that angle, maybe we can go there.

Nadiia: Yeah, absolutely.

Joan: Great. So, in the sub-Saharan Africa context, a lot that you've said really mirrors what we are seeing on the ground in the various countries that we work in. Several of the countries that we operate in are, of course, fragile and conflict states, but nevertheless, we see women and girls, especially in rural and peri-urban areas, are mainly responsible for procuring and using cooking fuels. And I think here the landscape is a bit different because with lack of electricity, lack of electricity is just one. There's also clean cooking, another energy poverty element that needs to be discussed widely.

So, women ideally tend to carry the burden of energy poverty, and this burden comes with resulting negative impacts and effects, such as devoting less time to income-earning or -generating ventures, or even educational activities. Women, of course, bear the brunt of energy poverty and statistics actually show that women and children are really impacted by indoor pollution. And indoor pollution in most cases actually leads to death.

So, when you look at that sort of comparator between the space in Ukraine and the regional focus here, I think there are many things that we can draw because I think the energy poverty effect on women really cuts across.

Nadiia: It's something Ukraine is also facing. And we've been working with our partners to provide the Ministry of Energy with some relevant recommendations on that. And, first of all, we recommended to promote the implementation of some motivational measures for entrepreneurs in the field of renewable energy sources, with the aim of developing some socially responsible businesses. So, basically the supply of electricity for consumers through some direct purchase and sale contracts will provide an opportunity to obtain some cheap electricity for different marginalized groups. So, for the conclusions of such contracts and relevant enterprises, they may be granted tax benefits.

So, it's something that potentially could be done by the government, but also at the same time it will stimulate the economy and develop entrepreneurship and maybe even reduce expenditures on social protection. So, we are looking at that from this strategic point of view and actually supporting small and medium enterprises in Ukraine is, right now, one of the goals of the government. So it's one of the goals of economic development. It's actually one more interesting topic our team has been working on.

So, Joan, I also wanted to ask you if we started talking already about women being employed in energy sector, so it's kind of bringing us to the female leadership, the topic I also wanted to raise today. So if you can share your perspective on that.

Joan: Yeah, absolutely. As I alluded earlier, there was a report that was launched by IFC in partnership with the government of Canada that was looking at women participation in the renewable energy sector in Africa. And they commissioned a workforce study to assess their opportunities and challenges women face in working for private renewable energy providers in sub-Saharan Africa.

And the study found that women comprise about a quarter of the leadership roles and about a third of the workforce, but they were really largely concentrated in corporate support functions. So I guess the conversation here needs to really be embedded towards supporting women at earlier stages, to be able to strategically take on STEM courses.

So, these are science technology courses so that they are able to hone their skills earlier on, to be able to participate within the technical side of the renewable energy space and not necessarily just being able to support maybe corporate support functions. We need more women engineers, we need more women technicians who are actually doing the engineering work. And I think there are several ways that governments can support these measures and those ways would ideally be enhancing the STEM courses and putting in place measures that promote women's participation in these courses. And I think with a raft of measures, then we'll be able to close on this gap that currently exists within the energy space. Is this the same thing that you're seeing in Ukraine, Nadiia?

Nadiia: Yeah. Yeah, Joan. It's definitely a trend in Ukraine and that's also a part of the recommendations we provided to the government. So we really would like women to be more involved in the energy field to avoid a shortage of professional personnel. And to solve this task, need to implement short-term measures—for example, the introduction of gender-sensitive approaches to some hiring practices—but also some long-term measures, including more active women in specialized engineering specialties and STEM educational in general. But it's both increasing the pipeline of women talent through, I think, targeted educational measures across primary, secondary, and higher education. So it'll definitely increase the number of women in STEM education academia.

But I also think that it's really, really important to conduct a gender analysis of budget programs being developed by the government and also develop some methodologies to take into account social and economic factors in the process of infrastructure planning in some cities. When Ukraine will go through the active process of recovery, which has already started, so when rebuilding or creating new towns, the presence of diversified workplaces and developed social infrastructure should be taken into account. And this will have a very positive impact on reducing gender pay gaps and attracting new professionals, males and females, but also when developing an appropriate methodology, the analytical approach of gender-based analysis should be taken into account.

Joan: Nadiia, in your earlier comments you'd began talking about regulatory measures that are applicable in the national government level program that you're undertaking. Do you want to hone in a little bit on that?

Nadiia: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, Joan. So under our work with the government, our project delivery team, they've been developing different recommendations. And some of them I've already mentioned, also the gender analysis of users of energy services should be conducted. And it's a very important question right now because it will give a better understanding of the market according to the gender aspects and will ensure a stable and also predictable provision of energy services.

So it definitely will help to understand the presence of some limitations in the use of resources, but also increase the energy efficiency of consumption. So, in this case, it's very important to conduct not only gender analysis, but also take into account social inclusion and consider specific marginalized groups, which is really difficult right now when Ukraine also in the process of a big migration and so many people relocated from the beginning of the invasion.

So a lot of Ukrainians left Ukraine, but they are coming back right now. Also, a lot of people from war-affected areas they relocated within Ukraine. So I think it's also one of the very important tasks for the government to conduct a proper census to understand the structure of the current population in Ukraine, to be able to provide Ukraine with a balance with a better policymaking.

Is it the case for your region, Joan?

Joan: Yeah, so several similarities there. Obviously from a sub-Saharan Africa perspective, regulations in most cases exist to protect private sector investments. And, in most cases, investments only occur as a result of a stable predictive renewable energy sector where you've got predictive rules and regulations, a predictive economy. And in most cases you find markets that are thriving when it comes to clear, stable, regulatory frameworks are the ones that tend to have a very robust private sector market.

So these private-sector regulations would be able to support and unlock distributed renewable energy resources because, as HETA, we predominantly work with distributed renewable energy solutions. So that is solar PV, standalone solar PV, and mini-grids. And the markets where we have potentially been able to bring in a lot of private sector investments are markets that have got very clear mini-grid regulations, very clear solar-owned system regulations that then can anchor private sector investments.

In addition, fiscal incentives such as tax breaks, waivers on value-added tax on solar equipment, and investment deduction allowance on solar products are some of the other incentive mechanisms that are embedded within regulatory frameworks that are supportive of private sector investments.

One more thing, we've not discussed just the intersectionality between energy and health. And from a sub-Saharan Africa perspective, what we're trying to do as HETA is to be able to create economic and digital hubs co-located next to these health facilities, utilizing excess power from the health facility to be able to drive productive uses that facilitate social economic transformation of households that are located next to the health facility.

And we are utilizing similar models such as this to be able to up-skill the communities around the health facility and ensure that we are also creating opportunities to provide them with water, so wash water sanitation, and also improve agricultural activities through provision of power. And of course there's the intersectionality between energy and health and being able to enhance the resiliency of health facilities that have relied on diesel generators as backup for a long time.

So is there any similarity there between the work that we are doing as HETA and what you're seeing in Ukraine?

Nadiia: Yeah, absolutely Joan. And in the context of the current war, which is going on in Ukraine right now, we are experiencing a real decrease of economy in Ukraine and it's a significant increase of the poverty. Also representatives of marginalized groups, so these groups are really increasing. We do have a lot of people who relocated within their own country, so it's internally displaced persons and most of them it's older people, women and children also. It's a big and very important group to talk about. It's people with disabilities. Unfortunately because of the ongoing war, it's a lot of casualties, the group of the veterans will be increasing. To look at that from the perspective of the energy field, we need to also to think and to have this discussion with businesses, but also with the government about being able to provide consumers from marginalized groups with the cheaper electricity because it's one of the main sources which is being consumed in Ukraine.

Eric: Nadiia, are you seeing those same challenges that Joan was mentioning earlier in terms of just desperately needing reliable health services that aren't available to a lack of reliable energy? I mean, given the wounded population that obviously Ukraine is trying to support. I'm wondering if you're seeing that same kind of challenge?

Nadiia: Yeah, absolutely. This is absolutely relevant for Ukraine. And health facilities, they are being overwhelmed right now, and that was specifically challenging during last winter because of the heavy Russian attacks and also electricity outages caused by that. So healthcare facilities, they needed to find some alternative sources of the energy to deal with the situation.

Also, if you go online, you will find a lot of photos from women who are delivering newborn babies and they're just being hidden in the shelters during the Russian attacks of being there without electricity. And we really hope that this winter will be much easier for Ukraine. So, for now, we do not have such difficult electricity outages how it was last year. But the winter is just beginning, so we don't know how it will go this year.

Eric: Well, it's fascinating: Abt believes in local solutions and obviously the two of you are pursuing very different solutions in terms of who you're partnering with and how we're addressing energy concerns. But it's also great to see that in these various contexts, we're still finding opportunities to promote equity even as we promote renewable and reliable energy.

So, thank you both for your work and for joining me today.

Nadiia: Thank you, Eric. Thank you, Joan. That was a pleasure to talk to you both.

Joan: Thank you.

Eric: And thank you for joining us at The Intersect.

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