Ruchi Sankrit
Programme Development and
Renewable Energy
SEWA Bharat
7/5, First floor, South Patel Nagar
New Delhi, 110008, India
ruchi at sewabharat.org


Energy access plays a significant role in lives and livelihoods of informal economy women workers. SEWA Bharat is part of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) movement. Established in 1984, SEWA organisations consist of women working in the informal economy (street vendors, domestic workers, construction workers, agricultural labourers, home-based workers). The SEWA Savera programme, implemented by SEWA Bharat, has led to increased adoption of decentralised renewable energy systems among lower income households in rural and urban areas in two districts of Bihar, India. The focus area of intervention is to address challenges emerging from awareness, affordability, and reliability of energy access and the interventions have led to increases in income of women workers and reduction of household energy expenditure. Women’s roles as endusers, service providers, entrepreneurs and leaders have been leveraged in the intervention. Innovative methods of ‘door step’ financing, service delivery and technology has been incorporated. The process, model and ecosystem created over the years through the intervention is a step towards the creation of energy enterprise of women workers.


Informal economy; Women workers; Access to finance; Empowerment; Solar home systems

Energy access and livelihood: Women home-based workers

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the informal workforce in India in 2000 was an estimated 370 million workers, nearly 93% of the total workforce. It is estimated that 95% of female workforce in India is in the informal economy. Work in this sector is associated with low incomes, exploitation, poor living standards and acute vulnerabilities. Home- based work is a major source of employment for informal economy women workers in India. As per statistical briefs developed by Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising (WIEGO) and HomeNet South Asia (HNSA), women constitute 43% of the estimated 38 million home-based work in the country. Home-based workers are either self-employed, producing goods on their own or with the help of an unpaid family member, and selling it in markets; or homeworkers who source work from a contractor or middleman and are paid on a piece-rate basis. Types of work undertaken by home-based workers are: value addition in garments including stitching or embellishment; assembling parts of electronic goods; food processing; and manufacturing incense sticks or handrolled cigarettes. Home-based workers are among the most vulnerable of all informal economy workers. Given that they do not work in public spaces, home-based workers’ work and contribution remain invisible and unrecognised.

There are therefore no specific laws and policies protecting them against exploitation. Energy access plays a key role in sustainable development, poverty alleviation and climate change. It is well acknowledged that access to clean and reliable energy, particularly renewable energy, has a positive impact on the environment, children’s education, quality of life, income and health amongst others. An impact report of a SolarAid intervention found that rural African families were saving around US$ 70 per year from solar energy access using this saved money on better food, education and farming. Furthermore, households have been reducing 300 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions each year. While access to energy is instrumental in ensuring a decent standard of living, it is twice as important for home-based workers, because their home is also their workplace and energy services are a productive asset. Since the earnings of most home-based workers are on a piece rate, increased output is crucial. Erratic electricity supply and load-shedding affects production levels, sometimes leading to the cancellation of work orders.

In a study conducted by HNSA in lower income households of Kathmandu, Nepal, home-based workers reported that load shedding has been hampering their work for an average of 3.75 hours per day. Almost half – 49%– of the home-based workers surveyed, reported the use of alternative energy (candles, kerosene light and power back-up/ emergency light) for their work. Access to assets, tools and equipment based on modern fuels can augment output and productivity of workers.

A study by the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in Ahmedabad city, India, stated that the productivity of garment workers almost tripled when a foot-pedal was replaced with a machine. This concept applies to other occupation related productive assets such as electric grinders, looms, beauty parlor equipment, and potter wheels. Since home-based workers combine their work with domestic duties, time is an important resource. However, fuel gathering and collection (wood, kerosene and gas cylinders) takes time away from income generating activities of homebased workers. According to a study in rural Rajasthan, an average household spends 50 hours per month in fuel-wood collection and transportation. Health too is a productive asset for informal economy workers. Health issues, due to hazardous fuel, can lead to reduced working hours and increased expenditure on medication. According to the World Health Organisation, indoor air pollution is responsible for more than 1.5 million deaths in India per year.

SEWA Savera programme: Energy intervention by SEWA Bharat in Bihar, India

Bihar is one of the poorest and least developed states in India. Under the Human Development Index, Bihar ranks as number 21 out of the 23 states in India. While 84% of villages are electrified in India, the figure for Bihar is dismal, at only 40%. Even for the households that are electrified, power supply is erratic and often limited to three or four hours a day. According to a survey undertaken on Household Consumer expenditure in India by the National Sample 60th Round, expenditure on fuel and lighting amounts to approximately 25% of the overall monthly non-food household expenditure and 11% of total household expenditure in both urban and rural areas of Bihar.

The beginning

In 2010, SEWA Bharat initiated an energy intervention programme in the Munger district of Bihar. The intervention was carried out with a group of 13 women workers, organised into a self-help group by SEWA Bharat. These women were home-based workers who supplemented household income by making leaf plates, a process that was meticulous and timeconsuming. Every day at dawn, this group of women would set out to the nearby forest to collect leaves and wood, returning by noon. The latter part of the day was used to process the raw materials. It was in late evening when these workers would begin making the leaf-plates by joining several pieces of dried leaves. The village had no electricity and the entire work process was carried out under the dim light of kerosene lamps, which restricted productivity and caused strain to the women’s eyes. For every 100 plates sold to the contractor, these workers received US$ 0.39 (Rs 25). The needs of these women seemed simple. They required bright lights to produce more leaf-plates and higher rates from contractors during peak season. SEWA Bharat intervened by providing solar home light systems to the self-help group members on deferred credit and given that the cost of the product was high to bear at one time, a mechanism was created to break the cost into monthly installments.

The operational model

Since its inception, SEWA Bharat has provided energy services to over 6000 people in two districts of Bihar. The products offered cater to the domestic and livelihood needs of women workers. There are five different models of lighting systems currently being provided: — A four light system for slightly larger houses consisting of 3.6 LEDs — A two light system with 3.6 LEDs for medium sized shops, dairy farms, poultry farms, cow-sheds — A two light system specifically for smaller households — A two light system with a fan for households and small shops — A one light system for very small shops and vendors The home light systems consist of a battery, panel, control unit and mobile charger and the key process in provision of energy service includes creating awareness about renewable energy and decentralised energy systems.


Limited awareness and incorrect perception hinders the adoption and usage of renewable energy systems among lower income households. Many poor quality solar products are available in the local market at cheaper rates and some users have had bad experiences with these products and therefore are skeptical to use new models. The awareness generation is focused on creating a ‘positive experience’ among women workers to view renewable energy products as an investment instead of an expenditure. SEWA Bharat has strong community networks and institutions in the form of groups, cooperatives and producer companies. Awareness generation is conducted by SEWA Sathis (community leaders) who have been part of the SEWA movement for years. End-users trust Sewa Sathis as they are part of the community and reside in the same location. The houses of the SEWA Sathis are first used for demonstration of lights in villages which enables the neighbourhood community to assess the lights better and clarify their queries. This helps end-users to evaluate and choose a durable product from several options. Regular training programmes are held with SEWA Sathis to build their capacity to create awareness and market the renewable energy products.

Access to finance

For potential end-users, affordability is the biggest challenge. A product is often considered expensive and unaffordable because of the upfront cost. SEWA Bharat addresses this by mobilising subsidy from government schemes and facilitating financing from nationalised banks and SEWA Bharat’s created institution to buy products on loan. Mobilisation of subsidies for households is undertaken through dialogues and advocacy with government departments and donors. SEWA Bharat is currently linking members to the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM), a flagship programme of the Indian government.

Since banks are reluctant to lend to poor fearing bad debts, SEWA Bharat undertakes two tasks. Firstly, it encourages banks to lend to lower income households by creating awareness among bankers through trainings, programmes and meetings and secondly, SEWA Bharat ensures full repayment of the loan by creating necessary checks and balances. Credit is provided to end-users who already have benchmark savings in either of SEWA Bharat’s micro-finance models i.e the self-help groups and the thrift and credit cooperative. End-users can choose a loan scheme as per their repayment capacity and cash flow. The loan tenure can go up to 48 months. Every month, SEWA Sathis collect the installment at the door step of the end-user and deposits the money, known as ‘door step’ financing. Monthly tracking of repayments is done through monitoring and information systems and fines are collected in case of default. SEWA Bharat has facilitated loans worth US$ 143 000 (Rs 85 lakh) for 1200 households and has ensured 95% recovery of these loans. Additionally, it has mobolised government subsidy amounting to US$ 44 000 (Rs 27 lakh) for women workers. The current default rate is 5% with the average loan amount to each individual at US$ 100 (Rs 6000).

While at the beginning of the programme, the loan tenure was for 48 months, there has been shift towards smaller loan tenures due to two factors. Firstly, initially women workers wanted to elongate the loan period as a safeguard against product quality. Women workers believed that the organisation would swiftly respond to product faults if they were outstanding on their loan. However, with increased usage and experience of quality service from SEWA Bharat, women workers’ scepticism of the durability of goods has been addressed and they willingly choose loan schemes which are of a shorter period of time. Secondly, SEWA Bharat has also incentivised early loan repayments through small discounts.

Increase in longevity of the energy systems through after-sales and servicing

There is a strong focus placed on increasing the longevity of the decentralised energy systems. The SEWA Savera programme has a technical wing which looks after installations, trainings, and after-sales services of the lights. Fixed servicing of lights is conducted every six months and after -sales service is provided for three years. Local technicians are trained in installation, servicing and complaint resolution. At the time of installation, women workers are advised on lights placement for optimum effect. Upkeep and maintenance of lights are the primary responsibility of women workers. Usually, women members fear damaging the lights due to incorrect usage or handling. Therefore beginners and refresher technical trainings are conducted with them to acquaint them with the ‘Do’s and Dont’s’ of the products.

Impacts of the SEWA Savera programme on the economic empowerment and increased convenience of home-based workers

The use of energy products has offered new work opportunities and livelihood security to women workers.


The light system has led to an increase in productive hours, particularly for workers who run small shops; stitch garments; weave clothes; and make bamboo baskets, incense sticks and leaf plates. It is estimated that a home- based worker making leaf plates is able to earn an additional US$ 125 in income annually. Since the supply of electricity from generator operators was erratic, the presence of a lighting device has provided these women with the confidence to take more orders, produce quality products and manage their time.

Self-employed workers

The programme has provided scope for women workers to expand and strengthen their business activities. Bhagvatiben is treasurer of the Sarojini self-help group. She earns her living by running a small shop in the village Bhavikura. In 2012, Bhagvatiben installed a solar light in her house as well as the shop.

“ there are 60-70 households in my village and they all come to my shop to buy goods. Because the village is away from the nearest town, my shop is a hub for people to buy daily items. I use the solar light to do the calculation as well as weigh the goods before they are sold to the customer. Now everything is done in bright light and customers are able to see the weighing process and are convinced about what I am selling. Further, during late evenings, customers are able to ascertain that my shop is opened by seeing the bright light from far.” Bhagvatiben, Sarojini self-help group Treasurer

Service providers

While workers have benefitted from lighting devices, the SEWA Savera programme has built capacity of women workers to market, sell, and provide technical services to the end-user. SEWA Sathis are assigned a cluster of villages, around their place of habitation, to link women workers to the programme. Once a women worker buys the product, the SEWA Sathi is responsible for collecting their repayment amount. For both the tasks, SEWA Sathis are provided incentives. SEWA Sathis have begun resolving minor technical problems of lights such as fuse changes. The Sathis must ensure that women members are satisfied with the product and that their concerns are addressed quickly. Gudiyaben is a SEWA Sathi responsible for a cluster in Bariyarpur block. She has limited literacy skill but commendable marketing and finance skills. She credits this to her responsibilities as a treasurer in her self- help group. In a span of one year, Gudiyaben has facilitated the installation of over 200 solar home systems in the area.


SEWA Bharat is also helping women workers initiate their own microenterprises. This is being done by assessing specific energy needs, matching these with appropriate technology and products, and financing and building skills of the entrepreneur to run the enterprise. Chediyaben lives in a remote corner of a village called Tetariya, in Munger district. It is an off-grid village, close to the forest, and has 150 households. Inhabitants of this village travel between five to six kilometers and pay US$ 2 every month to get their mobile charged. Chediyaben learnt about mobile charging stations during one of the awareness generation sessions. An idea struck her to provide mobile charging services in her village. She took a loan of US$ 80 (Rs 5000) from her self-help group to buy a solar mobile charging station and is now earning US$ 17 (Rs 1000) every month.

"One of the key things I explain to women during marketing is that while they have to pay endless rent to the generator operator, with the SEWA Savera programme they can have ownership over the light system at the same cost.” Gudiyaben, SEWA Sathi responsible for a cluster in Bariyarpur block

Business Associates

Business Associates are community leaders who market light systems as per their time convenience and willingness. These associates supplement the work of SEWA Sathis but are not responsible for repayment collections. Bobbyben is a Business Associate in the SEWA Savera programme. She supplements her household income by making incense sticks. As a Business Associate, Bobbyben’s main task is to undertake marketing of energy systems and sell the product in and around the area she lives in. Through this activity, Bobbyben is able to earn an additional US$ 10 in income every month.

The programme’s impact on households

Solar home light systems have replaced kerosene lamps as a source of lighting in one room houses. As per anecdotal evidence, there has been a reduction in household expenditure on fuels by at least 80% in small houses. In slightly bigger houses, solar home light systems have reduced monthly expenditure on fuel by 30%. Households also have the option to charge mobile phones from the light system. This has proved instrumental in reducing the cost of mobile charging by US$ 1.50 ( Rs 90) per month, in remote areas, where people had to travel between four to five kilometers every other day to get their cell phones charged. Earlier in the programme, most of the women end-users used kerosene lamps during cooking which would get extinguished from any slight movement. The comfort gained from using a stable and bright light while performing domestic chores is profusely highlighted by women workers. Women also point out that residue from kerosene wick would often blacken the walls, making the house appear more darkened. In some cases, more lamps had to be used to offset the darkened room. However, with solar lights this problem has been resolved. Study hours of children have been extended due to solar lights and children emphasise a peculiar benefit of solar home light systems – that bending close to kerosene wick for brightness would often burn their hair. This is no longer an issue with the solar home light system. Household members also cite that the kerosene lamps would often cause fires in thatched houses, a danger now overcome with home light systems.

Women’s empowerment

Women associated with this programme recognise their contribution to the reduction of household expenditure and to the increase in household income. Many of the lights have been bought by women workers and are being used in income generating activities by other earning members. Lakshmiben from the village Raithatha has bought a solar home light system which is used by her son to run a tuition centre. Due to the bright light, the teaching hours in the centre have been extended. Lakshmiben’s son is able to earn US$ 100 (Rs 6000) every month and has increased his income by US$ 25 (Rs 1500) since the installation of the lights. Access to credit and the acquisition of an asset in a women’s name is an empowering process.

At the onset of the programme, the ownership of the lights was held by the self-help groups who lent the lights to other women for usage. However, these end-users expressed the wish to convert the rentals into instalments so that they could own the product after full-repayments. They recognised that the lights had multiplier effects in their household and it was a device they wished to have control over. It is noteworthy that credit provided to women workers for procuring light systems is approved after their credit and repayment history is assessed. While their accumulated savings is a precondition for institutions, like banks, to lend, it is also collateral used by women workers to highlight their credit worthiness in order to procure other renewable energy products. For instance, some of the women workers have expressed the desire to obtain other renewable energy products such as a fan, water pump and television.


The interlinkages between energy access and the livelihoods of informal economy women workers is emerging as a critical attribute in interventions and policy discourse by governments, NGOs and donors. There is a need to build the understanding of the linkages between the economy, culture, social milieu and networks in which poor women live and operate. As highlighted in this article, there are multiple ways in which lack of energy access affects women as compared to men, as women are not only primary caregivers in the household but also workers who use their home as a workplace.

The SEWA Savera programme addresses such life-cycle needs of women workers through renewable energy. Women workers are at the forefront of the SEWA Savera programme. The cost required to buy energy products is borne by women workers and local women workers from the community are involved in creating awareness, financial linkages, and loan repayments. Energy products are provided in the name of the woman and the ownership of energy products ensures upkeep and proper maintenance of systems, ensuring greater accountability on usage and payments.

The model is effective in its execution due to adoption of practices like ‘door step’ financing, ‘door step’ service and ‘door step’ products. These are significant because distance, time, energy and cost are major barriers among informal economy workers to reach out and adopt new products and services. This model can be replicated by any organisation which has a strong community presence and network and advocates for a favourable policy environment which allows women institutions (self-help groups, associations, cooperatives, banks and unions) to directly access government schemes and incentives, saving bureaucratic delays. Through the creation of an adequate ecosystem, organisations like SEWA Bharat can bridge the gap between the technology provider and end-user.


Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising, 2015. Informal Economy- Home-based workers. Available from: http://wiego. org
UNDP, 2015. Bihar: Economic and Human Development Indicators. Available from: http://ww.in.undp.org
Practical Action, 2014. Poor People’s Energy Outlook 2014 Practical Action: Rugby.
World Health Organisation, 2015. Indoor Air Pollution: National burden of disease to indoor air pollution. Available from: http://www.who.int/

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