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Energy Research & Social Science
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/erss
Original research article
Solar powered electricity access: Implications for women’s empowerment in
, Kirsten Ulsrud
, Anjali Saini
Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo, Norway
Department for Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo, Norway
Seacrester Consulting, Nairobi, Kenya
This paper examines the gendered implications of various types of electricity access in rural Kenya spanning
from the central grid to solar-based systems such as community projects, village scale supply and private solar
home systems (SHS).
Drawing on material collected in Homa Bay and Kitui counties in 2016, the paper examines the gendered set-
up, organisation and eﬀects of solarpowered electricity access as compared with the central grid. The paper
employs a framework for analysing women’s empowerment through electriﬁcation, which draws on Kabeer,
Friedman as well as anthropology, socio-technical system theory and practice theory.
The results show that people tend to cherish solar-based solutions whereas the grid is perceived to be costly,
unreliable and unavailable. As to the gendered organisation of supply, men dominate within the grid, mini-grids
and private suppliers, leaving an important potential for women’s empowerment untapped. Two community
projects included women’s‘hands-on’participation and spurred local discourses about women’s capabilities.
Access is also gendered on the user side. Because men tend to own the houses, have a higher income and a
moral right to make major decisions, ﬁxed connections and high subscription fees provide women with less
agency than what is the case in decentralised systems of supply.
“Electricity [from the grid] is unreliable even when there is sun-
Woman with a connection to the national grid as well as a solar
God-Bura village, Homa Bay, Kenya, October 2016
Promoted by the private sector in particular, solar powered elec-
tricity services are rapidly growing in rural Kenya. At the same time,
driven by the Kenya Vision 2030 and two key political projects (see
below), the government is expanding the national grid, and has recently
started to look into providing oﬀ-grid solutions. Internationally, the
emphasis on universal access to electricity has never been more pro-
nounced, as reﬂected in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). One
of the targets for Goal 7 on energy
is the “proportion of population
with access to electricity”[1, p. 23]. Following the “Global Tracking
Framework”(GTF) as identiﬁed by the Sustainable Energy for All in-
itiative (SEforAll), electricity access is not a binary entity. Rather, a
multi-tier framework is used, acknowledging various levels of access,
spanning from tier 0 (no access) to tier 1 (provision of some light for
up to tier 5 which implies continuous supply and the use
of power-demanding appliances and machines. The framework also
aims to take aﬀordability and reliability into account; hence, it is not
evident that grid connections provide a level of access corresponding to
tier 5. However, we diverge from the GTF in that we consider electricity
access to be people’sactual subscription to and use of electricity’s ser-
vices rather than their (hypothetical) possibility to do so.
Received 3 August 2017; Received in revised form 23 March 2018; Accepted 8 April 2018
E-mail address: email@example.com (T. Winther).
SDG Seven: “Ensure access to aﬀordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”.
More speciﬁcally, tier 1 includes supply/capacity of 3 W, 20 Wh or 1000 lm h per day. Also, duration of supply should be minimum 4 h during daytime and minimum 1 h in the
evening [37, p. 175].
In the GTF, access to energy is deﬁned not as actual subscriptions but as the “ability of an end-user to utilise an energy supply that can be used for desired energy services”when issues
such as aﬀordability and geographical location are accounted for [38, p. vii]. Because “ability”to utilise electricity is diﬃcult to establish in practice, this deﬁnition remains theoretical
and is therefore not purposeful in the present work.
Energy Research & Social Science 44 (2018) 61–74
2214-6296/ © 2018 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/BY-NC-ND/4.0/).
The aim of this paper is to examine the gendered set-up, organisa-
tion and eﬀects of solar-powered electricity access as compared with
the grid. We are particularly concerned with understanding how var-
ious types of access may contribute to women’s empowerment (see
below). In a context such as rural Kenya where various solutions are
being promoted, it is important to examine the gendered aspects of
various types of electricity access and how and to what extent elec-
tricity reaches and beneﬁts various groups. We draw on qualitative
material collected in rural areas in Homa Bay and Kitui counties in
2016. The systems of provision span from the national grid to solar-
based decentralised systems (community projects/village scale supply)
to private solar home systems (SHS) and solar lanterns oﬀered in the
We assume that two types of “forces”contribute to shaping social
practices and thereby people’s actual access to electricity. First, there
are systems of provision that are developed and promoted, making
electricity available. Second, there are various types of end-users, si-
tuated in a particular socio-cultural context, who may or may not desire
to obtain access for a range of reasons. Both end-users and systems of
provision are socially constituted [2–4]. A large part of the literature on
gender and electriﬁcation centres on end-use in terms of electricity’s
impact on women, men and children’s welfare (for a review, see ).
However, as pointed out [6,7,5], relatively few studies have looked at
the gendered organisation and set-up of supply and the implications
thereof. Among the exceptions, Ahlborg  conceptualises (power)
relations of class and gender suﬀusing small-scale electricity systems.
Standal et al.  address the gender dimensions in energy politics and
Jenkins et al. , addressing energy transitions more broadly, call for
a need to focus on energy justice so as to avoid entrenching gender bias
and other forms of inequality. There are empirical examples showing
that women’s involvement in supply has had wider, positive impacts on
gender norms in local communities , . In comparison, gender-
neutral processes have resulted in men rather than women becoming
involved in systems of provision [13,14]. In the present discussion, we
scrutinise how various types of electricity access are being constructed
and gendered, and the implications of this for women’s empowerment.
We regard women’s empowerment as the process towards gender
equality. Elsewhere  we developed a framework for analysing wo-
men’s empowerment in the realm of electricity, in which we build on
Naila Kabeer’s work on empowerment (1999, 2001) and more general
In this paper, we draw on this framework (Table 1),
which identiﬁes three generic empowerment dimensions: i) rights,
norms and social position, ii) access to resources and iii) inﬂuence over
decisions (agency). In the rural Kenyan contexts in question, women and
men tend to have unequal access to such privileges, and we seek to
understand whether electricity access in any way inﬂuenced the si-
tuation by providing empowerment for women. The framework also
invites attention to negative events as a result of the intervention,
conditional factors and women and men’s degree of involvement and
agency in the realm of the intervention, both on the supply side and in
their role as subscribers and end-users. Of note in the present discussion
is that women’s inclusion in supply is regarded both as a possible
conditional factor for women’s general empowerment (measured
through the three generic dimensions) and as a separate criterion for
measuring empowerment through an intervention. The latter follows
from the presumption that women, too, have a right to participate.
As indicated in Table 1 (highlighted ﬁelds), the present discussion
primarily focuses on agency in terms of decision-making processes
surrounding access and subscriptions; the purposefulness, aﬀordability
and challenges associated with various types of access; and signs of
changes in gender norms and women’s general agency and social po-
sition as a result of various types of electricity interventions. Potential
long-term impacts on women’s empowerment from using electricity’s
services, e.g. through improved public services or exposure to alter-
native gender discourses through television, are not treated in the
present discussion. Rather, we speciﬁcally explore the relationship be-
tween gender and electricity access including decision-making re-
garding electricity’s uses. In the following, Section 2presents the po-
sition of solar power in Kenya and the policy and regulatory framework.
In Section 3we account for the methods used and provide an overview
of the systems of provision available in the two study areas. Section 4
provides a contextual description of the two selected case study areas,
Homa Bay and Kitui counties. In Section 5we present ﬁndings on the
gendered set-up of supply including the supplier-customer relationship
and the gendered processes of implementation. In Section 6we focus on
decision-making and access to electricity in people’s homes. In Section
7we discuss the results, and Section 8provides some concluding re-
marks and recommendations.
2. The position of solar power in Kenya
Kenya has a current population estimated at 46 million people, of
which approximately 70% are rural . Power generation is domi-
nated (87%) by hydro and geothermal power . Utility scale solar
power generation plays only a niche role, although there are several
pipeline projects under development . Household connection rates
average 32% across the country, but only 5% of rural households are
connected to the grid.
This varies in diﬀerent counties, with less than
3.3% household access in Tana River County in Kenya’s Eastern Pro-
vince , a county adjacent to Kitui County, included in the present
study. Research carried out by in Western Kenya found that even in
“seemingly ideal”conditions for rural electriﬁcation, that is, where
there is high rural population density with grid coverage, electriﬁcation
rates still remained dismally low, averaging 5% for rural households
and 22% for rural businesses . In addition, recent media reports
have claimed that connection numbers are inﬂated because a large
number of the meters (counted as connections) are non-vending.
Kenya has long been known for its private sector-driven oﬀ-grid
solar PV market  which has developed with the support of donors
. In recent years, diﬀusion of solar home systems (SHS) in rural
areas has escalated dramatically primarily due to the ability of in-
novative companies to oﬀer them on an incremental ﬁnance basis, with
daily payments to match a typical rural household’s expenditures on
kerosene and phone charging. These companies have packaged together
global technology innovations (LED lighting and Li-ion battery tech-
nology) and cost reductions in global solar PV prices; together with
remote, automatised control systems and mobile money platforms such
as M-PESA to develop plug-and-play systems ranging from 5 W to >
100 W, available oﬀ-the-shelf on credit from a nearby retail outlet.
Recently (2017), Kenya Power, with ﬁnancial assistance from the
Nordic Development Fund, has installed 300–400 small PV charging
systems in villages (distributed in eight diﬀerent counties), including
approximately 12.000 solar lanterns (expecting to reach 24.000 as the
There has also been technological, economic and
in solar mini- and micro-grids; however,
both the number of such supply systems and the uptake of connections
remains limited. This is partly linked to regulatory barriers that hinder
private sector investment (see below).
Policy and regulatory context
Gender equality is enshrined within the Constitution of Kenya. This
supreme law directs the state to take measures that include legislation,
aﬃrmative action programmes and policies, representation in
Parliament, and implementation of the principle that not more than
Socio-technical system theory and social practice theory.
HH electricity access at 32% across the country; with 51% urban and 5% of rural
households connected to the grid 
See for example Wafula , Okoth , Omondi .
Communicated by Mr. Henry Gichungi, an engineer participating in the programme.
Metering; remote control systems; mobile money payments.
T. Winther et al. Energy Research & Social Science 44 (2018) 61–74
two-thirds of elective or appointive bodies may be comprised of
members of the same gender . As to energy governance, the Con-
stitution establishes two tiers of government at the national and county
levels. The national level is mandated with energy policy, whereas
county governments are responsible for county level energy planning,
development, reticulation and regulation . The Constitution does
not speciﬁcally mention energy access as a right, but as lawyer and
university lecturer Muigua argues, this is implicit in the spirit of the
Constitution by linking energy access to both sustainable development
and human rights.
With new draft energy policy and legislation awaiting parliamen-
tary assent, the country still operates under the policy framework
provided by the Sessional Paper No. 4 of 2004 and the Energy Act of
2006. The Energy Act of 2006 is the key legislation for amending and
consolidating any law relating to energy. It provides the regulatory
framework for both renewable and non-renewable energy sources. It
also establishes the institutional arrangements for the electricity sub-
sector, including the establishment of the Rural Electriﬁcation
Authority (REA), which became operational in 2007, and whose man-
date is to accelerate the pace of rural electriﬁcation in the country .
In practice, the REA is responsible for expanding access and im-
plementing rural electriﬁcation projects through both grid extension and
oﬀ-grid supply (e.g. installation of solar PV systems in public institutions).
Completed projects are handed over to Kenya Power
to operate and
maintain under a service level agreement with the REA: whilst the assets
remain the property of REA, Kenya Power covers operation and main-
tenance through the collection of electricity retail tariﬀs.
The private sector is acknowledged within the policy, regulatory
and institutional set-up, but this primarily emphasises independent
power producers (IPPs), supplying electricity to the national grid, in-
cluding renewable energy, for which there is a feed-in-tariﬀframework.
Further, whilst there are provisions in the current policy and regulatory
framework that support private sector mini-grids, there are still im-
portant barriers, for instance around the prioritisation of grid
extensions over oﬀ-grid solutions. Another barrier is the uniform tariﬀ
and single utility model that discourages private investment in mini-
grids due to the high capital costs of the infrastructure and the inability
to charge tariﬀs for power that enable cost recovery over a reasonable
period . The sale and distribution of Solar PV systems at a consumer
level are supported through favourable value added tax (VAT), customs
and excise duty incentives, which are intended to reduce the cost of
such systems for the consumer.
Much of the push towards rural electriﬁcation has been driven by
Kenya’s Vision 2030, Kenya’s long-term development plan, and two key
political projects, the Last Mile Connectivity Project (LMCP) and Digital
Literacy Project (DLP), formerly known as the Laptops for Schools
Project. The objective of the LMCP is to provide 70% of households in
Kenya with electricity by 2017 and universal access by 2020, which
translates into more than one million new connections required every
year. The DLP started oﬀas the Laptops for Schools Project but has
since extended its mandate to include the integration of ICT into
teaching and learning in primary schools. In relation to the adopted
approach in this paper, it is interesting to note that one of these two
governmental projects is electricity supply driven while the other is for
activities intended to spur rural demand for electricity consumption.
Kenyan electricity policies are mainly attuned towards providing
electricity access, making services aﬀordable to the poor and enhancing
the availability and reliability of electricity supply . Gender issues
are not systematically addressed.
However, though their im-
plementation might be slow  Kenya Power has developed a gender
mainstreaming plan (2010–15) and other gender strategies [29:27–8].
In 2012 an independent NGO called ENERGIA-Kenya Network was es-
tablished with Practical Action as the secretariat with the purpose of
inﬂuencing gender mainstreaming in energy planning and delivery [30:
18]. The present, independent study acknowledges these attempts to
address gender in electricity and seeks to contribute to further under-
standing how gender may come into play –and be addressed –when
diﬀerent types of electricity access are provided in rural areas.
A framework for analysing women’s empowerment through electricity access (retrieved from
Winther et al. [5, p. 395], highlighting ﬁelds to be treated in the present discussion).
Kenya Power owns and operates most of the electricity transmission and distribution
system in the country and sells electricity to over 6.2 million customers. The Kenyan
Government controls 50.1% of the shares and private investors have 49.9% .
See for example the current strategic plan (2016/17–2020/21) of Kenya Power ,
which gives no mention of gender issues in terms of women’s and men’s inclusion in
provision or diﬀerent needs.
T. Winther et al. Energy Research & Social Science 44 (2018) 61–74
The material was collected in Kitui and Homa Bay counties, where
diﬀerent types of supply have been implemented and where we could
compare both the organisation and eﬀects of the diﬀerent types of
supply. In Kitui our team had previously been involved in setting up an
Energy Centre (Ikisaya village) as part of an action-research project,
where both women and men were included in management and op-
eration . In Homa Bay County we knew that there was a micro-grid
project (Kiwa Island) as well as a community project targeting women
(God Liech and Olando Villages).
We came across a number of diﬀerent technologies and delivery
models during the ﬁeld research, both in areas where the grid is present
and where it is not. These ranged from solar home systems and solar
lanterns sold either through retail sales or diﬀerent forms of consumer
ﬁnancing (including mobile enabled pay-as-you-go), small solar char-
ging stations oﬀering lantern rentals, and solar mini-grids oﬀering
household and commercial connections. Tables 2 and 3 list the selected
villages and the types of supply that are available in the areas. We
cluster these systems according to their ownership models: Grid (na-
tionally owned), Community projects (owned by villages/communities)
and Private systems.
By community project we refer to organised
supply of electricity services on the village level, and not technology
purchased in the open market or private sector operated mini-grids
which are denoted as Private systems. In addition, it is notable that the
private systems often have distributors present in the region as well.
The ﬁeldwork was conducted from 3 to 15 October 2016.
we conducted 81 in-depth interviews and seven focus group discus-
sions. We sometimes managed to retrieve written documentation (e.g.
lists of electricity customers and schoolchildren’s enrolment and exam
In addition, we visited some households in the evening to
observe the use of electricity.
The research team consisted of ﬁve researchers including the au-
thors (three women and two men, three of whom reside in Kenya and
two in Norway). Kikamba is spoken in Kitui and Dholuo is spoken in
Homa Bay, and we were assisted by ﬁve translators (three women and
two men). In addition, a woman assistant helped plan the meetings.
Most of the interviews were audio recorded and transcribed by assis-
tants, and we also took ﬁeld notes. Standard ethical procedures were
followed (research permit, informed consent, anonymity
In each village, the selection of respondents was partly based on the
type of functions we wanted to include: i) key people: village leaders,
women’s group leaders and/or village elders; ii) electricity suppliers
and agents, iii) staﬀat clinics and schools, iv) businesses and v)
householders (see below). In Kitui County, the staﬀat the Ikisaya
Energy Centre helped plan these meetings. We were less familiar with
Homa Bay, and to help plan the ﬁeldwork and obtain local contacts we
conducted a scoping visit in advance. When selecting householders, we
used the following criteria: obtain a spread of people with and without
access to electricity, people at diﬀerent wealth levels including the very
poor, include businesses, and obtain spread in geography and clan be-
longing. Most interviews were scheduled in advance, except in Kalungu,
where we recruited participants directly during a day visit.
Most householders were interviewed in their homes, preferably
alone, which was often but not always the case. People running small
shops and restaurants were interviewed in this kind of location.
to the topic of research (women’s empowerment) we included slightly
more women than men. We initially intended the focus group discus-
sions to be same-sex gatherings, but this was not always the case as
groups were mixed, but with a majority of either women or men. The
Selected villages for study, Homa Bay County (Gwassi Location).
Community projects Private systems, village scale Private, other systems
God-Bura Village 634 Yes 2009 Ca 20 No Rental and sale of solar lanterns
(ca 30 customers) SHS, solar lanterns (ca 150 customers)
Kiwa Island 397 No N/A No 3 Micro-grids
(ca 100 customers) SHS, solar lanterns (ca 60 SHS customers)
God Liech Village 451 Yes Ca 30 SHS Solar Mamas No SHS, solar lanterns (ca 120 customers incl.
Ligongo Village 303 Yes 0 No No SHS
In the text to follow, we number the interviewees according to their location and gender, see Appendix B.
Number of grid connections. In Ligongo there is a grid, but no connections.
OSRAM Energy Hub.
Two installed by Powergen and one by Renewable World/Renewable Energy Auxiliary Project (REAP).
Selected villages for study, Kitui County (Malalani and Endau Locations).
House-holds in village Grid No of grid conn. Community projects Private systems, village scale Private, other systems
Endau Village 693
Yes 2015 30–40 Solar lantern renting No SHS, solar lanterns
Ikisaya Village 384 Yes 2016 5 Energy Centre (33 lantern renting members) No SHS, solar lanterns
Kalungu Village 98 No N/A No No SHS
The number represents the whole Endau sub-location (larger than Endau village). (Kit-E-1M).
Due to the rapid diﬀusion of solar technology, the distinction between “electriﬁed”
and non-electriﬁed villages makes limited sense when presenting the material. This dis-
tinction has otherwise been the main principle for classiﬁcation in statistical studies that
measure electricity’s social impact . With the spread of decentralised solutions and the
shift towards a multi-tier framework for deﬁning access, such studies will have to apply a
more nuanced classiﬁcation.
The sites in Homa Bay are located about 250 km west of Nairobi. The team travelled
by airplane from Nairobi to Kisumu, and by car from Kisumu to Gwassi (approximately
2 h). The sites in Kitui County are located ca 270 km east of Nairobi (ca 6 h by car),
passing through the county centre, Kitui Town, located ca 90 km from the ﬁeld sites.
One group of respondents we did not manage to cover as well as expected are
management and staﬀinvolved in grid systems. This is mainly because they do not tend to
be present in the villages where we spent most of our time. Also, as we discuss below, in
Eastern Kenya (Kitui) the whole grid initiative seemed to be in limbo. The Rural
Electricity Authority (REA) has supplied the main grid in many places, but people are still
awaiting Kenya Power to appear in the area and start charging them for electricity.
To hide the identities of intervewees quoted in the text, we have changed their
People often combine economic endeavours (informal sector) with doing household
chores hence in practice the separation between households and shop keepers is not strict.
T. Winther et al. Energy Research & Social Science 44 (2018) 61–74
purpose of these events was to raise some key issues for discussion and
get a sense of local discourses on electricity and gendered challenges,
experiences and expectations in an eﬃcient way. They were often held
under a tree in the market area, attracting other people as listeners.
We had developed an interview tool for each type of interview. They all
covered questions about the (gendered) organisation of electricity and dis-
tribution of beneﬁts, and also brought up issues speciﬁcally related to the
person’s function and type of experiences. The interviews were semi-struc-
tured and allowed for follow-up questions and people’sownelaborations.
To grasp people’s experiences and opinions on the household level, we
followed a similar strategy in that we started by posing the same in-
troductory questions to all (except when collecting life stories, see below),
including household composition, income, types and use of energy sources,
decision-making and division of responsibilities, gendered subscription to
electricity services and gendered distribution of beneﬁts. Then we employed
eitheroneoutofthreediﬀerent sub-sets of questions: one focusing on de-
tails about energy and fuel use and costs as well as time use; a second asking
relatively openly about people’s daily practices, including the daily rhythm
of various household members and the technology and tools they use for
handling various tasks (following social practice theory). A third sub-set of
questions concerned gender norms in particular and people’sperceptionsof
the distribution of electricity’simpactsbetweenvarioussocialgroupsinthe
village. This division into sub-questions turned out to be useful for obtaining
a broad picture of the general situation on energy and gender as well as
more individual and experience-near accounts.
In addition, we collected
life stories, and here we selected older women and men to understand the
current situation in a historical perspective.
To systematise the data, we summarised the ﬁndings and coded the
material in NVivo according to central topics.
Overall, we consider the collected material in these case studies suited
for examining the gender dimension of electricity access in the two rural
Kenyan contexts. Other forthcoming studies might employ larger quanti-
tative data sets to examine selected dimensions/indicators embedded in
the framework. Ethnography and participant observation conducted over
time would allow for a richer or “thicker”description and thereby a deeper
understanding of the electricity-gender nexus in a given context.
4. Two rural case study areas
Two Kenyan counties were selected for this study: Kitui County is
located in Eastern Kenya (bordering Tana River County), and has an
extremely dry climate and high levels of poverty, particularly in Kitui
East. Homa Bay County is in the Western part of Kenya. Due to its lo-
cation by Lake Victoria (ﬁshing industry brings possibilities for income
beyond farming) the level of aﬄuence in Homa Bay is generally better
than in Kitui. This is reﬂected in a relatively high uptake of new tech-
nology, e.g., we heard stakeholders in the renewable sector in Kenya
refer to the areas by the shores of Lake Victoria as “solar hot spots”.
However, people in the studied (including interior) area in Homa Bay
(Gwassi, see below), also suﬀer from high levels of poverty. In both case
study areas, poor water supply and lack of other infrastructures force
people to spend considerable time on drudgery (e.g. collecting water
and fuelwood) and these tasks primarily fall on women. The national
grid has reached parts of the two areas
which have also seen the ar-
rival of various types of oﬀ-grid solutions for electricity supply. We
selected the two areas to be able to study diﬀerent types of access and
processes of implementation, which is important in the present dis-
cussion. For the purpose of analysing the gendered impacts of elec-
tricity use (to be treated elsewhere), we also found it important to look
at areas with diﬀerent levels of aﬄuence. Because the gendered, social
organisation is fairly similar in the two study areas, our comparative
aim in the present discussion primarily concerns the implications of
diﬀerent systems of provision rather than observing diﬀerences be-
tween geographical contexts. Nonetheless, a quick look at these con-
texts helps position the population under study.
In Kitui County, we selected Ikisaya, Kalungu and Endau villages.
The majority of the population belongs to the Kamba ethnic group and
there is a variety of clans. The land type is arid and semi-arid (ASAL),
and as a result the population density is sparse and settlements are
highly distributed. This area is highly vulnerable to climate change, and
the ASAL areas have among the highest incidences of poverty and
lowest level of access to basic services in Kenya. Subsistence farming,
charcoal production and livestock keeping are the main livelihoods in
the three study villages. There are frequent crop losses due to drought
which necessitates periodic government food relief programmes, and
persistent food scarcity and the economic losses both strongly and ne-
gatively aﬀect people’s lives. Tensions and conﬂicts also arise when
Oroma and Somali pastoralists (two Kenyan tribal groups) approach the
area to feed and water their camels and goats.
Endau is considered to be the most developed of the three villages. It
has approximately 20–30 shops and workshops (permanent structures),
a primary and secondary school, private health clinic, and a market in
its centre. It is located between the two other villages.
and Kalungu each have a primary school but no secondary school and
no health dispensaries. Water scarcity means that water is often ra-
tioned and must be paid for by users. Women may spend many hours
every day (2–3h,4–8 km) collecting water, using donkeys to help carry
the load, whether from a central village tap or from a watercourse such
as shallow wells dug in the riverbeds, rivers or a well. Transportation is
constrained by the poor infrastructure and disperse population which
means that public motorised transport is limited: two buses (one in each
direction) pass through Ikisaya every 24 h and no bus goes to Kalungu.
People must spend signiﬁcant amounts of time commuting, and pre-
dominantly this is by foot.
In Homa Bay County, despite the relative proximity of Lake
Victoria, water scarcity is prevalent (though not as pronounced as in
east Kitui), and lack of clean water is felt in the selected villages:
Ligongo; God-Bura; God Liech, Olando, and Kiwa, a small island in the
lake itself. All these villages are located in Gwassi, a constituency of
Homa Bay. The majority of the population are of the Luo ethnic group
although some are Suba. There is a strong clan structure, which plays an
important role in the settlement of conﬂicts and for raising funds within
the community, for example for schooling.
Livelihoods include subsistence farming, livestock and charcoal
production, but the lake and its ﬁshing industry dominate the main
economy. Because of this, it was important to also visit beach landing
sites associated with the villages, such as those at Nyandiwa and Rasira.
Men ﬁsh for Nile perch during the day and Omena at night using boats
that in some cases are owned by women. Nile perch is sold either to
commercial agents or to women, who also buy and dry the Omena and
sell it on to traders, or trade in it themselves. Because of the migrant
nature of ﬁshing, men (and it is only men who ﬁsh) move between areas
and take temporary accommodation at beach landings. According to
several of our respondents, there is a high level of trade in sex as well as
assault associated with the ﬁshing industry, and a high prevalence of
HIV in the region.
When we arrived at such gatherings, chairs had been set up for the researchers. In
mixed group settings, the men also tended to sit on chairs while the women sat on the
ground. Due to the public nature of these meetings, people did not share private matters
on such occasions.
Our comprehensive framework covers a whole range of issues which are diﬃcult to
include in one single interview, and we knew from experience that people tend to become
tired after about one hour and normally have many other things to attend to. This paper
treats selected parts of the collected material, while other aspects (e.g. details on energy
and time use) will be published elsewhere.
The national grid reached parts of the study area in central parts of Kitui County in
2015 and parts of the study area in Homa Bay County in 2009.
Coming from Kitui Town (the centre of the County, ca 90 km from Endau), one has
to travel through Endau to reach Ikisaya in the direction to the north (9 km) and Kalungu
eastwards (7 km).
T. Winther et al. Energy Research & Social Science 44 (2018) 61–74
The population in Gwassi is denser than in east Kitui, but less dense
than in other parts of Homa Bay County. Settlements are dispersed and
people must walk long distances to get to markets. On the mainland,
women spend 1–3 h each day walking either to the lake or to a village
water point to collect water, using donkeys to help carry the load. Of
the villages visited, God-Bura has both a primary and secondary school
as well as a public dispensary. Kiwa Island has a primary school and
dispensary whereas Ligongo has only a primary school and not even a
market place: it is a much smaller and poorer village than the others
5. Providing access
5.1. The systems of supply: aﬀordability, reliability and supplier-customer
As a simpliﬁcation, our material includes three main types of sys-
tems for providing electricity access though there are variations in the
conditions of subscription, duration of use and reliability: 1) grid con-
nections, 2) community projects (SHS or Energy Centre) and 3) private
systems (either village scale mini-/micro-grids or private companies
oﬀering solar products for sale). Table 4 indicates the systems’main
characteristics and indicates the gendered nature of the process of im-
plementation, to be discussed below. We underline that the data given
are based on individual accounts and have not always been cross-
checked with the actual suppliers.
Many people in the visited villages do not have any kind of elec-
tricity access. The uptake of private solar systems appears to be higher
in larger, more central villages with more economic activity than in the
smaller villages in the periphery. Moreover, during grid extension, the
larger and relatively wealthier villages are prioritised. For these rea-
sons, and because the grid is often unreliable, the number of solar
systems tended to be higher in the villages with grid (God-Bura and
Endau). Kalungu (Kitui) has not been included in the central grid and
there were only two individual SHSs (including a bar recently opened
and run by a woman whose husband is a former military oﬃcer, Kit-K-
HE1_W). In Ligongo, the grid had arrived 1.5 years ahead of our
ﬁeldwork, but only to the primary school and the supply was not yet
operationalised (transformer in place, but lack of distribution lines).
These two villages generally have poor public services and do not have
community energy projects. In the other selected villages with better
provision, some householders and shops sometimes use a mix of sys-
5.1.1. The central grid
Having a connection to the grid is only for the few. Gilbert, an el-
derly man in Endau, said with a sigh: “You see, this place is rural and
people are very poor, so they can’taﬀord it. It was just recently that this
rural electriﬁcation was introduced to this area.”(Kit-E-LS2_M). Most of
the 30–40 existing connections in Endau are businesses in the market
area: either shops (mostly run by women) or workshops for carpentry
and the like (used by men) who tend to rent the premises from
Illustration of the three main types of provision systems selected for the study.
Systems of supply 1 Grid 2a Community project 2b Community project 3a Private, village scale 3b Private, other
SHS Solar Energy Centre Solar, Micro-grid (Power
Standalone solar lantern and
Kiwa Island (incl. BBOXX
God Liech and Olando
Ikisaya Village Private charging centres
OSRAM Energy Hub
Oﬃcial Cost of
35 000 Ksh + wiring
3.300 Ksh 50 Ksh 1000 Ksh Varies
Cost of usage Standing charges 450,- per
300,- per month Per service, see below Depends, e.g. 250,- per
month for 2 lights, phone,
Wide range of costs, from 10,-
Prescribed duration of
0–24 h Light 1–4 h per day Depends on amount paid,
can be used any time of the
Varies with user practice, the
condition of the battery and
size of system
Opening hours other
services 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Types of uses Light, charging mobile
phones, TV, radio, fridge,
welding, and saloon
Light, charge mobile,
radio (not TV)
Lantern 7/5,- Light, charge mobile, TV,
Light, charge mobile (some can
power radio, TV)
TV watching 5/10,-
Charge mobile 20,-
Sale of solar lanterns
Process of implementation Gender neutral (only men
involved as ﬁeld technicians)
Gender balanced (both
women and men
Gender neutral (mainly
Gender neutral (more men than
University of Oslo.
Charging of small batteries (by solar panels) that people lease or buy at 1500 Ksh, and connect light bulbs with wires. (Homabay-K-LS1_M and observation).
Oﬀering renting and charging of batteries and lights for ﬁshing, renting of lanterns for households and sale of solar systems including appliances for use with
solar power such as energy eﬃcient irons (Hom-K-2-M).
There are also many other suppliers of private SHS, such as Mobisol; Suntransfer; Solar Now; Azuri; Heya etc. All sell on pay as you go basis and several of these
systems are oﬀered with or without payments in instalments.
In our material, one person had purchased small SHS with two lights at the cost of 9000 (Hom-L3_W), another pays 190 in weekly instalments up to 15 000
(Hom-L-HNo_2_W), and one paid 3000 for one lamp only (Hom-L-HNo3_M).
The BBOXX has two sets of Kits, the lowest is 590/- per month (for three years, that is approximately 20/- per day, and the other one is 1170/-. System paid down
in 3 years). (Hom-GB-2_M).
In the cheapest option of Mkopa (for the smallest SHS) they have to pay 50/- everyday, the system is controlled, if they don’t pay, they will not get the light, it
will be automatically oﬀ. Light and phone charging, cannot be used for TV (only 6 V) (Hom-GB-5_M). Mkopa has larger systems also.
Despite the regulated charge of connections, there were considerable variations in the cost reported both in Kitui and Homa Bay. Also, the uncertainty regarding
what the cost would be appeared as a barrier for people to get connected.
T. Winther et al. Energy Research & Social Science 44 (2018) 61–74
somebody who had the electricity installed. In rural Kitui at large, it
was a shared perception that the grid will never reach “the interior”,
hence where the majority of the population live. The distances to
people’s houses are too long, which would further drive up the cost
beyond the high standard fee of connection.
Both in Kitui and Homa Bay counties, people perceived the grid to
be highly unreliable. Peter, who had been involved in installations of
both grid connections and solar systems in God-Bura, Homa Bay, (Hom-
GB-2_M) described the grid as an “on and oﬀsystem”(frequent black-
outs). When explaining the reasons for the unreliability, he said:
Peter: Kenya Power has not given us the answer to that question
because when you call them, they will tell you we are working on it.
It will be back in the next 30 min, but it takes 3 days.
Interviewer: Is the maintenance also lagging behind?
Peter: Yes, the maintenance part of it is also a big issue. If you go
along the power lines, you will ﬁnd some poles almost falling down.
It is now 3 months since they were informed. But this is also because
of the monopoly on the power supply. I think if there were other
power suppliers, they would be very active.
At the dispensary in God-Bura, the poor quality of grid supply had
triggered a need for additional supply through an SHS, as reported by a
male member of staﬀ(Hom-GB-8_M):
Interviewer: So Kenya Power was installed before the solar was
bought. What made the management purchase the solar when there
was already a source of power?
Dispensary staﬀ:Kenya Power was unreliable and we had vaccines
that needed refrigeration.
In the studied locations in Kitui, the grid arrived later than in Homa
Bay, but also here (Endau and Ikisaya), the quality of supply was poor.
Already after the ﬁrst months in operation, the grid in Ikisaya stopped
working due to a transformer failure and had not been repaired eight
months later. Staﬀat the primary school in Endau had been thrilled
when they ﬁrst were connected to the grid in May 2016, seeing in-
creased results in children’s performance (see below). However, proper
supply only lasted for two months, according to a male teacher: “We
have electricity but lately it has developed some problems. Despite the
fact it is on, it cannot light these bulbs as the voltage is too low.”(Kit-E-
As indicated above, the perceived problem is not only the blackouts
and brownouts, but the lack of maintenance and communication with
Kenya Power, as the teacher explained:
Currently we don’t have anybody around, it was only a colleague of
mine who called them and they said they don’t know what the
problem is. They have been coming but that one has taken a long
time, so there seems to be no response from the Kenya Power.
In Endau and Ikisaya, another problem was that the hand-over from
the implementer (Rural Electriﬁcation Authority, REA) and the op-
erator, Kenya Power, had apparently not taken place, so people were
both unsure of whom to contact and also, in some cases, uncertain
about what they were expected to pay for consumption. A man who had
been living in Endau for many years explained (Kit-E-3_M):
You pay, but it goes to the pocket of people in Kenya Power. They
[REA] just connected and went away. Now, the power is often oﬀ
and nobody is paying, myself included.
The lack of service and perceptions of corruption among utility staﬀ
aﬀect people’swillingness to comply with the regulations, as also noted
elsewhere (e.g. ).
5.1.2. Community projects and private systems
Turning to the community projects (2a and 2b, Table 4), they are
based on solar power, in line with the studied private systems. The
growth in sales of solar home systems and solar lanterns testiﬁes to
people’s perceptions of solar systems as being purposeful, aﬀordable
and reliable. As indicated in the opening quote, Mary, a woman in
Homa Bay with both grid connection and SHS, described the grid as
“unreliable even if there is sunshine”, as if using the sun as a reference
for power production in general (Hom-GB-HE4_W). She also said that
“solar only has a problem when there is rain, but it is generally good”.
Nonetheless, reliability is sometimes an issue here too, depending on
the quality of the equipment and the state of the batteries. In Kitui,
some customers at the Energy Centre said that the quality could have
been better. For example, Joyce experienced that the light from the
lantern lasted for a shorter duration than the prescribed two days, and
said she got bored when walking (i.e. the drudgery involved) to get it
charged (Kit-E-HE5_W). Another woman customer told us that the ca-
pacity of the phone charging station at the Energy Centre in Ikisaya was
sometimes full, so there would be a queue to get phones charged (Kit-I-
3_W). Nonetheless, these customers continue to use the services, and
they stay in face-to-face contact with the supplier who is located in their
own or a neighbouring village. The same kind of close interface be-
tween supplier and customer was observed in God Liech, Homa Bay,
with the community project for distribution and maintenance of SHSs.
We asked Michael, a customer of the SHS scheme, who was also partly a
stakeholder collecting revenues, about the services provided by the
Interviewer: What sort of services beyond just lighting?
Michael: The fuse can be broken, acid in the battery can spill over,
those are the services we need from them plus other technical ser-
Interviewer: And are the services eﬃcient?
Michael: Yes, the person who was trained in India also trained three
other people and they are now jointly working together and they are
In some cases, people with privately purchased systems expressed a
high degree of conﬁdence about their own capacity to maintain the
systems individually, for example Susan, a widow who has both a
connection to the grid and an SHS. When we asked if she had changed
the battery for the SHS, Susan conﬁrmed: “Yes, I have done it three
times, even replacing the acid”(Hom-GB-HE4_W). Other people relied
on the supplier for support. A rather unusual stance was expressed by
an elderly man, David, who said he hesitated going for the private
suppliers because he would be uncertain about their long-term com-
At present, a rapidly increasing share of the rural population pur-
chase private, solar-based services and several of the private suppliers
have agents present in the villages, and also oﬀer services by phone
(24–7). Such enduring support appears to be a key to people’s trust and
satisfaction with the systems, which was also the case in the two
mentioned village scale systems. However, in addition to the experi-
ences with disruption in supply, many grid customers (of Kenya Power)
have prepayment and automatic registration of consumption and are
never/rarely able to meet their supplier who is diﬃcult to reach by
The situation might seem somewhat similar for the private
micro-grid system on Kiwa Island (Private, village scale 3a, Table 4),
where we did not observe local representatives when we visited. But the
As we account for below, the number of women going for training in India turned
out to be more than one. The importance here is not the accuracy of the number of
women going to India, but the interviewee’s statement about their involvement in supply
as a response to the systems’degree of eﬃciency.
As noted, this diﬃculty is due to lack of service from Kenya Power not caused by
poor coverage. We observed that mobile coverage is good in Homa Bay and relatively
good in Kitui, whereas Internet is good only in Homa Bay, but not available in the studied
villages in Kitui.
T. Winther et al. Energy Research & Social Science 44 (2018) 61–74
micro-grid was operating, making the lack of personal contact less
5.2. The gendered processes of implementation and set-up of supply
According to Peter (Homa Bay) and a man in Kitui (Kit-I-7_M), both
of whom had been involved in Kenya Power’s implementation process,
only male staﬀhad been involved in doing installations. There are
women employed in the organisation but reportedly, for reasons of
security, most of them work in the oﬃces, not in the ﬁeld doing in-
stallation and maintenance. Among the private systems oﬀered, more
men than women tended to be involved. Some female agents were
selling solar systems, and Peter pointed to these women’s good sales
ﬁgures. But the agents whom we met were men. At a REAP solar
charging stations in Rasira (not included in Table 4), which constitutes
a male dominated ﬁsh landing site on the shore of Lake Victoria, Ed-
ward, a male member of staﬀ, said that “they selected three young men
per beach”when implementing the project and recruiting agents (Hom-
RA-2_M). When our male interviewer followed up on this information,
asking if women have beneﬁtted in particular ways from the charging
stations at the beach, Edward was in doubt:
Interviewer: It is hard to understand, but is there a way that this
project has uniquely helped women speciﬁcally?
Edward: No, women have not beneﬁtted a lot because some wanted
to start saloons but due to the slow pace of the project, they have not
This statement diﬀers from the general perception in all the case
study areas; women, who tend to stay at home more than men, have
particularly beneﬁtted from the new access to electricity’s services.
Here Edward is referring to women’s lack of electricity for productive
activities, and it is interesting that he ties this to the issue of women’s
lack of inclusion in the project, as if the two were related.
As shown in
the literature [32,33], ideas about end-users’needs do tend to come
into play in an early phase in the planning of a project. In God-Bura,
there were several shops using electricity to produce income, and “all
are owned by men”(Hom-GB-1_M). In Endau the gendered distribution
of beneﬁts for business was diﬀerent because the buildings were rented
(probably from a man, we do not know), and the majority of shop
keepers were women. These diﬀerent outcomes illustrate that gender-
neutral interventions tend to beneﬁt groups who are already in a ma-
terially privileged position. They also show that it is men rather than
women who tend to get recruited in the system of supply, hence gender
neutral interventions result in male dominated systems, with adhering
beneﬁts for the male staﬀinvolved.
In contrast, the solar projects in God Liech and Olando (SHS) and
Ikisaya Energy Centre were set up with an explicit purpose to include
women in the supply. The systems also diﬀer from the grids and mini-
grids in that they engaged local people as staﬀand continue to be
present in the villages. In God Liech and Olando, the project was set up
by Green Forest, an NGO based in Magunga, following the Barefoot
College model where only women from a village are recruited and
trained for six months as solar engineers at the Barefoot College in
India. Elizabeth and three other women had been selected (two from
each village) to go for training in India. Three of them went.,
Reportedly, the forth woman withdrew at the last minute because she
was afraid to go (level of literacy; lost courage) and/or because her
husband refused to let her go.
According to Elizabeth, the wider eﬀect of this project was that
perceptions of a woman’s capabilities have changed in the village
Elizabeth: [Women’s] contributions in [village] forums have been
very rare. Even in politics people tend to concentrate on men rather
than women. But after we initiated our project here, many now believe
that women can do it. The women climb the roof, they put the solars,
they do the connections, and they do the repairs within the system.
In a similar way, Paul, who had been involved in establishing the
solar project, told us about his own changed view on women caused by
the intervention (Hom-GL1_M):
Interviewer: As a board member of this village project and your
own involvement in the planning, can you tell us more about the
planning even before it started?
Paul: I did not believe in this project. I could not even believe that
the women would go to India and become engineers. Further, I
could not even believe it when the materials were brought in parts
and the woman who went to India were to assemble the parts, but
later I realised that even women can do this, and the work has been
going on up to now.
The Ikisaya Energy Centre has been in operation from 2012 . To
avoid excluding potential women applicants who did not have an en-
gineering background or other higher education, the requirements for
previous experience were minimalised, but nonetheless only one woman
applied. As a result, one woman and four men were recruited. For the last
four years, the Centre has been managed by a woman. There are also one
man and two other women engaged as oﬃce and technical staﬀand one
male night guard who manages the television viewings in the evenings.
During ﬁeldwork many respondents said that the women perform the job
as service providers particularly well because they are good at listening to
customers. In the ﬁrst phase of operation, with male managers, there had
been two incidents with money being stolen, and some respondents de-
scribed today’s women staﬀas trustworthy. When we asked Sheila, a
woman running a restaurant, whether she thinks it matters whether the
Energy Centre is led by a woman or a man, she said (Kit-I8_W):
Sheila: With this lady we feel she is good and we don’t know if a
man can manage to lead like that. We think women listen to people’s
needs in a good manner.
Related to the manager’s communication skills, many people pointed
(i.e. not paying for services) and that the women are patient. Victor, an
elderly man, was asked about the lantern service, and brought up the issue
of women’s involvement, also being aware that the researchers had been
part of the implementation process (Kit-I-LS2_M):
Interviewer: Can you tell us why you are excited about the lantern?
Victor: Because of the lanterns which beneﬁted us so much, and
also when you opened the Energy Centre people got jobs because
our girls are employed there, and they are good role models like [the
woman manager]. Because girls used to think that they could not do
certain jobs, but what are they doing now?
Recruiting women to the Energy Centre had become much easier
after a couple of years in operation. In the time following the initial set-
up, the Centre speciﬁcally targeted female candidates when ﬁlling va-
cant positions, and hired only female staﬀ.
It is diﬃcult to assess whether women’s inclusion in supply has
aﬀected women’s general participation in village leadership and
groups, because women were also involved before the energy initiative.
However, the women’s association with the Energy Centre, with its
photocopying and computer service, is important because the Centre
forms an important marker of Ikisaya’s identity and hence the social
esteem of the people involved, as expressed by Nicholas in the village
Interviewer: Do you think the identity of Ikisaya village has
changed after the Energy Centre came?
We do not know to what extent electricity in Rasira helped men in their productive
T. Winther et al. Energy Research & Social Science 44 (2018) 61–74
Nicholas: Yes, we can say we are more digital because we access
more services like photocopy, typing and other things. Many people
are coming from Makuka, Malalani, Twambui for photocopying
because they can only get eﬀective services in Ikisaya, so we have
more improvements than other villages.
Both in God Liech and Ikisaya there were no alternative sources of
supply when the community projects were ﬁrst introduced, and it is
likely that this increased the symbolic importance of those who became
involved (compared to villages where some kind of supply already
existed). In terms of the overall purpose of this paper, to examine the
driving forces and gendered implications of various types of electricity
access, it is clear that international actors –in cooperation with local
Kenyan actors –played a key role in the two community initiatives that
employed a gender sensitive approach. We noted that in these cases
where women were included in community energy projects, these
women demonstrate to co-villagers their capacity to take a central role
in providing a desired service. In contrast, conventional grid extension
did not result in women’s inclusion in the socio-technical system of
supply on the village level. For other decentralised solutions, the pic-
ture was more mixed.
6. Obtaining access to electricity’s services –and gendered
Whereas the previous section illuminated how gender comes into
play through the provision of electricity access, we now look at this
issue from the user perspective. We shall see that the socio-cultural
context plays an important role in shaping household decisions re-
garding access and appliances, but also, and importantly, that details in
the socio-technological design matter to the gendered access to elec-
As indicated, grid connections are few (see Table 3)andmainlyused
carpenters, small mills) and not even by all basic public institutions lo-
cated in grid areas. Among the few respondents with a connection, the
subscription fee had commonly been paid by the husband, who owns the
registered as the customer. In three instances in Homa Bay (God-Bura)
we learned that an adult child had initiated the idea of connection and
contributed with payment. For example, one daughter had paid for con-
nection and “when she comes visiting, she brings out laptops and mobiles”
(Hom-GB-3_W/M). This drive for connections and appliances initiated
from the younger generation resembles inter-generational dynamics for
increased demand observed in Kerala, India (cf. ).
Also among village residents, the drive for using phones is spurring
their demand for basic electricity access. “Everybody has a mobile”,
male focus group participants conﬁrmed in Ikisaya (Kit-I-FG2_M), and
mobile money transfer is widespread. In Homa Bay, 12 householders
were asked if they keep a phone and use mobile money transfer (M-
PESA is a common type), all conﬁrmed. Two of them were widows and
the rest couples. Only in three cases, including a home with two co-
wives (Hom-GB-HNo2_M), it was only the husband that had a phone
and used M-PESA and not the wife/wives. Otherwise, women and men
kept their own. Even in Kalungu with only two SHSs present in the
village, the headman said that the majority of households keep a phone.
They either have them charged in the two homes with SHS, in some
cases for a fee, or at the market in Endau.
In response to our question regarding who in the household tends to
decide whether to obtain electricity access or appliances, most people
responded that a wife and her husband “decide jointly”and that assets
have shared ownership. As we show below, it was sometimes indicated
that some women will try to convince the husband to obtain electricity
access. However, when probing further on the issue of decision making,
a male biased pattern occurred. Men would sometimes be described as
the head of the family, and we got various accounts of situations when a
woman needs permission from her husband, such as when visiting her
natal home or spending larger amount of income. The following pas-
sage with Nancy describes what appears as a common pattern of de-
cision-making regarding expenditures. Nancy has a small business
(3000 Ksh/month), her husband is a carpenter (10 000 Ksh/month) and
they both do farming (Kit-K-HNo1_W):
Interviewer: Do you consider that income to be your own money or
do you give it to the husband to plan what to do?
Nancy: I use the money to buy things for the house or pay the school
fees, but I have to tell my husband how much money I made from
the work. …
Interviewer: Do you know exactly how much your husband is
earning or is it a secret?
Nancy: I just agree with whatever he brings or tells me.
Interviewer: So you report to him what you made and he brings
things to the house?
A lack of symmetry in the genders’rights also appeared when we
probed on the issue of land and houses and what would happen in the
case of divorce (not common) or death. We learned that the house
belongs to the man and that sons tend to inherit property because the
girls will be married and move (e.g. Kit-I0_M). In theory (because we
did not observe concrete cases involving divorce), this implies that
women investing in electrical appliances risk losing them in the case of
To some extent, the male control over households appear to aﬀect
which rooms are given priority for ﬁxed light points. One household
aﬃliated with the Seventh Day Adventist Church (common in God-
Bura) had grid connection and also SHS. They kept lights in the sitting
room, the bedroom, the visitors’room and in a separate house where
girls sleep, not in the separate kitchen, the house where boys sleep or
the separate cow-shed. The woman said her husband had decided on
this distribution of light (Hom-GB-HE1_W). Among other cases where
we speciﬁcally asked about the physical location of lights, two more
had avoided the kitchen. One of these families (connected to the grid)
kept four lights, which were placed in the living room, bedroom,
bathroom and an adjacent shop, but not in the kitchen (Kit-E-HE2_M).
The other family had light in the sitting room and bedroom and used a
torch in the kitchen (Hom-K-HE1_W).
Of course we cannot exclude
the possibility that the involved women had had a wish to enlighten
other rooms than the kitchen. However, we note that the women’s daily
routine in these areas involves cooking supper, which is normally eaten
around 8 p.m. (it becomes dark around 6.30 p.m.), that they are living
in houses with ﬁxed light points and that they, nonetheless, either cook
with the help of a solar lantern, torch, moonlight and/or light from the
Hom-GB-HE_1_W, Hom-GB-HE4_W (a widow), Hom-GB-HE5_M.
Whether a woman has the right to bring her children after divorce, and assets she
had purchased, was an ambiguous issue. Some claimed that because the man owns the
land, anything produced on this (e.g. farming) would be his property.
They were probably using the Mkopa system.
In eight interviews, we asked whether a male member of household ever cooks a
meal, and three conﬁrmed. In one case a son (aged between 7 and 17) sometimes cook
with ﬁrewood (Kit-I_HNo1_W). In two cases, men were said to cook once in a while, and
they are also exceptions in that they also use charcoal cooking. In one case, the husband
was a retired teacher (Hom-GB-HE1_W) and in the other, the wife runs a catering service
for schools (Hom-L-HNo1_W). In addition to these two families using additional fuels to
ﬁrewood for cooking, one household was using a gas cooker (Hom-GB-HE4_W). They
keep a Posho mill, making 3000 Ksh/month. All the others solely use ﬁrewood for
cooking, which women fetch (sometimes with the help of children).
T. Winther et al. Energy Research & Social Science 44 (2018) 61–74
A similar grading of the importance of various rooms occurred when
talking about the diﬀerent qualities of various systems. Bernard is a
solar agent and keeps two types of light at home provided by private
suppliers (‘Type A’and ‘Type B’). He highlighted the stronger and better
light provided by Type A. We asked where he keeps the various lights
Bernard: In the sitting room, I have put the [Type A]. And in the
bedroom and the store, I have put the [Type A].
Bernard: Because those areas do not need a bright light.
Interviewer: Which light is used in the kitchen?
Bernard: The [Type B].
Another family in God Liech followed a corresponding pattern using
a dimmer kind of light in the kitchen and stronger lights from another
system outdoors as security light to protect sheep, goats and cows
against hyenas (Hom-GL-HE2_M).
Hence the kitchen was often downplayed as a social space in need of
the new, strong light, while people emphasised the importance of
keeping good quality light in the living room where they receive guests,
read, do homework and handicraft and so on.
When we asked people about decision-making with regard to tra-
ditional fuels such as kerosene for lighting, people said that women
often depend on their husbands to pay for the fuel, which young girls
are often required to fetch (and facing the risk of assaults). In two de-
tailed accounts we received on this issue, the women highlighted that
they tend to decide on the use of the kerosene lamp. One of them, Lucy,
a married woman, said she uses two kerosene lamps, one in the kitchen
and one in the bedroom (Kit-K-HNo1_W):
Interviewer: Who decides when and where the lamps should be
used? Is it you or your husband?
Lucy: I am the one who decides.
Another married woman, relatively old, also said she decides on the
use of kerosene when she can aﬀord it. She gives priority to regularly
charging two mobiles but sometimes avoid buying kerosene for light or
batteries for torch.
In discussions about decentralised electricity services, women were
sometimes described as being polite as customers and more eager to get
access to electricity than men. Men agents of private systems (possibly
encouraged by the topic we introduced, women’s empowerment) said
they preferred women customers. For example, Bernard contended:
“Men are very rude if there is a problem, even if the problem is on their
side. They complain as if it you were the cause of the problem. With
women, they come honourably and explain what the problem is.”
An electrician described the way women sometimes try to persuade
their husbands to get a solar system (Hom-GB-2_M):
Electrician (man): The reality is, most people who really need the
lighting system are women because around this area, most men are
ﬁsher folk. …Sometimes, a woman comes, I give the advice, she
goes and talks with the husband…
A look at the users at Ikisaya Energy Centre further underlines
women’s drive for the light. Among the 33 members who were reg-
ularly renting lanterns, there were 25 women and eight men (Ikisaya
Energy Centre, October 2016). The customers carry the lamps back
and forth to the Centre.
In people’s homes, because lanterns can be
moved, they are often used for several purposes, but children’s
homework is given priority. In contrast, the children rarely did
homework before the arrival of the Centre, when kerosene and torch
were the only and costly options. During home visits in the evening
(October 2016), the team observed children reading inside while the
mother was preparing food in the dark kitchens outside. In light of
the tremendous emphasis people in the study areas put on children’s
education and the drive for mobile phones, cooking appears as a
practice less “in need”of change.
We wish to highlight a ﬁnal aspect from the material that relates to
domestic violence. We discussed this issue with many respondents,
asking about their general attitudes and possible links to electric light.
A woman (without electricity at home) referred to the occurrence of
violence in this way (Hom-L-HNo2_W):
Interviewer: When a woman burns food while cooking, do you
think the husband has a right to punish her?
Woman: When you do it for the ﬁrst time, he can leave [the house],
but when you repeat the mistake then you will be canned or in-
From a female focus group discussion, men’s assaults on women
may even seem to be rising in God-Bura (GB-FG1_W):
Interviewer: Ok. To the older women who are here in this gath-
ering, when we compare the last 10 years and now, do you see
women assault as more rampant now than before?
Woman: It is more rampant now especially towards the younger
These reports of violence (and acceptance of violence) reﬂect wo-
men’s inferior social position. Moreover, when we asked who in the
household will most likely go to bed on an empty stomach in times of
food scarcity; ﬁve women said they would not eat, one man said he
would not eat, and one relatively young woman said “the aged”(old)
would not get food.
Aﬁsherman on Kiwa Island suggested that electricity may reduce
the level of conﬂict, saying it is very common for men to beat their
Man: It could cause quarrels in the house as the woman is waiting
for the husband to buy kerosene. If they don’t have money it is a
problem. With electricity, they have a phone and can call any time
to know or ask something.
Interviewer: Can electricity reduce the beating of couples?
Man: Yes, because if there is no unit [left in the micro-grid pre-
payment], the wife can call and inform the husband.
In this account, a source of conﬂict had occurred when women were
waiting for the husband to bring kerosene or money to buy it, and when
they delayed or failed to do so, the wife would start complaining and
risk being beaten. Two changes in technology have reduced the level of
conﬂict: her access to a phone, making it possible to ask for supplies in
advance, and the notiﬁcation in advance about lack of units. The
householders are better equipped to plan for lighting, and can com-
municate at a distance to solve potential problems.
7. Discussion: the gendered set-up and implications of various
types of electricity access
The increased access to electricity’s services in the two Kenyan cases
has been useful to many women and men, as also conﬁrmed in the
In the beginning women often took the trip to the Centre themselves, together with
other errands such as fetching water, but gradually, those with children in primary school
let the children pick up and return the lanterns.
A teacher at Endau Primary School showed us documentation on girls’and boys’
performance (marks) in a Class 8 cohort over one year. The marks improved considerably
when they introduced a boarding programme. Energy costs and availability were de-
scribed as the key parameter for a school to be able to oﬀer boarding facilities, from
which girls gained in particular, according to the results.
T. Winther et al. Energy Research & Social Science 44 (2018) 61–74
literature [33,11,4,5]. What we are exploring in this paper is the gen-
dered set-up and organisation of various types of electricity access in
rural Kenya –and the implications for women’s empowerment. We
draw on selected parts of a comprehensive framework for analysing
empowerment , but focus primarily on agency in terms of decision-
making processes surrounding access and subscriptions and potential
signs of changes in gender norms and women’s social position as a re-
sult of various types of electricity interventions.
Inspired by socio-technical system and social practice theory , we
presented material on how access is shaped, partly through the set-up of
systems of provision and partly through the end-users and the existing
socio-material organisation. Jointly, these two forces contribute to
forming electricity access as an ongoing social and gendered practice.
By this we have also shown that the issue of access is not only, or even
mainly, a question of technology, but about ideas about users, processes
of implementation and organisation of supply, and end-users needs,
social positions and aspirations.
Despite the qualitative approach in this study, it is clear that solar-
based solutions reach a far higher share of the population than the grid
in the selected rural contexts even in areas where the grid is present.
The main explanations for this are that the grid is too costly for most
households and it does not reach where they live. Aﬀordability is a
major obstacle to grid access, both in terms of the high cost of con-
nection and also monthly charges. Non-working transformers close to
public schools and dispensaries and poles falling down give testimony
of the practical challenges to accomplish the “Last Mile”rural elec-
triﬁcation through the intention to provide the general rural population
with needed services through the grid. As a result, the grid is highly
unreliable and also in this sense does not currently provide access
(SEforAll 2015). Several of our respondents with the ability to pay
(Homa Bay) had thus felt a need to obtain solar systems in addition to
the grid connection.
In terms of women’sabilitytoinﬂuence decisions on appliances
and the use of light, our qualitative material indicate that they have
less power to decide in the case of ﬁxed connections, whether grid,
mini-grids or SHS, the reasons being that men tend to own the
houses, become the customer, and have a higher income and be
perceived as entitled to decide on big issues. The reported views on
domestic violence conﬁrm that women are in a subordinated posi-
tion, which, together with their ﬁnancial dependency on men come
into play when negotiating electricity’sapplications.Thelackof
lights in some women’skitchensmaypartlyreﬂect their reduced
decision-making power and partly that education (light for reading)
is given priority by all, including women. In systems with ﬁxed
connections and installations, a wife’s access to electricity goes
through her husband, who has a larger say in key decisions before
she can start to use appliances, charge her phone, administer
switches and use light in daily life.
That said, we noted that some people forwarded the idea that using
electric light and mobiles may reduce conﬂicts over missing kerosene,
and thereby reduce violence. A study from Afghanistan  found that
women felt that electric light helped to reduce domestic violence. When
ababy was crying at night, the women could quickly turn on the light
and thus avoid waking up and annoying the husband. Issues sur-
rounding decision-making and conﬂict are important but not easily
grasped through relatively short interviews with outsiders. To better
understand the relationship between electricity access and violence,
ethnography would seem to be a more beneﬁcial method for forth-
When the socio-technical design of the electricity provision allows
for ﬂexible services, this appears to enhance women’s agency in relation
to electricity (if also possibly suﬀering drudgery in having to receive
and return lanterns). In several ways, women who rent portable lan-
terns for a few shillings per day through the Energy Centre have more
direct access and autonomy to decide to get a lamp and where to use it,
resembling their traditional power to decide on the use of kerosene
lamps. The drawback in this particular case is that the lanterns cannot
be used for charging the important mobile phones or powering radios
and television, which are services obtained at the Centre. Nonetheless,
because basic electricity services are needed and ﬂexible systems en-
hance women’s agency, it is promising that both agents for commercial
solar products as well as the Kenya Power lantern renting project pro-
vide similar, ﬂexible solutions both in terms of technologies and pay-
A common trait of the two selected sites with community projects
(SHS in God Liech and the Energy Centre in Ikisaya, both also in-
ﬂuenced by external actors) was their continued presence and ser-
vices in the village, which enhanced users’enduring access.
of the failing grid, including staﬀ’s lack of maintenance and chal-
lenges in communicating with customers, we emphasise that en-
suring enduring, predictable services, including maintenance and
communication, should also form part of the discussion of people’s
access to electricity. On this point, the two locally anchored com-
munity systems appeared to perform well in that their services were
Finally, there are clear signs that the gender sensitive approaches
during implementation and set-up of supply had wider impacts. In
God Liech, the signiﬁcance of the women-targeted approach was
reﬂected when a male participant said he could not believe it when
he ﬁrst heard that women were going to India and then again when
he was told that women assembled the equipment that arrived in
parts to the village. His view on what women can do had changed in
the process, challenging existing gender norms (c.f. ). In addi-
tion, the preference of female candidates for vacant positions at the
Centre in Ikisaya indicates that the women pursuing these positions
and their social surroundings ﬁnd it appropriate for women to do this
kind of work, in contrast to what was the case when the Centre was
established. We argue that women’s“hands-on”involvement in the
provision of these new services had a particularly strong symbolic
eﬀect because nobody/few people in these places had previously
related to electricity (c.f. ). The services are desirable and asso-
ciated with social esteem, as expressed in Ikisaya when the local
administration referred to the Centre and its “digital”image when
explaining why the village stands out compared to neighbouring
villages. The eﬀect of introducing systems based on women’slea-
dership and participation were moreprofoundandleddirectlyto
empowerment, and not only for the women involved. To some degree
it aﬀected all because village discourses and new norms are collec-
tively shared by nature. Hence, a “double transformation”occurred
through two transformations that were contingent upon each other; a
socio-technological shift and women’s increased status. In compar-
ison, in the other sites and systems the paths to empowerment were
more restricted and more related to implications on the user-side
because women were only rarely involved in supply and, in the case
of grid connections, their access to electricity tended to go through
8. Concluding remarks and recommendations: powering
communities & women’s inclusion
This work has demonstrated that electricity access matters to
women and men, and that any kind of system of provision becomes
gendered, whether they become dominated by men (as seen for grid
and several private initiatives), practice gender balanced recruiting
(Ikisaya) or are being run solely by women (God Liech). Policies, pro-
grammes and projects that adopt a “gender neutral”approach, are
likely to produce systems dominated by men. Linked to this, they are
In God Liech we were told that the initiator, Green Forest, had withdrawn and that
the solar project was using remaining funds in the bank for survival when we met them. It
may seem that the project viability is at risk.
T. Winther et al. Energy Research & Social Science 44 (2018) 61–74
likely to produce a particular set of ideas about end users: men doing
productive work and women occupying households, apparently bene-
ﬁtting from electricity by default. Parts of what is missed in this ima-
ginary of the user side are women’s speciﬁc needs for light and appli-
ances, their potential productive uses of electricity (see also ), and a
need for supporting investments to improve the quality of public ser-
vices to reduce rural women’s immense work load. Such policies and
projects fail to tap their potentials for reducing inequality through what
we in the present study observed to be “double transformations”(cf.
also [8,9]). We have pointed to the importance of the way im-
plementers envisage who the future user might be, who becomes in-
volved and the wider social implications of such involvement, and the
way users actually gain –or do not gain –inﬂuence over access and
usage and how they experience the adhering beneﬁts from using elec-
The structures of inequality in the socio-cultural context probably
appear as the most challenging problem to tackle through energy
interventions. It has been suggested that a solution may lie in cross-
sectoral initiatives where the energy sector works together with
other departments, for example by addressing women’srightstoland
ownership and social security when forming energy and electricity
policies, subsidy schemes and programmes. What policy makers and
implementers in the public, voluntary and commercial sectors can
address directly is the gendered planning, management and organi-
sation of supply. This study has contributed to understanding how
the organisation of the provision side may come into play in shaping
the gender of electricity access. It also provides empirical evidence
from rural Kenya on how “gender-neutral”policies and strategies,
together with local norms and practices, hindered women’sem-
powerment in that access became a realm largely dominated and
controlled by men. In turn, male dominated access had implications
in terms of who decided on electricity’sapplicationsanduses.These
ﬁndings strengthen our previous recommendation based on a lit-
erature review  that women should be ensured full participation
in the planning, managing and operating of energy programmes and
practice could have on the ground. When women are given privi-
leges, it is bound to trigger initial reactions from men, but because
the need for electricity, connectivity and charging capacity is huge, it
is likely, as in the studied cases where double transformations oc-
curred, that such barriers will soon be overcome.
In order to realise “the last mile”inKenya,intermsofaccessto
electricity’s services for all, solar-based solutions will play an in-
creasingly important role. In the current debate about various types
of access, the GTF acknowledges that lanterns and solar home sys-
tems may fall below tier 1 [37, p. 177–9].
In the present work
several of the solar systems observed were smaller in size and pro-
people rent a 3 W lantern and distributes the power over two days.
Because a couple of days with light can be important, we support
initiatives for further reﬁnement of the work with deﬁning tiers and
With continued support and facilitation from the government and/
or external partners, the set-up and organisation of supply matters, as
this study conﬁrms. By meeting realities on the user side in rural areas,
many of the products oﬀered in the market seem attuned towards
meeting many people’s ability to pay, and mobile payment systems
enhance the supplier-customer relationship. What private systems
cannot address is the situation of the poorest, those living at a distance
from central places and the need to provide electricity access to en-
hance the quality of public and communal services. This is where the
government, together with private and public partners, should
strengthen their current eﬀorts to provide gender equitable, decen-
tralised systems of supply.
In rural areas, electricity investments, whether grid or oﬀ-grid,
should primarily be regarded as steps to empower communities.Inthat
way, electricity could serve a key function in many villages supplying
solutions that ﬁt the particular context and that beneﬁtall.Suchan
endeavor could learn from the studied community projects: local
staﬀ,women’s inclusion, face-to-face customer service, pay per ser-
vice, products and services reachablealsobypeoplelivingatadis-
tance from cities and village centres. Also the studied private sector
initiatives provide examples of best practice: functioning micro-grids
and other village scale systems, mobile money transfer and payment
in instalments. The material presented suggests that the likelihood of
success of programmes aiming for electricity access for all would
increase if they from their initiation were centred on women’sneeds,
leadership and participation. Electricity access is gendered, and
thinking in terms of community projects organised at the village
scale with supply managed and operated by women (and men) would
be well suited to creating viable systems and meeting women’sneeds
This independent research derives from the project “Exploring
Factors that Enhance and restrict Women’s Empowerment through
Electriﬁcation”(EFEWEE) funded by the Department for
International Development (DFID), UK, coordinated by the
International Network on Gender andSustainableEnergy(ENERGIA)
through the Energy and Gender Research Programme (2015–2018).
We thank the women and men we met in Homa Bay and Kitui for
their time and willingness to share viewpoints and experiences with
us and assistant Kristen Wanyama for her dedicated eﬀorts and im-
portant contributions to the work with this article. We thank Mumbi
Machera, Youba Sokona, Joy Clancy and two anonymous reviewers
for their valuable comments, and we are grateful to our EFEWEE
team colleagues, Debajit Palit, Margaret Matinga, Mini Govindan,
Bigsna Gill and Henry Gichungi, for stimulation discussions. Connie
Stultz proofed the English language.
Appendix A. List of interviews.
See Table A1.
In the standard deﬁnition of tier 1 (page 175) this includes supply/capacity of 3 W, 20Wh or 1000 lm h per day, and duration of supply during daytime should be minimum 4 h,
while duration in the evening should be minimum 1 h.
T. Winther et al. Energy Research & Social Science 44 (2018) 61–74
See Table B1.
For example, Kit-E-HE1_W implies that the person was living in Kitui County, Endau village, a householder (H) with access to electricity (E),
woman respondent (W).
Other explanations: “HNo”implies that the household does not have access to electricity (beyond individual plug and go-systems in some cases).
“LS”stands for Life Story, and key people and shops/businesses have the simplest form of numbering, e.g. Hom-GB-1_M (Homa Bay, God-Bura
village, key person, man).
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Overview over conducted interviews and focus group discussions, Kitui and Homa Bay.
Type of interview Number of
Women Men Kitui Homa Bay
Key people 19 7 12 9 10
Staﬀ, electricity supply 9 3 6 4 5
Public services 12 2 10 6 6
Shops and businesses 8 6 2 6 2
13 8 5 4 9
Life story 11 6 5 4 7
Total number of
81 39 42 37 44
Number of interviews and
88 43 45 40 48
Bold values express summaries of the numbers above.
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Key for numbering interviewees and list of respondents.
County code Village code
Homa Bay: Hom God-Bura: GB
God Liech: GL
Kitui: Kit Endau: E
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