Seven Lessons from Working in Sierra Leone’s Clean Energy Sector

Empowering women as clean energy leaders is essential to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy for All

By Mariama Kamara, Founder of Smiling Through Light

It is important to understand the benefits that arise when women are empowered and engaged as catalysts actively striving for and working towards Sustainable Development Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy for All.

In February 2011, I accepted a volunteer placement in Sierra Leone with Restless Development, a youth-led development agency that places young people at the forefront of charitable development across Africa and Asia. While this role consisted of traveling to many different areas of Sierra Leone, there was one thing each community had in common: using kerosene or candles as sources of light for their homes. After witnessing the dangerous solutions people were using for lighting in a slum community in Freetown, I was reminded of when I was growing up and had to study by a Kerosene lamp every night. These combined experiences, led me to start my own company, Smiling Through Light.

After my placement ended, I devoted time to learning more about the clean energy sector, SDG7, and key policies, products, and players. In 2013, I enrolled in the Fellowship Accelerator Programme at the School for Social Entrepreneurs. By 2014, I was back in Freetown conducting a pilot study with women sponsored by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Smiling Through Light helps to deliver SDG7 by working with local networks of women to provide clean, reliable and sustainable energy in Sierra Leone through the distribution and sale of solar products to last-mile consumers. With operations in Freetown, Kamakwie, Lunsar, and Tombo, we aim to expand further in Sierra Leone and Africa. Our team of 12 employees has identified 7 key lessons learned from working in the clean energy sector throughout the past years:

  • Empowering women as clean energy leaders is essential to achieving SDG 7

Women often bear the brunt of not having access to modern and clean energy sources. Despite the push to support women in business and outstanding legislation around women’s rights, women still face societal constraints that hinder business potential. Men are still largely seen as the traditional profile of a successful entrepreneur, and ingrained cultural norms and stereotypes often reflect poorly on women starting their own businesses. As a local women-led business, Smiling Through Light is working to advance gender equality while ensuring that universal energy access is met by 2030. We have learned that this can be achieved by promoting female leadership within the business and by serving as a global advocate for bridging the gender-technology divide. By equipping our local female sales agents with knowledge of renewable energy technologies, markets, and policies, we facilitate a dialogue that enables them to develop the skills and confidence to advance their careers. By creating jobs through clean energy-driven economic opportunities, we help women realise health benefits, achieve higher levels of education, improve their livelihoods, and advance gender equality — all in a clean, sustainable manner.

  • Men also play a role in the energy transition

Men should not be left out of the energy transition in Sierra Leone. As a business, our key focuses remain on clean energy access, gender and women’s empowerment. While our female sales agents are making significant contributions to the national economy, they continue to face discrimination and gender barriers that prevent them from unleashing their full economic potential. To promote gender equality and female entrepreneurship, Smiling Through Light has learned to engage men by encouraging them to support their wives ’ economic empowerment. We regularly invite our “Husband Champions” and men within the community to workshops that encourage them to adopt positive masculinities and serve as supporting gender champions. As a result, we now have a few champions who support our business activities as we move into new territories around Sierra Leone.

  • Securing modern energy for the future requires support from our future leaders

Energy is the golden thread that connects economic growth, social equity and environmental sustainability. With access to energy, people can study, go to university, get a job, start a business and reach their full potential.

— Ban Ki Moon

Throughout our One Child, One Lamp campaign, we have learned that it is essential to engage young people as advocates for access to clean energy for all. Achieving universal energy access in Sierra Leone remains a significant challenge that must be met in a sustainable manner if we are to ensure a secure renewable energy future. Sierra Leone’s youth are the nation’s future. They must be empowered to exercise their voice and advocate for sustainable energy in their homes and communities.

  • Local community engagement is key

Smiling Through Light encourages the creation of innovative solutions for last-mile distribution and sales of clean energy products in local communities. Over the years, we have found that community engagement is central to the business and our work. Local communities and stakeholders are the key voice and ultimate success for our business. When we expand into new territories, we must always engage the territories’ chiefs, women’s organisations and key stakeholders. In doing this, we use storytelling and creative art to deliver our trainings. We have found that this mode of delivery engages these communities in our business, and prompts discussion points around our key story and successes. Through all of our storytelling activities to-date, we have trained over 800 community members to describe and demonstrate the use of new renewable energy technologies.

  • A healthy business forms the foundation for success

As a women-led business working in Sierra Leone, we defy all cultural norms. We understand that to succeed as a small business, we must have clear strategies and structures in place. By understanding how our products and services fit our markets and how we articulate that position to our customers is very important and is why we use storytelling. Having a clear business plan and customer value proposition helps us to better understand our competitors, the payment system that works best for our cashflow, and what inputs are needed for a strong marketing plan. To have all of these things, we must conduct many pilot studies and customer satisfaction surveys, which give us a clear understanding of the market needs and demands. Smiling Through Light has also learnt that it is key to have business structures in place, such as a company registry, human resources systems, and a staff handbook on key policies and compliance measures.

  • Shifts in government priorities make a difference

Access to clean, renewable energy opens new opportunities for democratic energy developments. Governments play a key role in the facilitation, planning, and ownership of energy systems, as well as the understanding surrounding laws and policies for clean energy business. Smiling Through Light has learnt to stay up to date on new laws and policies, in addition to participating at events and conferences that create an enabling environment for dialogue. With support from the British Department for International Development (DFID), the government of Sierra Leone signed its first Energy Africa/DFID Compact Agreement. This agreement kickstarted Sierra Leone’s energy revolution and produced a series of renewable energy initiatives aimed at eradicating energy poverty in the country. To achieve this, the government plans to deliver modern power to one million people by 2020, and basic power to all of Sierra Leone by 2025. This process will involve introducing household solar to all 149 chiefdoms within the next 18 months and eliminating import duties and value-added tax (VAT) on certified solar products. With access to this information, Smiling Through Light is able to work with Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Energy and other companies to achieve these goals on-time.

  • Change the narrative of Sierra Leone from one of poor to growing

The story about Sierra Leone and Africa, in general, has always been told by others with negative narratives. We have challenges but we also have positive and inspirational stories to share. During her TED Talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about “the danger of a single story”, as it promotes stereotypes. The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story the only story. By telling a single narrative about a person or a country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Smiling Through Light aims to reshape the narrative of Sierra Leone by creating and sharing positive messages that inspire and call attention to the incredible work happening in our communities.


This piece was produced in partnership with Efficiency for Access for Appliances Empower, a communications campaign to enhance gender equality and inclusion efforts through energy-efficient off-grid appliances.

About the author

Mariama Kamara is the Founder of Smiling Through Light, a for-profit company that works with networks of women to provide clean, reliable and sustainable energy in Sierra Leone.