Council on Energy, Environment and Water Integrated | International | Independent
Unlocking Sustainable Livelihood Opportunities for Rural Women
Lessons From Mainstreaming Women in Clean Energy Powered Livelihoods
16 February, 2023 | Sustainable Livelihoods
Prachi Singhal, Mousumi Kabiraj, Kalyani Krishna, Anubha Sharma and Shaily Jha

Suggested Citation: Singhal, Prachi, Mousumi Kabiraj, Kalyani Krishna, Anubha Sharma, and Shaily Jha. 2023. Unlocking Sustainable Livelihood Opportunities for Rural Women: Lessons from Mainstreaming Women in Clean Energy Powered Livelihoods. New Delhi, Chennai: Council on Energy, Environment and Water; Villgro Innovations Foundation.


The study explores learnings, evidence, and recommendations on creating sustainable livelihood opportunities for rural women, emanating from gender-forward initiatives deployed by the Powering Livelihoods (PL) programme, to mainstream women in Distributed renewable energy (DRE)-powered livelihoods.

Powering Livelihoods is a USD 3 million (INR 21 crores) initiative by CEEW and Villgro to mainstream clean energy-based solutions in India's rural economy. It provides capital, technical, and sectoral growth support to help social enterprises deploy many clean energy-based livelihood solutions in a gender-inclusive manner.

Key Highlights

  • DRE-powered technologies boost women's livelihood opportunities by providing them with new avenues for income generation and freeing women from several gender-assigned laborious and time-consuming manual activities. They are also climate-smart and mitigate the intermittent electricity challenge faced in rural areas.
  • For effective gender mainstreaming, technology providers and promoters should build their internal capacity to understand the needs, expectations and constraints of their women stakeholders and look for pathways that help evolve a women consumer into a local leader.   
  • Organising in-person demonstrations and events where women end-users share their experiences among potential adopters is one effective pathway to promote new technological solutions.
  • The role of financiers, market enablers and support from other private players in unlocking financing and market linkages for women to purchase and continue using the technology is crucial for catalysing large-scale deployment; especially when the product is of high ticket size.


"The progress of nation’s economic development goal could be achieved by providing women with opportunities to upgrade their skills, to access resources and earn a sustainable livelihood, rather considering gender inclusion a mere checklist."


Executive Summary

Rural women are silent workers and significant contributors to the rural economy (Patel and Sethi 2022). A recent research study by McKinsey Global Institute suggests that by 2025, India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) may increase up to 18 per cent just by providing equal work opportunities for women.

At 75.7 per cent, agriculture accounts for the largest share of women’s employment. Next up, micro-entrepreneurship forms an alternate avenue for the productive participation of women in the workforce (Bhardwaj 2022). By 2030, an estimated 30 million women-owned micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are expected to flourish in India, employing nearly 150 million people (Bhasin 2022).

However, one of the biggest challenges Agri and allied industries face is low mechanisation and the need for more reliable electricity. Approximately 119 million farmers and 34 million micro-enterprises in the Indian rural economy are constrained by unreliable electricity access (Waray, Patnaik, and Jain 2018). Decentralised renewable energy (DRE) powered livelihood solutions have the potential to solve this while simultaneously reducing drudgery and time spent on labour-intensive activities.

They provide several benefits that can help in enhancing livelihoods and the lives of women, their families, and communities exponentially. A USD 50 billion market opportunity exists for clean energy– powered livelihood appliances to boost India’s rural economy, especially among women.

For the Powering Livelihoods (PL) programme, we explicitly integrated a gender lens throughout to mainstream women in all our activities. We undertook several initiatives to build our internal capacity, our portfolio enterprise’s capacity and the larger ecosystem’s capacity to understand, target and reach women customers. Targeted funding for gender inclusion was made available to the enterprises to help them budget the time, efforts and resources needed to mainstream women across their organisation and value chain.

Figure ES1 Framework adopted by PL to promote technology-based rural livelihoods amongst women
sustainable livelihoods for rural women india
Source: Authors’ compilation


We conceptualised, piloted and catalysed various partnership models and business strategies that could uplift women’s socio-economic participation and make technology-based rural livelihoods women-friendly.

Who should read this report: Policy-makers, funders, financial institutions, market enablers, Decentralised Renewable Energy (DRE) and livelihood enterprises, investors, women microentrepreneur’s supporters and other rural livelihood community stakeholders.
Solar-powered dryers can support rural women to enhance their livelihoods, earn a sustainable income and reduce post-harvest losses
Through this report, we want to share some of our documented learnings and evidence from our successes and failures to guide us in scaling up sustainable livelihoods for women. It includes comprehensive learnings and recommendations from the various women mainstreaming activities we conducted as part of our programme. The resulting learnings create a repository of the tools used and share the knowledge generated. It also incorporates sample success stories and evidence-based approaches. While not exhaustive, it could be used as a repository of field-tested tools and evidence-based practices to guide the progress and implementation of gender-inclusive programmes in the DRE-Livelihood sector.

Many of our strategies result from incremental rounds of discussions and field testing; thus, maintaining a minimum of a 6–9-month timeline for any new intervention to stabilise and show results is integral. We observed that enterprises and end-users often devise ways to succeed and scale once presented with enough impetus. The key is to centre women end-users’ needs, experiences, expectations, risk-taking, motivations, and limitations while designing any intervention and being open to continuous iterations and pivots.

To realise the shared goal of sustainable livelihoods for women, each key actor will have to collaborate and prioritise gender goals.

  • Policymakers, sectoral associations, and government bodies should integrate explicit gender focus and adoption of DRE livelihood appliances in the rural livelihood and micro-entrepreneurship support policies.
  • Civil society (including enterprise support incubators and accelerators) should take proactive efforts to understand and spotlight differentiated women’s needs and preferences.
  • Financing institutions should simplify the documentation requirements for women, treat technology as collateral, and increase the moratorium period of the loans taken by women to mitigate the more significant number of challenges faced by women versus men to stabilise and scale a new business.
  • Technology enterprises/rural livelihood providers should integrate gender lens across all organisation levels - from the business vision, budget goals, and board members to front-mile sales agents.
  • Donor institutions should provide the initial risk and catalytic capital and allocate specific funding for gender inclusion in the livelihood promotion programmes.

Only when the above stakeholders work together will DRE livelihood technologies be able to serve as a low risk, easy-to-access springboard for a rural woman micro-entrepreneur to power her business and our rural economies.


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