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Feeding Two Birds with One Seed: Gender Empowerment and Environmental Impact in India

An Indian farmer holiding produce.
By: Paraag Sabhlok, Associate Director, Portfolio; Coco Lim, Senior Associate, Insights & Strategy; and Yash Vardhan Gaddhyan, Portfolio Analyst
  • Blog
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By Paraag Sabhlok, Associate Director, Portfolio; Coco Lim, Senior Associate, Insights & Strategy; and Yash Vardhan Gaddhyan, Portfolio Analyst

For years, Nidhi Pant held the perception that farmers were predominantly male. But as she and the other founders of the company, S4S, spent more time in India’s villages, they witnessed a large number of women actively engaged in farming — even while managing household responsibilities. Although these women faced precarious circumstances and had limited opportunities within the village context, Nidhi and her co-founders discovered a clear desire to improve their livelihoods and actively search for new opportunities. Three years and 2,000 customers later, not only did S4S create such opportunities, they also demonstrated the impact of supporting women entrepreneurs while safeguarding the environment.

In India, 75% of women work in agriculture and agri-allied industries (food processing and dairy) that are particularly vulnerable to climate change. In addition, women have limited access to land, resources, and technologies, as well as restricted mobility, decision-making power, and financial independence. Gender-based pay gaps and discrimination limit their economic opportunities and undermine their resilience to climate shocks and disasters.

These challenges could be addressed, at least in part, by integrating women into the emerging decentralized renewable energy (DRE) sector. According to a new report, technologies such as solar powered freezers and dryers, have enabled rural women to access new income-generating opportunities and reduce their reliance on diesel-powered alternatives, thereby reducing CO2 emissions. 

There is a growing number of entrepreneurs like Nidhi who are heeding these insights and demonstrating the ability of cleantech solutions to reduce gender inequality, increase women participation in the workforce, and mitigate CO2 emissions.

Farmers harvest ginger in a field in Aurangabad, India. Photo credit: Saumya Khandelwal.

Investing in Women and the Environment

Based in India, S4S sells solar conduction dryers to microentrepreneurs, most of whom are rural women, who use the dryers to dehydrate raw vegetables. The company purchases lower-grade rejected produce from farmers and brings it to the microentrepreneurs to dry. The dehydrated products are transported to a central processing facility for packaging and sold to large-scale production companies and food service providers.

By adopting a strategy of transporting dehydrated products rather than raw produce, S4S has significantly reduced logistical costs by up to 80 percent and avoided hundreds of thousands of tonnes of CO2 emissions. In 2022 alone, S4S successfully  avoided emitting 485,895 MT of CO2. Additionally, within the past year, S4S has generated employment opportunities for over 500 women. In rural areas of India, women struggle to get loans from banks, due to a lack of economic power and collateral. To make its dryers affordable, S4S partnered with national and local banks to provide loans to microentrepreneurs which help them pay for the dryer over time. The impact has been significant. A 60dB study found that 9 out of 10 entrepreneurs reported an increase in their incomes after working with S4S, and 85% reported an improved quality of life.  

“It is better work than doing other labor work. There is no need to work in the fields under the sun. One can work hard here and earn. It is also possible to save up some extra money for children’s education.”  S4S microentrepreneur

Another one of Acumen’s investments, Promethean, is also exploring the potential of decentralized renewable energy on rural women’s livelihoods. The company provides access to refrigeration for dairy farmers, and after initial pilots with women farmer groups, they are rolling out a community chilling hub model that is owned and operated by women.  These rural chilling hubs combine Promethean’s chilling technology in weak-grid settings with a suite of services that enable farmers to deposit milk, reach wider markets, and expand their dairy farms to build more sustainable incomes and livelihoods. The company is empowering women Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLE), Self Help Groups (SHG), and Farmer Producer Organizations (FPO) to build a cooperative-based model that reduces the financial liability of entrepreneurs, strengthens community buy-in, and increases community ownership. In India, where women own only 20 to 30 percent of all household wealth, community-owned assets can create a deep impact in these women’s lives. 

“It Takes a Village”

At a sector level, there is a $50 billion economic opportunity to provide innovative cleantech solutions in rural areas. A major chunk of this figure, nearly $40 billion, will fund basic farm equipment like sprayers, transplanters, and harvesters, while the remainder will fund activities like tailoring, including solar powered sewing machines, and dairy and food processing. Yet, despite these optimistic outlooks, there is still a major bottleneck in the lack of capital available to develop new technologies and business models. The deployments of these technologies are only in the hundreds; we need millions.

A female agent carries ginger before packing and weighing it in Aurangabad, India. Photo credit: Saumya Khandelwal

Nascent enterprises require seed capital for R&D and manufacturing to demonstrate pilots and prove business viability followed by growth capital to scale the solutions. Initial capital expenditures can be an enormous barrier for companies, as mainstream funds are more attracted to pure tech play solutions. In 2021, cleantech solutions with in-person touchpoints received only 9 percent of climate-tech investments. Even climate-tech investments received only 9 percent of total investments, compared to sectors like financial inclusion which received more than a quarter of investments. Impact investors tend to avoid these riskier business models which take longer to scale and realize returns. However, their impact — as shown by S4S and others — is immense. That’s exactly where Patient Capital steps in.

At Acumen, we fund impactful solutions which may be considered risky by other investors, but we are only one investor in an ecosystem of actors with different strengths, vantage points, and capabilities. Much like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to create sustainable livelihoods for women. The scale of this problem requires more investors who are willing to take on risk and use Patient Capital to drive sustainable impact. 

Addressing the structural and cultural barriers that women face requires more time, resources, intention, and iteration, but the increased effort is well worth the potential reward. By 2030, 30 million women-owned MSMEs in India will employ about 150 million people, and India’s GDP may increase up to 18 percent just by providing equal work opportunities for women. For Nidhi and S4S, the benefits go beyond income and GDP. Centering and investing in rural women can mean a better quality of life for those women and their communities. Decentralized renewable energy is the seed with which we can feed two birds: a more inclusive and equitable agricultural sector that benefits both women and the environment.