Cultivating women’s inner strength and capacities for entrepreneurship

Dr. Anita Shankar discusses agency building, ENERGIA’s work, and how women are empowered from the inside out.

When you hear the word ‘agency’, the first thing that may come to mind is a physical entity, a building with people working away in an office, a travel agency, a recruitment agency, a government department, and so on. But what those entities and all of us as individuals share is an ability to act, an independent capacity to do and achieve things—that is the true origin of the word agency. Merriam-Webster defines agency as “the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power.”

Dr. Anita Shankar

Empowering individuals’ agency is exactly what Dr. Anita Shankar and ENERGIA aim to achieve in their work together. Anita is leading an effort to train female energy entrepreneurs globally through a programme focused on building gender-sensitive business skills, agency-based empowerment, and innovative leadership. That programme, developed together with Genevieve Smith of the Visionaria Network with the support of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, is the Empowered Entrepreneur Training Programme (EETP), which ENERGIA’s partners and associated women entrepreneurs also participate in.

In an interview with Anita, she explains how agency building underpins the empowerment of women, one of ENERGIA’s focus areas.

“Globally, women’s empowerment programmes tend to focus on external resources, such as the provision of credit or skills training as a means of becoming more empowered. Fewer programmes explicitly focus on fostering personal agency as a critical strategy to empower women. ENERGIA’s field programmes are unique in that they combine both the critical business and financial supports as well as a focus on personal agency.  This is important because women have historically been burdened by societal structures and cultural norms that discriminate against them, limit their opportunities and lead to a diminished sense of agency. It is critical that empowerment programmes specifically target methods that strengthen a person’s sense of self, help them find their voice and take the steps towards goals that are meaningful to them.”

Discovering and then triggering one’s personal agency involves strengthening one’s inner resources, using one’s thoughts, beliefs, values, emotions and actions to move towards goals for one’s family, community and most importantly, for oneself. And there are many ways to cultivate an individual’s agency.

Trainers from India and Nepal participate in Bangalore EETP

Anita points out, “we use exercises from various psychological approaches such as psychoanalysis, cognitive behavioral therapies and mindfulness to empower women to realise their full potential.” An excellent example of the impacts of the EETP activities can be seen in ENERGIA’s programme with Centre for Rural Technologies in Nepal (CRT/N).

Prior to the EETP training, the group of 20 Nepalese women worked as government employees as installers of fixed stoves and were being paid low working wages. The EETP focused on enabling the women to uncover their agency to sell cookstoves on their own. Within months after the training, ten women in the programme continued selling cookstoves. Notably, four of the ten active sellers went on to register their business and are now actively mobilising 25 other women entrepreneurs as retailers.

In an analysis of more than one hundred trained entrepreneurs working with Practical Action/SCODE, another ENERGIA partner, showed more than 15% increases in sales over time and a tripling of the percentage of the highest sellers over the six month follow up as compared with those that didn’t get the training.

Energy 4 Impact trainer Sammy Kitula leads a business training activity at the Kenya ToT

With the support of USAID and Winrock,  Anita has helped train nearly 70 trainers from more than 20 organisations throughout Asia and East Africa, including trainers from each of ENERGIA’s five Women’s Economic Empowerment Programme partners. Anita shared the results of the trainings.

“From our monitoring and evaluation data, we found significant increases in sales, with a substantial increase in higher sellers, greater retention in the business and greater likelihood of promotion within their organisation. In addition to these sales related benefits, there were a number of personal benefits as well. Firstly, women have improved relationships with others and in the community. For example, they were more likely to come together and work as a group to expand their markets and sales. Secondly, the women were more likely to try new things, such as speak with retailers or other distributors. Usually women significantly expanded the number of strategies they used. Next, they felt more hopeful because they were confident they could overcome the many challenges they faced in their business; and finally, they felt good about themselves and felt real pride in their accomplishments.”

Not every woman who participates in the trainings is ready or able to achieve change in their lives due to factors such as the local culture, social norms or psychological barriers. Yet, many women are able to create dramatic change in their lives—to transform their mindsets and become successful entrepreneurs and leaders in their communities. The level of creativity and innovation the women in the trainings show is just incredible,” adds Anita.



Interested in an Empowered Entrepreneur Training for your organisation? The Empowered Entrepreneur Training Fund (EETF) is a small grants fund designed to partially subsidise training programmes for organisations working to sell cookstoves and other energy products in East Africa to train their sales staff or entrepreneurs in critical business, empowerment and leadership training. Please apply here.