ENERGIA News: An interview with… Sheila Oparaocha


Sheila Oparaocha has over twenty of working experience in the gender and energy sector. She holds a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Veterinary Medicine and a Master’s Degree in Gender and Development Planning. Sheila is the overall manager of ENERGIA’s international programmes and also provides technical support to ENERGIA’s activities on women’s entrepreneurship development, gender mainstreaming in energy programmes, international policy advocacy, research and evidence development, network building and knowledge management. Sheila cochairs the Sustainable Development Goal 7 Technical Advisory Group that has been convened by UNDESA to review progress on SDG 7 and it interlinkages with other SDGs for the High level Political Forum.


The 2014-2019 Gender and Energy Research Programme was not the first research programme that ENERGIA has managed, but the largest. How did this research programme come about and how was this programme different from earlier programmes?

Indeed, we had an earlier research programme “Gender as a Key Variable in Energy Interventions: Are We Asking the Right Questions?”. We initiated the research programme as a result of our capacity building and advocacy work, during which we identified a number of gender and energy issues that required more in-depth analysis and thus decided to start our first research programme. This research programme which was based on case studies from different regions and programmes, provided us with some level of evidence on what was happening on the ground in terms of gender impacts of energy access, but it was not sufficient.

Later on, when we started doing gender audits of energy policies, we understood from speaking to key policy makers, that case studies were not sufficient. Empirical evidence to inform and influence public policy and help bring a systemic gender responsive change in the energy sector is extremely important. Following this, we conducted a scoping study to assess the level of empirical evidence on gender and energy access and found that the majority of the so called evidence was self-reporting from own projects and that there was little to no evidence from independent robust research. This lack of evidence contributed to energy policies being gender blind.

Great steps forward were made in 2015, when there was political recognition of the interlinkages between Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 on gender and SDGs 7 on energy. However, once gain while many assumptions were made about the linkages between SDG 5 and SDG 7, not many research studies provided convincing evidence for policy making. Therefore, it was clear to us that we needed to make a very strong evidence-based case for why the international community would not be able to ensure reliable, affordable, modern and sustainable energy for all (SDG7) without addressing gender issues. This is how our current Gender and Energy Research programme was conceived.

Although we wanted to be very ambitious, we realized that we had to prioritise which research gaps we could work on and thus focused on the following six thematic areas that were on the international energy policy agenda: electrification, productive uses of energy, energy sector reform, the role of the private sector in scaling up energy access, the political economy of energy sector policies, and women’s energy entrepreneurship, with the aim to provide robust evidence and analysis of the impacts of these interventions on gender equality and women’s empowerment. We used this to make our case for support to the research programme from our donor, the UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID), which was looking for “not business as usual” research.

What has been the added value of simultaneously having a research programme, an implementation programme and an advocacy programme at ENERGIA?

Over the years, ENERGIA has developed an ecosystems approach to energy and gender. This multi-pronged approach, which combines evidence building, lobby and advocacy, women’s economic empowerment, gender mainstreaming, knowledge and information sharing, and network building, has become pivotal in our strategy.

In this regard, first and foremost, in collaboration with our partners, we support women’s entrepreneurs to grow and run their own businesses in the energy sector, providing them with technical, business and leadership skills. Secondly, we support electricity utilities, energy programmes and rural electrification agencies to mainstream gender approaches in their institutions and operations. While these implementation efforts focused us to deliver results, our research allows us to deep dive into needs and barriers, and to verify our assumptions of the impacts of our inventions and what constituted game changing results.

At the same time, the right policy framework is required to implement our programmes and to scale up our results. Indeed, the lack of a policy framework means that most projects are not sustainable for the long term. Evidence constitutes a valuable source for governments to prioritise the right policy strategies at national, regional and international levels. This does not happen automatically. Advocacy and lobby activities are therefore crucial to influence and inform policymakers on what is actually working on the ground. Our network building allows us to enhance synergy and learning among key stakeholders on gender and energy. In summary, our implementation programmes demonstrate the how, our research programme shines a light on the impact, our advocacy programme informs and influences policy change, while our networking fosters partnerships to scale up gender intervention in the energy sector. This is why for us it is important that all our programmes are interconnected. You cannot do one without the other.

Which of the findings have you already been able to use directly?

The research programme has reconfirmed that taking a gender approach in the energy sector benefits all. As mentioned earlier, this does not happen automatically and we need to strive to scale up gender-responsive actions in energy policies, markets and programmes.

Another key point is linked to our Women’s Economic Empowerment Programme. The research programme confirmed that in order to realise women’s potential and scale up their business, they need to be supported through a comprehensive package of support, which includes capacity building in technology, business skills and leadership; marketing, promotion and distribution; access to finance; and one-to-one mentoring. In this regard, digital technology plays a crucial role in scaling up successful business. Nowadays, the mentoring and feedback process is through face-to-face interactions. This method works when you are dealing with thousands of women. However, when scaling up to work with ten thousands of women is when digital technology comes in. For example, with digital technology, mentors would be able to respond more rapidly.

Lack of women’s agency has been identified as a major barrier to their economic development. Women are hindered in pursuing income-generating opportunities because of social norms which do not allow them to build self-confidence and enter specific markets. Interventions that break these barriers, increase women’s self-confidence, decision making and direct control over resources and as such have been identified as central for women’s successful entrepreneurship in energy value chains.

The research programme has also shown that women and men typically run different types of productive activities. For this reason, they differ in their productive use of energy. Men are typically involved in electricity based enterprises. On the other hand, women are more reliant on fuels such as firewood, charcoal and LPG for running their businesses, which are usually informal and closer to their home. A complete understanding of women’s and men’s energy needs and of the nature of women’s businesses is an essential requirement for any energy intervention. Projects can be made more gender responsive and targeted by understanding what kind of energy is needed by which stakeholder group. On the basis of this evidence, ENERGIA supports local governments and authorities in Africa and Asia to address barriers to equal and equitable participation of women and men in the energy sector and to implement effective policy that increases equality through energy policy and energy programmes.

The research has also shown that end-use appliances can transform gender roles and relations. Whether the energy comes from solar, from the grid or traditional fuels, the choice of appliances can drive a change within the communities. Appliances could reduce women’s drudgery and encourage their participation in income-generating activities. To give an example, using a rice cooker or an ordinary pot, a washing machine or washing by hand, makes a big difference in how women are engaged in their business. Again, these findings constitute a starting point in the development of energy interventions and say much on the gender impacts in the expansion of energy access. Involving women in the design and implementation of energy interventions can strengthen the project outcomes.

These findings have been critical for our advocacy in intergovernmental negotiations. For example, as cofacilitator of the SDG 7 Technical Advisory Group, we contributed to the policy briefs, “Accelerating SDG 7 Achievement: SDG 7 Policy Briefs in Support of the High-level Political Forum 2019”, which focused on the links between SDG 7 and the SDGs under review at the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in July. Both, our experience on the ground with our implementing partners and the findings from our Research Programme, have been brought to the Summit with the aim to stress the urgency of targeted policies that empower women and meet the needs of the poor.


*This interview was originally published on our new issue of ENERGIA News. To know more, you can read this blogpost. In line with our commitment to reduce our impact on the planet and maximise resources, we have shifted from printed to digital dissemination of our publications. As this edition of ENERGIA News, all our publications are now equipped with a QR-code to facilitate easy download, disseminated through our online channels and available online on our website. The full publication can be found here. Please subscribe to our Newsletter to continue receiving ENERGIA News in the future: www.energia.org/subscribe. Do not forget to follow ENERGIA through our website and social media accounts: @energia_org (Twitter) and energia-gender-energy-network (Linkedin).