Jennifer Burney from the University of California San Diego, US, and her colleagues spotted an opportunity to measure the impact of women's empowerment during the roll-out of a rural solar electrification scheme in the Kalalé region of Benin, West Africa. The Solar Market Garden project is a photovoltaic pumping and irrigation system aimed at expanding agricultural production for local women's farming groups, to remove the need for hand-watering of crops.

Following a small pilot study, the project was scaled up in 2013 and rolled out to eight villages. Burney and her colleagues surveyed all members of the women's agricultural groups in the eight Solar Market Garden villages, and eight matched-pair comparison villages without Solar Market Garden, along with a random sample of 30 non-women's group households in each of the 16 villages.

Surveys were carried out soon after the installation of the Solar Market Garden project, and then one year later, with household questionnaires asking about nutrition, household decision making, sharing of chores, measures of independence, religious freedom and household finances.

The study showed that the Solar Market Garden significantly positively impacted women's empowerment, particularly in terms of giving women economic independence.

"We observed real structural changes in households," said Burney. "Once women are getting to participate in investment decisions, the whole household dynamic has changed." The women who benefited from the Solar Market Garden project gained new decision-making powers, more physical independence, economic independence, self-confidence and respect at home. Some of the changes were quite a surprise. "I was not anticipating that men helping out would be such an important factor," said Douglas Taren from the University of Arizona, US.

Unlike previous studies where empowerment was defined before the study began, this research asked a wide variety of questions about lifestyle and then used the answers to analyse what had changed and whether the changes could be considered empowering for women.

"The nice thing about this strategy was that it captured what mattered locally and captured those changes, and it is a method that can easily be replicated elsewhere," said Burney, who published the findings in Environmental Research Letters (ERL) .

In this case, it’s clear that the arrival of a small-scale clean energy scheme had a positive impact on women's empowerment, but whether it was the electrification alone that was the trigger is not so clear. "This study can't tell us whether a totally different project, such as small business loans, would give the same amount of economic boost to women and the same empowerment impacts," said Burney. "We hope that others will start to use our methodology to test these kinds of questions."

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