Engineer Rekik Bekele lights up rural households in Ethiopia with her solar systems. An entrepreneur who empowers women, she tells us what ‘energy equality’ looks like to her.
Words by Megan Brownrigg
“When I sell a single solar lamp I think it’s one less woman being at risk of what happened to Igan.”
My banana has gone brown, I’m so engrossed in Rekik’s motivations to be a solar engineer that I forget to eat it. The fruit floats between us, unbitten, like a toy microphone while she continues her story.
Rekik has never met Igan, the woman she’s talking about. She heard about her at a focus group early in her career, when she asked a village elder how solar power could help his rural community. He spoke of the ‘steel-roofed house’ which Igan had built thirty years ago, after her grass-thatched home had burned down.
Thankfully she wasn’t hurt in the fire, having been out looking for a missing goat at the time. But what stains Igan’s story onto the collective consciousness of her community, is that her eight-year-old daughter had been asleep inside during the blaze. “Having lost her child, Igan could change the fabric of her roof, but not the kerosene lamp which caused the fire”, Rekik explains. It’s this tale of a mother without choices which drives Rekik to bring solar energy to rural areas of Ethiopia today.
“Kerosene can’t switch a radio on or charge a phone.”
35-year-old Rekik is an engineer from Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa, where markets carpet the floor and skyscrapers tickle the sky. She grew up with access to power and firmly believes energy equality is a way to empower her country’s population. But with over half of Ethiopia living without access to electricity, the light they do have is usually laced with kerosene. An oil that, even with its blotchy reputation, is by no means cheap. The fuel claims up to 10% of a family’s income a month in rural Ethiopia, often tipping them into fuel poverty.
And whilst kerosene lights up lamps, it doesn’t provide power. “Kerosene can’t switch a radio on or charge a phone”, Rekik highlights the not-so-obvious. “Instead, isolated women have limited access to information, kids damage their lungs doing homework and men are forced to walk miles to charging stations.” Because of stretched budgets, families also sacrifice important evening rituals like the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, which gives them precious time together. “All of these things can be sorted by a solar system” Rekik says. “It means a lot for families”. For the same monthly cost families can own a solar system outright in less than a year, all the while powering their entire home rather than a single lamp.
Being a female solar engineer in Ethiopia hasn’t come without its challenges for Rekik. Her first boss sent her out for an 18-day trial before hiring her officially. Whilst I knot my face in outrage, Rekik calls him a good man, who was sensible to check she could handle the heat that women inevitably face in the field.
She remembers having her head burrowed in the rafters of one remote health centre, installing lights whilst a crowd gathered below. “They were saying… ‘Look at her! She’s like a guy! She’s brave like a guy!’”. Rekik remembers the mesmerised exclamations with a muted laugh. “It was encouraging and disappointing at the same time. The shock that a woman can do work like that.” Stereotypes have manifested more seriously on her assignments. Getting to work every day got very awkward for Rekik when local drivers refused to take directions from a woman. After-work drinks also lost their charm. “People would say “Why is she here? What does she want? She can’t be an engineer.” Locals thought I was a ‘loose’ girl out for the evening”.
After one long day like this, Rekik was hunkering down in her sleeping bag when she heard shouts at the door. “They were male voices. Drunk and shouting ‘Rekik, we want you!’. I was so scared.” Rekik’s male colleagues helped to keep her safe at the time, and eventually the threatening gaggle went away, but the memory remains in the shallows of her recall. “You have to understand that Ethiopian families often discourage their daughters, sisters and wives from becoming engineers because of ‘problems’ in the industry. These problems are as small as time away from home, and as big as rape.”
Rekik remembers the night with the shouting as unnervingly frightening, but far from making her want to abandon the field. Instead, she wants to bring more women into it. She believes that by normalising women as engineers, they will be seen as professionals instead of targets.
“I want young female engineers to be better than me.”
Engineering was never a vocation that Rekik was going to let go lightly. One of her first jobs was installing solar power in a hospital. She remembers witnessing first-hand how it enabled midwives, who had previously been delivering babies with phone torches sandwiched between their teeth. “I really saw the difference I could make in this moment. I saw how light can change lives”.
Today Rekik is an entrepreneur as well as an engineer. She commands a room in the way kind people do, by making everyone in that room feel welcome, whilst making exceptional waves in it themselves. She founded Green Scene, her solar energy company, in Addis Ababa in 2016. “Knowing what is possible and knowing the potential of Ethiopia, means that thinking of engineering solutions to fill gaps excites me all the time”, she explains. Green Scene installs solar systems in off-grid Ethiopia and has reduced CO2 emissions by nearly 1 million tonnes in 3 years, lighting 22,500 households in the process. It’s all very, very, undeniably, cool.
“I really saw the difference I could make. I saw how light can change lives”.
For Green Scene, the environmental wins come second to the social impacts of their work, especially for women. Rekik recently partnered with an organisation which offers loans to female heads of households such as single mothers and widows, to invest in solar energy. Another of her collaborations is with factory workers, 95% of whom are female in Ethiopia. Rekik wants to pre-finance their solar energy so these ladies don’t come home to darkness after working all day in lit workshops.
Green Scene also smartly plans to work with door to door saleswomen who can sell their solar products. “We aren’t just doing this to help these women, we are doing it because we know they will be successful in helping us”, Rekik emphasises. She means business and not charity. All her customers will eventually pay for their own energy via instalment plans and customers are responsible for the maintenance of their own solar systems. Whilst the bulk of Ethiopia’s solar products are imported by faceless wholesalers, with 76% of them not meeting the Lighting Global Quality Standards, Green Scene assures quality and keeps in touch with the communities they serve.
When Rekik isn’t busy installing solar systems, her side hustle is lifting other women into engineering. But she is honest about the challenges of an equal gender split, even in her own office. Of 13 Green Scene staff, only 3 are currently women. “We had nearly 200 applicants to our job ads and not even 25 were female. The sad truth is the quality of women’s applications can be less. Not because they’re less capable, but because they’ve had less opportunity. You have to balance the guarantee of quality staff with giving a woman a chance to shine”. Rekik doesn’t just hire women to help them, she also shares a candid playbook of her own struggles. “Being a female entrepreneur, especially a mum, is completely different. I didn’t get maternity leave. I had huge hormonal changes in my body whilst I tried to work. Sometimes I would think why am I doing this? I hope talking openly about these experiences will make other women feel less alone”. After speaking to me between business meetings, Rekik enjoys her daily appointment of a picnic lunch with her little girl on the lawn— who, by the way, is a brilliant force to be reckoned with, aged 2 (at the time).
You’d be forgiven for thinking that working in a male-dominated field could ignite an ‘each woman for herself’ mentality in Rekik. But she welcomes competition on an almost weirdly generous level. Her smile is easy, but her gaze is serious, when she says “I want young female engineers to be better than me. Technology is getting faster and these women are really smart, so it should be easy”. Challenge well and truly declared, girls.
But perhaps the standout thing about Rekik is how she’s willing to be out of a job. Asked where she’d like her industry to go in the coming years, she inhales and confides; “In my own home I use a water heater, I cook, I refrigerate. We can’t expect people to live with solar light only. It’s not full energy freedom. My dream is for all of Ethiopia to be part of the national grid.” If the Ethiopian government’s goal to electrify the country by 2025 is met, with full grid-reach by 2030, conventional electricity will inevitably overtake Rekik’s rural solar systems. But above personal interest or even cutting carbon, Rekik wants this energy equality. “Because without energy there is no economy.” She wants a level playing field across Ethiopia where businesses can grow because they have access to technology, information and light. But a final caveat reveals the agile scope of this engineer’s lateral thinking.
“Of course, Green Scene would have solar farms supplying the national grid.”
Rest assured, Rekik’s business and our planet are better off with her electric dream.