SANAA (AFP) – Ten trailblazing Yemeni women have overcome scepticism and ridicule to bring electricity to their villages, illuminating lives with a micro-grid solar business that they hope to expand across their war-torn region.
In a conservative country wracked by hunger and poverty amid a devastating war that has destroyed most infrastructure, 36-year-old Iman Hadi and her burqa-clad colleagues are achieving what many would have thought unthinkable.
Hadi has been managing the all-female Friends of the Environment Station in the rebel-held area of Abs, northwest of the capital Sanaa, since 2019.
Equipped with six solar power grids, the station is the only source of electricity for dozens of houses in several villages.
Hadi said the idea started when the women imagined what they could do to help ease the impact of war on the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula.
“We were able to make many people happy by connecting their houses to electricity,” said Hadi, wearing the all-covering robe and well-worn gloves as she sat behind her desk in a makeshift structure at the station.
The station, one of three in the country but the only run by an all-female crew, started with 20 houses. Today, it powers twice that number.
Tens of thousands have been killed since 2014 in the conflict, which pits the Iran-backed Huthi rebels against an internationally recognised government supported by a Saudi-led military coalition.
Hospitals, businesses and electricity plants have been destroyed or shuttered, amid severe fuel shortages that force many to work by candlelight.
Before the conflict, only around two thirds of Yemenis had access to the public electricity grid.
But amid the despair engulfing the country, one silver lining is emerging: solar power grids that started appearing on the roofs of houses in cities and villages.
“In Yemen, where people cannot afford to purchase food, access healthcare or other fundamental needs, providing the option of solar energy for remote areas empowers communities and builds hope and resilience in an otherwise often hopeless situation,” said United Nations (UN) Development Programme Resident Representative to Yemen Auke Lootsma.
Projects like Hadi’s station, which received UN and European Union (EU) funding and training, have helped Yemenis regain a semblance of normal life.
“Alhamdulillah, from morning and until evening, fans and washing machines and refrigerators and sewing machines are working in our house,” Faeiqa Najjar, one of Hadi’s customers, told AFP.
The power grid is helping others to earn money as well.
Hadi gives micro-loans from the monthly net profits of around USD2,000, allowing people to open small businesses like grocery stores and bakeries.
However, the Yemeni entrepreneur’s journey was anything but easy.
The small station surrounded by drab concrete walls is in a frontline region that often witnesses fighting between the rebels and government forces.
On top of that, rural society rejects the idea of women working outside the home.
“We have faced many difficulties, including ridicule and rejection from our families and society who believed that this sort of project is only for men,” Hadi said.
“But we have handled these difficulties with persistence. Today, their mockery has changed to appreciation and respect for women.”
In scenes that are novel for Yemen, every day the women mop and clean the navy blue solar grids, tighten the screws that hold them in place, check the battery life, and calculate consumption through meters hung on the walls.
The project has won the Ashden Awards for Humanitarian Energy that celebrates climate champions, and the UNDP is working to scale up the community business from three to 100 sites across the country.
Hadi was chosen as one of the BBC’s 100 most inspiring and influential women from around the world in 2020.
The power grid has turned her into a local business icon, with men asking for her advice as well as small loans.
Her long-term plan is to extend solar services to all 3,060 households in her area.
“My message to all women here is to rise up and to go out to fulfil their ambitions,” she said.