It is nothing short of genius when you take two of the country’s biggest problems – poverty and power crisis – and use it to empower the weakest link in society.
The technical training program launched by the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) which teaches underprivileged women to assemble and operate UPS and solar panels as a means of income generation is a shining example of innovative problem-solving.
The program which was launched in June, 2013 with a batch of 25 women from different parts of Lahore is currently training its third batch that has nearly twice as many participants. The program operates on a two-pronged principle: to empower women by helping them become earning members of society and provide families with sustainable energy alternatives.
“Most government programs provide support and loans to skilled labour. But poverty cannot be eradicated unless you pay attention to the unskilled labour which forms a much larger proportion,” says Durr e Shahwar, program manager for APWA.
“You have to develop skills in them if you really want to end unemployment.”
The program runs in multiple stages. The first stage involves capacity building where women are provided with the technical expertise to assemble UPS and solar panels. No prior education or technical knowledge is required to enroll. The next stage involves providing them with financial assistance and helping them develop networks to procure orders and sell their finished products. This is done especially to encourage small businesses and promote female entrepreneurship.
Each UPS takes between two to three hours to assemble and earns a profit of Rs600-Rs700 per unit. However, Shawar says that one of the primary challenges is to ensure that the market stakeholders take the products seriously and do not cheat these women.
“It is very common for vendors to slash profit margins by 50% just because a product has been made by a woman,” she says. “One of our major obstacles is to battle such attitudes.” Shahwar hopes that once the program develops further, these women will gain direct access to the market, which will allow them to keep the entire monetary return on their product.
Despite the challenges, the program has shown great promise, especially in minority communities such as Christians and Hindus. According to Shahwar, these women are particularly enthusiastic as they want to escape the usual rut of being the cleaning staff. They want a better life and this shows them a way to achieve that. Nearly 45% of the participants of the program belong to minority communities.
Shamshad Mary Thomas, a resident of Joseph Colony, Lahore, has been a part of the skills training program since December, 2013 and is optimistic that the additional income will turn things around for her five children.
“Initially there were very few people but as more people began to understand the potential, women from surrounding areas such as Christian Colony also joined us,” says Thomas.
Thomas who has done her matriculation finds the theoretical training more challenging than the practical assembling of the UPS. Once she procures the required financial aid from APWA, she plans to set up her own small business where she can assemble and sell UPS and solar panels in her neighbourhood.
“Once women feel financially independent, they even stand up to domestic violence. In some cases, they have even used the money to send their children to school,” says Shahwar.
Along with female empowerment, the program also seeks to provide alternative energy options as Pakistan currently faces an electricity shortage of 13,000 megawatts per day. By introducing solar powered UPS and panels, the program aims to provide cost-effective, environmentally friendly and self-sustainable options to a large section of the population, which either does not have access to electricity or suffers from massive power outages.
The program was initially designed to launch across different parts of Punjab but is currently limited to Lahore along with a few participants from Bahawalpur due to resource constraints.
However, the long-term plan involves taking the initiative to areas such Rahim Yar Khan, Lodhran, Vehari , Multan and Bahawalnagar.
“We do plan to expand the size of the program but even if one woman gets empowered and manages to improve her life, we count that as success,” says Shahwar.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 7th, 2014.