The Invisible Women in Energy: Biomass Producers Who Deserve More Recognition

About 2.5 billion people globally rely for cooking on the traditional use of solid biomass, notably fuelwood, charcoal and dung.  This figure includes 680 million people in India and 800 million throughout Sub-Saharan Africa

Indian woman bends over her wood-burning stove in her home in northern India. Credit: Athar Parzaiv/IPS

By Philippe Benoit and Jully Meriño
WASHINGTON DC, Apr 8 2021 – As the world looks to address issues of gender equity, development and climate change, the importance of increasing the participation of women in the energy sector is gaining attention. To date, this topic has generally been framed around the underrepresentation of women in the energy workforce.

But this ignores an important reality: millions of women already participate as producers of energy – specifically of bioenergy for poor households.  To support sustainable development and gender goals, more attention needs to be given to these women energy producers who have remained largely invisible in much of the energy discourse.

Women account for only 22% of the jobs in the oil and gas industry and only 32% in the renewables sector.  When it comes to managerial and other decision-making positions, the share of women is even lower; for example, their representation in energy company boardrooms is less than 5%.

About 2.5 billion people globally rely for cooking on the traditional use of solid biomass, notably fuelwood, charcoal and dung.  This figure includes 680 million people in India and 800 million throughout Sub-Saharan Africa

In response, several programs have been launched to increase women’s participation in the energy sector. These programs are succeeding in raising awareness about the need for more women in the sector, building networks to support women practitioners, and giving visibility to the women already working in energy – albeit with a focus on the formal, professionalized segments that constitute the energy industry.

But this focus on addressing underrepresentation in the formal segments of the sector – a very important effort — can generate the misperception that women are in fact not active in producing the world’s energy. Many assume their role is largely limited to consuming energy (e.g., at home, at work, or for leisure), not supplying it.  And therein lies an overlooked reality: millions of women worldwide are producers of biomass, a form of bioenergy.

About 2.5 billion people globally rely for cooking on the traditional use of solid biomass, notably fuelwood, charcoal and dung.  This figure includes 680 million people in India and 800 million throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

Biomass is also used by the poor for other purposes, such as heating homes in colder regions.  In many lower-income countries, biomass can constitute over 90 percent of the energy that poor households use.  It is provided through small-scale commercial ventures, but much is also generated by households for their own use.

Around the developing world, women play a central role in producing this bioenergy, notably by gathering wood and making charcoal. In fact, this is a segment of the energy sector where women are often overrepresented.

As the World Bank reported last year, “across most of Sub-Saharan Arica and in parts of China, women are the primary fuel wood collectors,” which is also the case in areas of South Asia. This is time-consuming and physically demanding work that can involve “collecting and carrying loads of wood that weigh as much as 25-50 kilogrammes” and can “take up to 20 or more hours per week.”  Unfortunately, we lack hard data about the number of women engaged in this energy production.

Biomass has already been receiving attention in development circles because of the problems associated with its use in traditional cookstoves, such as negative health impacts on notably the women who cook and the burdens of collecting firewood.

To address this issue, the United Nations has adopted as one of its Sustainable Development Goals the replacement of traditional biomass use with clean cooking technologies. This targeting of biomass and its harmful impacts does not, however, negate the role its women producers play in the energy sector (just as the climate and environmental concerns surrounding coal do not erase the role of miners).

Several actions can help to make these women producers more visible in the energy discourse.

First, recognizing the role they play in energy supply can help to shift the notion and perception of dependency: women actively participate in the production, not just the use, of household energy.

Failing to understand women’s contribution to global energy production will continue to perpetuate the myth of women as mainly (dependent) energy users, which can hamper efforts to ensure their full participation in decision-making and leadership roles within all levels of society.

Second, there is a paucity of data regarding these women producers – a situation that reflects the lack of attention they receive and also contributes to their lack of visibility.

How many women work in producing biomass (generally as unpaid labor)? How many women will be affected by changes in biomass production systems?  What will they do in a changed world?  This type of information can help address their needs and to plan for their engagement in the energy transition.  We need more data.

Third, it is important to acknowledge and properly value this work in producing household bioenergy, and to report it in energy workforce statistics. When a company produces electricity for its own use, it is called a “self-producer.”

When a woman produces biomass for use in her home, it all too often goes nameless.  The recognition of this women’s labor would also help in the effort to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” the UN’s fifth Sustainable Development Goal.

Fourth, in developing programs and initiatives to shift households from traditional biomass use to clean cooking technologies, it is important not only to consider the effect on women as consumers, but also address the impact on women as energy producers to ensure that their needs are being met.

Moreover, because these efforts to shift how households use biomass will also affect greenhouse gas emissions, the topic has entered the climate discourse. As world leaders discuss how to limit climate change at the upcoming summit convened by US President Biden or thereafter at the international COP negotiations, it is important to ensure that the situation of these women producers — their voices, concerns, and aspirations — are adequately taken into account when planning the clean energy transition (just as the concerns of coal miners and others are also considered).

Acknowledging the central role that millions of women play in producing the world’s bioenergy can lead to a greater empowerment of women across the sector.

As efforts to boost the participation of women in energy mature, it will be important to better recognize and analyze the contributions of these women producers, and to design policies that will help improve their standards of living, including as part of the clean energy transition.


Philippe Benoit is managing director, Energy and Sustainability at Global Infrastructure Advisory Services 2050 and adjunct senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy where he leads the energy for development research initiative.

Jully Meriño Carela is the director of the Women in Energy program at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

The views expressed are those of the authors in their personal capacities.

Overcoming COVID-19: World Leaders Must Finance a More Equal World to Beat Pandemics

High school graduation, Accra, Ghana, 2013. Credit: United Nations

By Winnie Byanyima
GENEVA, Apr 8 2021 – Leaders at this year’s World Bank/IMF Spring Meetings (April 5-11) will determine how best to recover from one of the biggest crises the institutions have faced since their founding in 1944—COVID-19’s impact and its economic aftermath.

Given the need to fund treatment and vaccines, there is pressure to scale back funding for social provisions. But doing so would prove a catastrophic—and costly—mistake. Instead, leaders must boldly finance a more equal world.

The issue isn’t just that COVID’s impact is unequal; it’s that inequalities, especially gender inequality, hamper an effective recovery. They undermine the world’s readiness for future pandemics and shocks, and block achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

It is one thing to call for these inequalities to be addressed—and another to allocate funding to rectify them. We must invest in rights for them to be actualized.

COVID-19 has dramatically widened gaps between women and men in wealth, income, access to services, the burden of unpaid care, status and power. Pre-pandemic, 132 million girls were out of school.

Twenty million more secondary school-aged girls could be out of school post-pandemic. Many will not go back, putting them at greater risk for violence, HIV, teenage pregnancy, child marriage, poor health and poverty.

Because of COVID-19, two and a half million more girls are at risk of child marriage in the next five years and rates of violence against women and girls have precipitously increased. In the pandemic, women bear the brunt of job losses and comprise the majority of frontline health workers, many of whom are under-protected and under-paid.

Gender inequality is not only wrong—it is dangerous and weakens us all. It drives the spread of COVID-19 while threatening progress against AIDS and other pandemics. It depresses economic potential too: economies and nations only flourish when women can. Recovery strategies to pandemics cannot be gender blind or gender neutral. They must overturn the inequalities that hold women back.

COVID-19 lays bare social inequality says UN chief, as COVAX doses top 36 million. Mali begins its vaccination programme against COVID-19 with Fanta Siby, Minister for Health, the first to be inoculated. Credit: UNICEF/Seyba Keïta

Prior to COVID-19, many economies and societies were weakened by insufficient investments in health, education and social protection. The COVID-19 crisis revealed the pre-existing lack of resilience in many parts of our economies and societies. Finding the financing to fight inequality in the recovery from COVID-19 is essential.

How can world leaders finance an equal economic recovery from COVID-19?

Issuing Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) will help. A range of G20, emerging and developing nations support them. An agreement to secure $500 billion in SDRs, under discussion, could allow up to $25 billion to flow to the central banks of African nations.

Preferable would be securing up to $650 billion, the cap that requires U.S. Congressional approval. Should wealthy nations share even half of their proportional issuance with developing nations, SDRs could powerfully undergird vital investments.

Cancelling debt is critical. A large share of low and middle-income countries’ budgets pays off debt. This is especially the case in Sub-Saharan Africa where government debt increased to an estimated 70 percent of GDP in 2020.

Building back better after COVID-19 requires ensuring that no debt service payments be made, or forced, until investments necessary for achieving the UN SDG on health are secured.

Countries need to increase domestic revenues. The economic impacts of COVID-19 make this challenging short term. But policy changes can lay the path to domestic resource mobilization in days to come.

Three areas requiring policy change that could increase domestic resources are: 1) protecting against international tax evasion (through the G20-OECD-led processes) by setting a global, minimum corporate tax rate affecting all geographies/all companies, including digital ones, 2) establishing emergency tax measures such as taxes on wealth or excess profits in times of crisis and 3) designing progressive tax systems at the local and regional levels for both capital and income.

These new sources of funding can help eliminate user fees and boost investments in health and education.

User fees are a grave injustice—they tax the sick and increase mortality and morbidity while exacerbating poverty and inequities. No new mother should be chained to her hospital bed for not having the money to pay for her child’s birth.

Charging for healthcare not only hurts those affected; the spillover costs of ill health drain economic potential. Health crises won’t be stopped if some people can’t afford testing or treatment. Publicly provided healthcare is the most efficient and effective form of provision—it’s not an unaffordable burden but a smart investment.

Ensuring girls’ education and empowerment is vital to recovery. The gains from girls’ schooling are multiple, proven, and profound—from helping to prevent child marriages and teenage pregnancies and reducing violence and HIV infections, to increasing future earnings and strengthening economic growth.

Crises are a reckoning: they show us what is broken—and what needs to be fixed. Achieving a more equal world is not only a moral imperative—it will make the world more resilient to pandemics and makes us all healthier, safer and more prosperous. We can’t afford not to do it.


!function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?’http’:’https’;if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);;js.src=p+’://’;fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, ‘script’, ‘twitter-wjs’);