A woman with a solar secret

“We feel like champions. People don’t know how we find the solar lights, so we feel that we are progressive.”

The big beautiful bougainvillaea bustling with pink flowers in 45-year-old Magret Nkhata’s garden stands witness to her love of gardening. For 15 years she has been living in her house in Imran Village in Malawi, a house surrounded by elaborate landscaping where she lives with her husband and four children. But as beautiful as the landscape is, when the sun sets, a dense darkness spreads across the village. The lack of access to electricity in this part of Malawi turns the otherwise bustling landscape dark and dangerous. “We met a lot of things in the darkness. Sometimes we encountered snakes. Sometimes people went outside and were bitten by dogs.”

Next to her love for gardening, Magret loves to cook, she starts by getting vegetables, and then she stirs the maize flour until it slowly turns into a porridge, nsima, a staple food in Malawi. When the family is celebrating, they cook rice. But without access to light, all these chores are difficult to carry out.

“We used torches but sometimes we didn’t have money, and we were sleeping in the dark. When there was no money, we used straw fire (…) Sometimes I hear that a house has caught fire because they were lighting with straw fire,” Magret explains.

Margret outside her home in Imran Village. SolarAid/Chris Gagnon.

Magret is ambitious and straight to the point. She chooses her words carefully. Even though she didn’t finish school, she went further than most women her age in this part of Malawi, “I dropped out of school in Form 2. I left school because we didn’t have enough money to pay the school fees. My parents couldn’t find money so I had to get married.” 

Now she dreams of giving her four children the education she didn’t get. Without access to electricity, this has been a struggle. “It was difficult for the school children to study. They were just sleeping without studying. When we had no money, they couldn’t study because we were unable to buy batteries. It was a problem because I felt they will not go far with school.”

Her determination to put her children through school means she tries to make the most out of every opportunity that she sees. She keeps pigeons and chickens and she grows farm produce. “I grow crops. I also run a small business selling Mandasi. I grow maize for food. I also grow peanuts and beans which are for sale,” but this is not always enough, “In the past I was selling tomatoes but I didn’t make any profit.”

Magret at her tomato stall. SolarAid/Chris Gagnon.

It was when SolarAid’s social enterprise SunnyMoney offered a group of women the chance to form a ‘Mayi Walas’ group (a group of solar light female entrepreneurs) in June 2021, that Magret saw an opportunity for change. Together with other women in her village, they formed the Mayi Walas group ‘Tikondane’.

Through SunnyMoney and the Mayi Walas programme, the women receive access to training, financing solutions and long-term business support, “The training has been important because I am doing business, and I don’t lack salt or relish. My children are good and go to school. Our group is also benefiting since we do personal trade and group business. In the group business everyone is benefiting. For the household business that we do, every woman is also benefiting.”

Women in rural Malawi face many barriers in launching, growing and scaling successful businesses. With the support of SunnyMoney, and by working as a collective, the Mayi Walas are able to break through the barriers, and they are finding strength in working as a collective, “I think there is power when women come together. We share knowledge and there is power in that. We also bring cash together (…) Women understand one another. 

The goodness is that we know that women can run businesses. Besides, we come back with profits from the business, for both the group and members. So we see that it is beneficial for both the group and households.”

The Tikondane Mayi Wala group dancing in excitment over the programme. SolarAid/Chris Gagnon.

Since the women formed a Mayi Wala group, things are changing, and Magret has found a new passion. She is a progressive businesswoman with a strong message for other women, “I want to tell my fellow women to move forward. We should join business associations. Joining groups has brought us solar light. We are doing business and our homes are lit (…) Don’t just stay at home waiting for the man. Development is not only brought by men. Women should develop our homes as well.

I am proud of my business. Women who are just sitting are living in the past. We are doing business. We don’t struggle to find relish. We don’t lack money for maize milling, and we buy school uniforms for our children. I see that my household is changing.”

Magret charges two solar lights in the sun outside her home. SolarAid/Chris Gagnon.

But being a businesswoman in rural Malawi is not easy, Magret explains, “Indeed, there are others who say a woman cannot do business. ‘Business is only for men because they are allowed to travel’. But we denied that, and we will still do business as long as we have approval from the husband at home.

Men should not deny their wives to join groups. They should let them join so that they can have a chance as well. Every member who joined Tikondane group is sleeping in presence of light. Women, don’t live in the past. Come and join groups so that you can learn business.”

Magret’s big house with the beautiful bougainvillaea is now one of many houses in the village with light inside as the sun sets, “ I love these lamps because they are durable and very bright. We switch it on in the evening until sunrise. These lamps are good and we are proud to have them. The solar lights are beneficial because we have school children in both primary and secondary schools. They use the lamp to study. No one is still buying batteries for their home.

Margret turns on her solar light inside her home. SolarAid/Chris Gagnon.

Knowing she has the support of the Tikodane group, and that there is a light switch to flick in the evening, has allowed Magret to start dreaming of her future,  

 “I am thinking about the future for my family. Where I am heading, I want my house to change. Everything must improve. I built my house, but I want to finish plastering the walls. I also want all my children to finish school (…) If the programme continues, our lives will change. School children will not struggle with school fees. And at home we will be eating well every day. We will not lack even soap.”

 “My dream is to continue the solar business so that everyone should have access. The whole area should have access to light. That is my dream.”