Last month, the Global Center for Climate Justice had a conversation with Monique Ntumngia, the Founder of Green Girls Organization. Green Girls works on the ground to increase energy access in rural African communities by educating and training women and girls to install and maintain clean energy technologies (such as solar photovoltaics and biogas digesters). Inadequate access to energy exacerbates class-based inequities and gendered power imbalances often found in communities where Monique works. The depletion of traditional sources of energy (such as firewood) is especially burdensome to women and girls because they often shoulder the brunt of energy procurement for the household. The labor of collecting firewood can be perilous, and exacerbate the degradation of the resource base which sustains local populations. This can be seen in problems of deforestation, the destruction of watersheds, and the subsequent flooding of farmland. Furthermore, perpetual smoke inhalation from wood fires for cooking and heat leads to high rates of asthma, bronchitis, respiratory infections, damaged eyesight, and other major health problems. These and other medical problems are easier to address when safe, reliable and locally owned renewable energy is available.
It is important to note that while we touch upon more local cultural norms that can create hardships for women, the most existential threats to women's safety and health stem from much larger inequities on a global scale. Resource scarcity is not an inevitability in the communities where Green Girls operates. The continent of Africa is rich with natural resources, many of which have been exploited and plundered by colonialist and neo-colonialist forces in the Global North. If these resources were instead under the democratic control of local communities and utilized sustainability for the benefit of the popular classes, a new climate just model of development could be initiated. What makes Monique’s work so profound and important is her ethos of solidarity. Grounded in her unyielding attention to and advocacy for the stated needs of the communities, she works in partnership with women to give them democratic control of climate-just energy solutions.
Trained as a lawyer, Monique was a Programs Director at a Pan African non-government organization (NGO) in September of 2014. She was on the field impact team, advocating for the education of young girls. While in a village in the Congo, a group of girls approached her to say, “we don’t have light, so how are we going to study at night?” She describes this as “a lovely lightbulb moment that actually led me to understand that the root of the problem was not solved. Did we need to let the Imams and the local authorities know the importance of [educating girls]? Yes. Had we gotten grants that were going to provide them with education and material for school for the next three years? Yes. But were they actually effectively going to learn? No.” For girls with the responsibility to fetch water, cook, and clean during the day, the only time available to study was at night. She continued, “So I said to my team, we really need to do something. If not, we’re just going to find ourselves in this vicious cycle where we’re actually not solving the problem.”
Monique noted the ironic position in which she found herself: having access to funding and a political platform for effecting change, but lacking an understanding of what “those who are affected by a certain problem actually need.” This led her to make a political shift in her work. Not everyone in such a circumstance pivots the way Monique’s team did, receiving permission to allocate $50,000 of their grant funding towards purchasing portable solar lamps to enable the girls to study at night.
Before long, Monique founded a separate nonprofit to address energy access. Thus, the Green Girls Organization was born. By 2015, the Green Girls’ focus was on data collection and the development of an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm to identify communities that would benefit from gaining access renewable energy technologies. They also began to focus on identifying which types of renewable energy most suited the particular environment and needs of the community. “No two African villages are the same,” says Monique. “That’s why we are always innovating. For instance, “in the northern communities [we used] only solar solutions, because they have sunlight almost the whole year round.” Meanwhile, in communities with any kind of animal farming, they also use biogas installations, enabling the transformation of waste into energy. She adds that while the algorithm is helpful, her team adapts their strategy on the ground to the needs they come across in conversations with village members. At each location, they must meet with government officials to receive permission to introduce the Green Women’s Empowerment Program, training women and girls to install and maintain solar lamps and solar panels, and to construct and operate biodigesters. This leads to self-governed access to renewable energy.
Through a process that Monique calls “sensitization,” the team spends time introducing her organization: “who we are, what we do, how long we are there, what are the [Sustainable Development Goals], what role they play. We make use of local translators who work with us for at least three months so they know what we are doing.” On market days when multiple villages come together, the Green Girls team will set up engaging demonstrations of how renewable energy systems work. For instance, they will “fill bottles with potato peelings, all sorts of organic waste, put a balloon over the mouth of the bottle, and seal it. As the waste in the bottle is fermenting, the balloon is expanding. That’s a simple, practical demonstration of how biogas works.” It is important to her team that the community they are working with can understand the functions and benefits of these renewable energy sources before holding training and installation sessions.
Improving energy access lessens the burden of labor involved in cooking, giving women and girls more opportunity for education, leisure time, and other types of work. The skills learned in Green Girls training can lead to employment and education opportunities and also help lessen gender-based violence by giving women the resources and skillset to be more independent and self-sufficient of male power structures. Monique said, “I didn’t want us to fall into the vicious cycle [where, as an NGO,] you have money, you get this money, you just do the installation, and that’s it. Nobody will ever develop out of charity.” In this respect, the Green Girls’ work is not just that of installing renewable energy sources, but also involves the training so that women can install and maintain solar panels and biogas systems themselves. The Green Girls Club program also encourages women and girls present for the trainings to become mentors for their peers who were unable to attend.
The proceeds from the Women’s Empowerment program go through a credit union. Some 70 percent of the money on average is distributed to the various groups of women within a village, and the remaining 30 percent goes directly to Green Girls to help pay bills, run the office, and pay for the transportation of community members appointed to monitor the success of clean energy programs and maintain contact with the GG Team. As stated by Monique, “The beauty of our work is you can feel it. You can see it, you can touch it, you know it's very evident.”
We asked Monique if she had any favorite success stories from her work, and she immediately began to tear up. “There are many,” she stated earnestly, “there are many.” She told us of a village in Cameroon in 2016 where cultural differences with Muslim leadership had local authorities refusing to allow women and girls to attend the training. This was a place where Monique says she really saw a need for the work Green Girls was doing. “I told my team, you know, [we will wait] until the day goes dark and we don’t see these girls coming for the training. Then we will actually believe there is no way for us to train them. ”At the end of the day, just minutes before packing everything up, Monique describes seeing a group of girls approach from the distance. “[It was one of] the most amazing trainings. Even after that, some of these girls have gone on to do really incredible things.”
Green Girls receives funding from grants, corporate social responsibility funds, and international organizations. When we asked her about some of the challenges she encounters in this work, she spoke to the issue of funders, who, lacking a sense of the work that needs to be done on the ground, still want to dictate how funds should be spent. “That you want to do good doesn't mean that automatically you are.” Sometimes, she says, Green Girls has to refuse funding, saying:
“Yes, we need the funding. But if we cannot partner to find a common ground and let this money actually promote sustainable development and solve a problem, then I'm sorry, we'll have to let go... There's a lot of talk around climate and climate adaptation and resilience, but it's a big business.”
Monique is disinterested in corporations and organizations donating for purely charitable purposes. “Help us because you have a conscience and you are willing to understand why we go through all these challenges to be able to do what we do,” she says emphatically.
Reflecting on her own path from law school to teaching women to build locally owned green technology, she noted, “Just because you are not trained in school in a particular field doesn't mean that you are oblivious or you cannot mold yourself and build a team to be able to solve that problem,” she says. “ I have it sometimes harder, because for one, I’m a woman. Two, green tech is not my field. I have to prove myself ten times more.” “The reality is that in your community, and certainly in your environment, you are the one to solve a problem. Because one, you belong to that community. Two, … have experienced it, so you adapt the solution to the problem you identified. I literally self-taught myself everything I knew about renewable energy and climate change adaptation, and I’m still learning.”
“We just cannot stop,” she says. “I always tell everybody that is keen to understand, I'm living my life's purpose. I'm committed to this because I find myself privileged. I really don't have the opportunity or the luxury to complain about a lot of things. This is the reality. I always get emotional about it, because it takes a toll on you and you just have to keep going. It’s not just about being passionate - you need courage and you need a phenomenal team.”
“There's a lot, a lot of that work needs to be done from a grassroots level, so that we can at least close this disconnect between government policies, international organizations, and what is actually happening on the ground. It's the 21st century. Access to energy should be a basic right. Like, for example, the solar installations. It is just for lighting, just lighting, but the effects of not having access to just light are so disheartening. So we need to face the reality. Talk. Talk about our work. Tell them I'm open to talk to anybody. Invite me. Fund us. Come.”
As a movement, we have a responsibility to identify and intervene in the ways governments and corporations in the Global North are complicit in perpetuating the displacement of environmental harms and posing barriers to universal energy access in the Global South. We must uplift and support the work of organizations on the ground like Green Girls. Fulfilling this responsibility is one of the goals of the Global Center for Climate Justice.
Green Girls has trained close to 4,500 women and girls in over 68 villages across Cameroon, the Central African Republic and DRC Congo. They are launching in Nigeria, Mali, The Gambia, Niger and Senegal.