In Conversation with EarthSpark InternationalBreaking Barriers in Sustainable Energy: An Inspiring Interview with trailblazer,Wendy Sanassee
PowerSouth in conversation with Wendy Sanassee, Director of Haiti Operations, one of the leading figures of EarthSpark International.
Wendy is from Mauritius and has been working with EarthSpark International in rural Haiti since 2016. She works closely with local community members and leaders for the smooth running of EarthSpark’s projects in Haiti providing technical and operational support. In addition to her solar-powered technical grid operations management and government relations to build a microgrid sector in Haiti, Wendy also led EarthSpark’selectric cooking pilot, where 30 families in rural Haiti trialed electric cooking appliances to replace charcoal.
This interview, conducted remotely as Climate Week 2023 kicks off in NYC, explores the groundbreaking work of EarthSpark International, the 2018 winner of the UN Momentum for Change Award. EarthSpark is leading the charge in sustainable energy and gender equality. Going beyond carbon offsetting, they have embarked on a journey that is not only breaking gender barriers but also transforming the lives of underprivileged communities. EarthSpark is a non-profit that builds clean, just energy systems and businesses that empower communities in Haiti and around the world.
You have been doing some spectacular work in an area not many women get on to. To start with, could you share what inspired you to begin this remarkable journey, and tell us more about your work?
It was the desire to have a greater impact on underprivileged people’s lives and a need for a fresh start, that propelled me in rural Haiti. Here we are developing and operating solar/hybrid microgrids for communities that only know about charcoal, kerosene lamps and other dirty energy sources. The aim was to improve their quality of life and promote economic development through sustainable energy access. What is most rewarding in my job is the appreciation of how energy access through a smart grid in a rural community is slowly transforming the local lifestyle, while preserving its essence.
We are able to provide clean energy services based on a customer focused approach, engaging deeply with community members, leaders, ministry officials and regulators which allow us to receive real user’s feedback.
“Often, all they need is someone to believe they can do it”- Wendy
Let us jump into a story first: can you share any story from the ground that still inspires you and helps you to power through.
One of my favourite stories is about Rosanne, one of our most senior staff members, who works in customer relations. In 2016, cyclone Matthew devastated a big part of our electrical grid in Les Anglais, Haiti. There was immense need for rebuilding and customers didn’t have power for a few months. This is when Rosanne had more time on hand and she stepped up. When reconnection of customers resumed, I trained her to perform residential electrical installation. In the end she completed at least 5 installations within 2 weeks, always under my supervision, and me taking over when she felt tired or if too challenging. It was a great satisfaction for both of us, and she was so proud she was beaming with joy. Up to now, when I think of those customers, I see Rosanne on her step ladder, drill in hands and placing the load centre.
Rosanne’s story mirrors that of many women with untapped potential who were not lucky enough to get formal training and support, for various reasons which could be financial, social norms, lack of self-confidence, or just the absence of a support network.
As part of our feminist electrification agenda at Earth Spark , we dream of providing more opportunities for rural Haitian women to access formal training in electricity.
Picture 1: Rosanne doing an electrical installation
Picture 2: Rosanne now doing a technical check modem after the Cyclone Mathew
Electrification and carbon offset projects are often a male dominated world. We often see tokenism across the world in these projects where everyone is talking about Sustainable Development Goal 7, Sustainable Development Goal 13, but Sustainable Development Goal 5 and gender remains just a tick box. In reality they are inseparable and should be seen together. Bringing this together must have been challenging for you. What steps do you take to make the feminist intent count and what makes your projects unique?
It has now been over seven years since I started this work in a context that is not without its technical and sociopolitical challenges. On top of that, the energy sector itself has long felt like a gentlemen’s club for many women in the sector. While there’s been an increase in female representation,a deeper look into the sector can reveal that many women do not receive equal opportunities, particularly in technical positions. Even at leadership positions, many companies fill the gender quotas to check a box, yet the female voices have less power. Gender stereotypes persist worldwide, making it even more challenging.
We see because of this, actors in the energy sector including female counterparts can start believing that men are more apt to lead or have more credibility. In Haiti, those biases often mean that girls and women are almost completely absent in the technical fields as they would not be easily employable.
I personally find great joy in encouraging and supporting our female, non-technical staff to explore technical installations. Often, all they need is someone to believe they can do it, even if not on the first trial, as we all have our own learning curve. Explaining technical concepts is also important for understanding of what might have caused a failure and why a solution was adopted. This is just one example of how to improve inclusion and not form a little bubble where women can only see things happening in their own workplace but not be really a part of it as the language feels completely foreign.
What has been and continues to be some of your biggest challenges to sustain and scale this initiative. What do you think are the current roadblocks with investors, funders etc and what would be your message to them?
Until we achieve adequate representation in decision making positions within the industry, our actions will not wholly gratify the needs of our societies. Collaborative work is crucial, and it is time to acknowledge our limitations in our understanding of the world and its issues and seek fresh ideas and perspectives. Unfortunately, the industry’s team members have been looking and sounding the same over the years.
We have a big task ahead: helping the energy transition not lose momentum, and that will require different approaches to problems. Inclusivity and harnessing the strengths of our differences are key to overcoming these challenges.
The story of Rosanne and the work you do are truly inspiring. Finally, in line with Climate Week NYC2023’s theme, “We can, we will,” what are your top three “We can, we will” messages to the world?
- We can make meaningful and sustainable progress toward gender parity. We will work together with other genders to achieve it.
- We can look like a woman and do the same job as a man. Given the same opportunities and resources, we will be able to do it too.
- We can and we will prevent gender stereotypes from stopping us from reaching our goals.
Thank you Wendy for sharing your incredible journey and insights. Your work is not only transforming the energy sector but also breaking down barriers and empowering women in the process. We look forward to seeing your continued success and impact in the years to come.