Solar-powered heroine: the woman inspiring positive change in rural Yemen

March 4, 2021


Iman leads a team of 10 women as they own and operate a solar panel business. They provide power to their community which has forever changed the village – from children going to school to people running their own businesses. | Photo Credit: UNDP Yemen


“Being featured in the BBC list of 100 Most Influential Women for 2020 gives great pride to me, my business partners, and Yemen as a whole,” says Iman, a solar power plant manager from Abss, Yemen.

Iman Hadi, an entrepreneur from Yemen’s rural north, is no stranger to the great poverty and misery that plagues much of the country’s remote villages where basic services are almost non-existent. But she felt a sense of responsibility and decided to do something about it. “I realized to what extent people in my area, women in particular, are suffering so I decided to go beyond social and cultural barriers and take action,” she says.

Iman leads a group of 10 women who installed a solar power plant to provide clean, low-impact energy for residents in Abss, Hajjah Governorate. “The high cost of diesel-generated power has deprived many poor families of electricity access. But now, the solar power plant provides affordable energy for 43 households…so far,” says Iman. “I can say with confidence, we could alleviate the suffering of vulnerable people and ease the economic burden from their shoulders,” she adds.

Recently, Iman was announced as one of the world’s most influential women for leading positive change and making a difference during Yemen’s turbulent times.

When Iman first heard the news, she was taken aback. “I was in Sana'a accompanying my sister to the hospital for cancer treatment. I got a call from one of the solar energy engineers who told me the great news. I was so surprised! It took me time to realize the great work I have done,” she says. “Four days later, I returned home with my sister and my family welcomed me warmly, despite their great sadness for my sister. They prepared a cake and congratulated me. Even my brothers – who were vehement opponents to the idea of me running a solar power plant – hugged me tightly,” explains Iman.

Her father was also opposed to Iman’s work in the beginning, but through discussion and increasing their knowledge about the importance of her work, she was able to convince her family to give her the chance to run her own business. “This was the beginning of a journey of real change in society's convictions regarding women, their role, their rights, and the importance of giving them an opportunity to prove themselves,” she says proudly.

Since she started her business two years ago, with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the European Union, the number of customers has increased from 25 to 43 and the net profit has reached 1,200,000 Yemeni Riyals (approximately US $2,070) – a significant sum in rural Yemen.

“We have purchased five additional batteries to meet increasing demand and are currently working on expanding the plant to employ more women and extend electricity to more families,” describes Iman. “In the near future, I plan to establish another solar power plant in one of the neighboring areas where 47 families need power. In the long run, I dream to launch a large solar power plant to extend solar services for all 3060 households in the Al-Ghadi area,” she announces confidently.

Iman is also aware that the current situation for many Yemenis is not easy. One-in-four Yemenis have lost their jobs and more are underemployed – barely able to make ends meet. To help her community and to pay her good fortune forward, Iman has an innovative idea for Yemen. “I plan to give easy-to-pay loans from the net profits of the solar plant, to allow my business partners to open small projects such as grocery stores, bakeries and clothing stores. This will create employment opportunities and increase the number of services available to the community.”

Iman’s work has pervaded through her whole community, inspiring and providing hope to her neighbors and friends. Faleha Mohammad, a resident of the Al Ghadi area, lives with her elderly parents in a hut. The family is mainly dependent upon their son who sells cold water for income. But the reliable power supply provided by Iman’s solar plant encouraged her to buy a sewing machine and sell women's clothes. As a result, as the family’s income increased, they were able to construct a new home made of brick and a large room.

Ibraheem Ali, a father of seven and a daily-wage laborer also wanted to improve living conditions for his family. He approached Iman to ask if it would be possible to buy a welding gun and run it on her solar power. Iman saw the merit in his idea and quickly encouraged him to bring it to reality. Now, he is welding two to three water tanks a day and has increased his daily income to YER 8000 from YER 3000 (US$ 14 from US$ 5).

“Women and men from my village came to me and asked for advice on how to improve their living conditions. This reflects how their views on working women have changed,” explains Iman. “Zahra, for example, a mother of four who lost her husband at the beginning of the war recently visited me.”

Since losing her husband, Zahra has endured great hardship – she is alone in a country suffering from the ravages of war. The difficult circumstances forced her eldest son –  a mere 15 years old – to work as day laborer  for very little money. But sadly, business slowed and has now come to a complete stop due to the COVID-19 outbreak.  This has resulted in increased suffering for the family, who struggle to afford food and medicine.

“One evening, Zahra started complaining about the difficult life she is experiencing with her kids. I suggested that she might consider bringing electricity to her home, buy an electric mixer, and make incense that she could sell for a profit,” recounts Iman. Zahra liked the idea and quickly took action. “She has now started her own business and is a productive woman with a sustainable source of income for her and her family.”

On 8 March, International Women’s Day, we asked Iman what she would like to say to Yemen’s women. She had three messages to convey.

1.      “The first message is to all great Yemeni women: do not stand where you fail. Strive with determination and confidence and your dreams will come true.”

2.      “The second message is for the community: women are not ONLY housewives, we are half of society; we have the right to equal opportunities in all life’s aspects.”

3.      “Thirdly and finally, I would like to thank all the men in my village who were once against women working outside the home, but today offer support and encouragement.”

In total, UNDP and its partner the Sustainable Development Foundation (SDF) have installed two solar power systems in two communities. 20 individuals were trained in solar power system installation, maintenance and business management to help establish local solar power businesses and ensure the sustainability of renewable energy systems in Yemen.

These activities were implemented as a part of the Supporting Resilient Livelihoods and Food Security in Yemen Joint Programme (ERRYJP II) in partnership with Sustainable Development Foundation (SDF) and generous funding and support from the European Union.