Careers in Clean Cooking: Perspectives from Two Women Leaders
As part of its focus on women’s leadership, the Clean Cooking Alliance (CCA) sponsored Betty Ikalany and Esther Altorfer to participate in the 2021 Vital Voices (VV) GROW Fellowship. A year-long accelerator program, VV GROW provides women working in small- and medium-sized companies with personalized business skills and opportunities for career development and networking. CCA recently spoke with Ikalany and Altorfer about their experiences as Fellows.
This interview is part of a series showcasing women entrepreneurs in the clean cooking sector.
Betty Ikalany and Esther Altorfer have been leaders in the clean cooking sector for years. Ikalany is the CEO of Appropriate Energy Saving Technologies (AEST), a Uganda-based social enterprise that helps people transition from cooking with wood to charcoal made from agricultural waste. Altorfer lives in Kenya and is the East Africa managing director of Sistema.bio, a global company that manufactures, distributes, and finances biogas digesters. Both women are familiar with the challenges that many entrepreneurs face in accessing financial services, technical assistance, and prospects for professional growth.
“It’s challenging to compete for opportunities and women are already at a disadvantage,” said Ikalany.
“Compared to larger or male-owned companies, many rural or women-led companies don’t have the same opportunities to represent their needs because they can’t afford to travel to big events or they struggle to tap into certain networking circles,” said Altorfer. “A big challenge we’re seeing right now in the clean cooking sector is that less-formal companies, sometimes women-owned, are excluded from events and opportunities.”
The VV GROW Fellowship, now in its eighth year, is designed to address challenges likes these by creating inclusive spaces for women to convene and learn from one another. The 2021 fellowship cohort had to rely on digital communication tools due to COVID-19 risks, but nevertheless successfully built an environment where 48 women leaders representing 26 countries could share knowledge and network.
“One of the most valuable aspects of this fellowship was the diversity of the women,” said Altorfer. “I rarely work with people from countries like Iran or Lebanon, and this experience opened up a lot of new perspectives for me.”
“One of my biggest takeaways was the knowledge I gained from [the mentors] I worked with,” said Ikalany. “They offered numerous opportunities for us to ask questions and even recorded all the webinars and training activities, to watch later; they know how busy most of us are.”
Both Ikalany and Altorfer expressed that more programs like VV GROW are needed to ensure women are included in decision-making at clean cooking companies – not only because they bring a diversity of skills and experiences, but they can also be more adept at reaching the women who largely make up the customer base for clean cooking solutions.
“Women bring invaluable perspective to clean cooking companies as they’re the ones actually looking for fuel and putting food on the table,” said Ikalany. “That’s why having more women in leadership positions is so important for us at AEST and why we need to see more programs like VV GROW, to better support women entrepreneurs in the clean cooking sector. Marketing certain resources specifically for women is a way to ensure that no one is left behind and that the sector can achieve its collective goals.”
Altorfer noted that programs like VV GROW can help women make the connections needed to advance their careers. She also highlighted the importance of taking the initiative to learn from peers and mentors.
“It sounds so simple but my advice for any woman looking to start a company or grow as a professional leader is to be bold and seek opportunities to demonstrate your skills,” said Altorfer “At Sistema.bio, we had an office secretary who would always offer to help wherever she could. She continued to learn and take on more responsibilities and now she supports Sistema.bio’s operations. I think her story really illustrates how important confidence is for women in the workplace.”
Through VV GROW, Ikalany and Altorfer gained tools and skills to not only enhance their businesses, but also to help other women accelerate their own careers.
“I think I’m stronger as a leader now than I was before the fellowship,” said Ikalany. “I plan to take what I learned back to my community to help other women grow, especially entrepreneurs looking to start their own businesses.”