'Solar Mamas': Barefoot College women turn on the lights in off-grid villages

Besides learned to install and repair solar equipment, rural women at India's Barefoot College can learn about clean water, health care, handicrafts, communication, and more.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP/File
A barber trims the hair of a customer using light from a solar-powered lantern in Shirva north of Mangalore, India. Rural Indian women are learning to install and maintain solar equipment at India's Barefoot College.

“Train a grandmother, change the world” – so says Barefoot College’s motto. This school says nobody's better suited to bring solar power to the rural poor.

Last year, the New York Times reported on the unlikeliest of heroes: African women who travel to the Barefoot College in India to learn to become solar engineers. This year, a BBC documentary Solar Mamas recounted the story of one Bedouin woman who makes the trek from Jordan and eventually electrifies her village and her life.

The video, which aired on PBS Nov. 5, depicts the hurdles one rural woman faces in pursuit of educating herself and bettering her community. Extrapolate this story to the 700 stories from women across the globe and the map of impact is impressive.

Founded in 1972 on Ghandian principles of grass-roots change, Barefoot College is the brainchild of Bunker Roy. The NGO is built around a crucial insight that rural women are less likely than men to leave their families and communities, and more likely to implement the knowledge and skills they learn at school. Solar electrification is only one area of training; others include clean water, education and livelihood development, health care, rural handicrafts, and communication.

Although Roy never envisioned the college to expand beyond India, the Sierra Club reports that “since 2004, the Barefoot College, in Tilonia, India, has trained ... illiterate and semi-literate women from rural, unelectrified villages in 41 [now 48] countries to be solar engineers.”

An April 2011 article from Wired tells the story of one woman from Namibia:

"Susanna Huis arrived back in Namibia in September and waited for her solar-engineering equipment to arrive by ship from India.... The next year looked to be busy but financially stable: Local people will each pay her $5 per month for the power, which is roughly what they would spend on kerosene or firewood. If she needs spare parts they will be sent from India. While her husband continues to farm their smallholding, she is now the family breadwinner.... She has signed a contract that commits her to electrifying 100 homes and maintaining them for the next five years. And she will teach others how to do it. This means that she can't move away from her village, which is fine with her: she doesn't want to go anywhere else."

As of Dec. 1, there were 700 more women graduates turning the lights on in 1,015 formerly unelectrified villages around the world, claims Barefoot’s webpage.

The program is partially funded by the government of India, and it’s provided under the Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic and Social Development in Asia and the Pacific.

The Times reports, "Grants from the United Nations Development Program and active partnerships with nongovernmental sustainable development organizations, including the Skoll Foundation in the United States, the Fondation Ensemble in France, and the Het Groene Woudt in the Netherlands, have also increased the program’s reach."

Currently, Barefoot works in 48 countries with 64 partners, including NGOs, community trusts, and government programs, to implement the college’s program, “Nongovernmental organizations are playing a central role in spreading word of the program and implementing it outside India,” the Times explains.

According to Wired, Roy's experience has made him extremely critical of the approach of certain development organizations:

"Roy firmly believes that the approach adopted by the government of Sierra Leone – low-cost, decentralized, community-driven – is the most productive and efficient way of eradicating extreme poverty in the developing world and that top-down solutions are wasteful and not scalable. Roy's prime target is the Millennium Village Project (MVP), a collaboration between Jeffrey Sachs' Earth Institute at Columbia University and the UN. 'Jeff Sachs has the Millennium Villages,' Roy says. 'He spends $2.5 million in one village. It's an absolutely ridiculous model, because I've said that if you gave me $2.5 million I can train 100 grandmothers, solar electrify 100 villages – 10,000 houses – and save you 100,000 liters of kerosene. Look at the amount of money being wasted on one Millennium Village just because Angelina Jolie goes with him for one day.' "

Strong words. There’s no doubt that the Barefoot model is making an impact in the communities it touches, and it's seductive to other government officials trying to help off-grid communities because “it is about developing know-how, not giving handouts,” reports the New York Times.

However, so far the model's fundamentally based on government and charitable support, rather than a purely market-driven approach, which would seem a logical next step for the college if it could uncover financially sustainable mechanisms to continue and scale its success.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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