The Barefoot College in western India is training illiterate or semi-literate women from all over the world to be solar engineers. UNIDO's Making It magazine investigates how this form of South-South cooperation is making renewable energy technology and knowledge accessible, and at the same time, helping to reduce poverty.

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Precious Molobane Mamogale, 42 years old and a mother of four children, is from a village around 500km from Johannesburg, South Africa. She was a member of one of a number of small groups of women from countries across Africa who travelled to India in September 2011 to receive training at the Barefoot College. Six months later, she emerged as full-fledged, trained solar technician, ready to return home to electrify her home village for the first time.

“I want to go back to my country and bring light to my province – and want to open a college like this there, so that I can train more women,” she explained as she reflected on her experience at the end of her training in Tilonia, a small town in the state of Rajasthan.

Another participant, Stella, a grandmother from a village in Malawi, said, “I never imagined that technical knowledge like this would be open to women who were illiterates, like us. But coming to Tilonia has given us this confidence that we can learn about new things and make our lives better.”

The Barefoot College in Tilonia was established in 1972, and since then has been providing basic services and solutions to problems in rural communities, with the objective of making them self-sufficient and sustainable.

As the school’s founder, Bunker Roy, explained in his 2011 TEDTalk, Learning from a barefoot movement, “The College teaches rural women and men – many of them illiterate – to become engineers, artisans and doctors. There are only two rules for enrolment – you must be poor to attend and you must take your learning home to your village.”

Roy says his low-cost, community-driven approach “capitalizes on the resources already present in the villages.” The college’s ‘barefoot solutions’ can be broadly categorized into water, education, health care, rural handicrafts, people’s action, communications, women’s empowerment, and wasteland development, but perhaps the most dramatic of all is the programme to empower marginalized women across the world and help them start to drive their local green economies.

The programme, running since 2004, teaches solar engineering skills to illiterate older women from rural communities – a particularly vulnerable group worldwide – before equipping them with solar lamp kits to assemble and install in their own and nearby villages.

Any woman over the age of 35 from a remote, inaccessible, non-electrified area can enrol for the international course, provided she is backed by her village. As Roy says: “It makes sense to choose women, especially older women, as they are more loyal to their roots and less impatient to try out new pastures, which men are wont to do as soon as they are given a certificate.”

Between 2004 and 2009, 141 women from 21 countries in Africa received six months of training at the Barefoot College, learning how to construct charge controllers and inverters, fabricate circuit boards, carry out testing and wiring, and install repair and maintain solar panels and solar lanterns. The women learn by listening and memorizing, using colour-coded charts that help them to remember the permutation and combination of the wires without needing to read or write.

Each woman participating in the training course is selected or nominated by their local community, and supported by a variety of local and international organizations, and in some cases, by their governments. The success of the scheme has led to support being provided to participants in the form of Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation grants from the Indian government’s ministry of external affairs, as part of its South-South cooperation programme. In recent years, the programme has been extended to include dozens of women from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala and Jordan.

UN Women is also now supporting the programme. Another 25 women from countries in Africa completed the training course in March 2012 and, in September, ten women from Fiji graduated.

On their return to their home countries, the women have the potential to light up their communities with solar energy, using equipment that is sent by the College even before they themselves leave Tilonia. Follow-up records maintained at the Barefoot College reveal several notable success stories. Fatuma Ababker Ibrahim, from Beyahile village in the Afar region of Ethiopia, returned to her village to install 90 fixed solar units, and also helped start a rural electronic workshop in her village. Gul Zaman, a 26-year old from Afghanistan, came to Tilonia with her husband. They returned to their community to provide solar electricity to around 50 houses.

Those women, who decide to use their training as a means of generating income, are encouraged to develop the Barefoot College model, whereby local households pay a monthly fee, based on how much they would have spent on kerosene, batteries, wood and candles, and in return get solar energy set-ups installed and maintained. Some of the money goes towards the solar engineer’s monthly stipend, while the rest pays for components and spare parts.

The impact of the programme is being amplified by bilateral programmes between India and the solar engineers’ national governments. The idea is to establish vocational training centres where the returning solar engineers will impart their knowledge to local people, creating a snowball effect.

For example, the government of India is helping its counterpart in Liberia to set up five vocational training centres to take advantage of the skills acquired by the eight women who returned from the Barefoot College in March 2012.

In October 2012, Jiko Luveni, Fiji’s minister of social welfare, women and poverty alleviation, announced a partnership with the Barefoot College and the Indian High Commission to establish a regional training centre in Fiji. Luveni said, “This initiative will see more women in Fiji and the Pacific being trained as solar engineers,” adding that, once the centre is established, Fiji’s 10 solar engineers will provide training not only in solar electrification, but also in building solar-powered desalination plants.

A similar scheme is already underway in the village of Konta Line in the Port Loko district of Sierra Leone, where the national government has invested in the establishment of college to provide four-month residential training courses in solar engineering for 50 students. Training is being provided by the 12 women who returned from India in 2011. Around 1,500 household solar units will be installed by the newly-trained engineers but Nancy Kanu, who was trained in India, is already thinking bigger. “Once these units are installed, I think we’ll need an investor to manufacture solar units here to make them affordable for everyone. There’s nothing we can’t learn now to make our lives better. We have the power to change our villages.”

The Barefoot College international training programme is a shining example of what can be achieved by South-South cooperation. The question must be why can’t the Barefoot College approach be scaled up across the developing world?

  • Watch the 60 minute film, Solar Mamas. Rafea is 30 years old, with four children and a husband who is eager to take a third wife. She is a Bedouin woman living in a small Jordanian village close to the desert. With encouragement from the country’s Ministry of Environment, she leaves her village for the first time to go to the Barefoot College in India to train to become a solar-energy engineer. She is the first Jordanian woman ever to attend such a programme, and she dreams of returning to bring much-needed income and talents to support her family and village.