Image via  Channa Van Leijsen.

A Non-Profit is Training Grandmas to Become Solar Engineers in Rural Areas Worldwide

Barefoot College is empowering localities to train rural, poor women as solar engineers and educators within their communities.

Sep 8 2017, 2:30pm

Image via  Channa Van Leijsen.

1.2 million people globally don't have access to electricity. Over three-quarters of them live in rural areas cut off from power grids. Who are the change makers confronting this problem? According to Barefoot College, they are primarily illiterate and semi-illiterate grandmothers undertaking solar engineering training within their communities.

Barefoot College is a non-profit organization founded in India 45 years ago that works with localities to train rural, poor women as solar engineers and educators within their communities—as well as kick-starting other co-curricular programs to advance women and their communities in over 80 countries worldwide.

"We started working on solar in 2006. This is our largest and fastest-growing program," Barefoot's CEO Meagan Fallone told VICE Impact. Beyond the need to bring light to communities, she stressed that due to murky kerosene often used in the developing world, women are dying of the inhalation of black smoke—kerosene lamps have been tied to tuberculosis and cause lethal fuel ingestion.

"This technology can be taught, it can be learned by very ordinary people."

Over the past decade, Fallone told me Barefoot has trained over 1,300 women as solar engineers. "These are rural poor women who are both illiterate and semi-literate—no formal schooling is needed. The curriculum is taught without the written word, it's entirely visual," she explained.

The women attend six-month training programs at the first campus in Rajasthan, India, or at regional vocational centers Fallone said are currently being expanded across sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands, and Latin America. The centers are funded by the host country's government, the government of India, and both the private and philanthropic sectors.

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During the six month training, the women—who are taught by other non-formally educated, semi-illiterate and illiterate people—learn to build home solar systems "from the circuit boards out." The hardware itself, Fallone said, is also designed by the rural poor—as is the color code system that engineers learn to use for precise implementation.

"This technology can be taught, it can be learned by very ordinary people," Fallone said. "It's the poorest of the poor that need the best technology, not the shitty technology. They need the best technology because they will immediately apply it to an economic solution." She continued, "Technology is the ultimate democratic tool. On the other side of it, you don't know if it's a man, or a woman, or who it was."

So why is it that Barefoot trains just women?

"We started originally training men and women," Fallone said of the solar program's beginnings. "But we very quickly realized that men were untrainable… That as soon as they get a skill or a certificate, they run out of a rural community to a city and they migrate… What we found was the complete inverse of that with women. Women—especially mature women—were very eager to share everything they'd learned with others in their communities. And… they were rooted in the communities—they were not going anywhere."

And so the "solar mamas," as they are often referred, came to be.

Out of the solar engineer training workshops has grown a full-fledged shipping business of solar parts, also distributed, delivered, and installed by the women. As the solar engineers have been integral in the installation and in some cases the design of the hardware, they are able to repair and maintain the systems.

"We have villages in Malawi that were installed in 2006 and those villages are still running at 98 percent," Fallone said. "I can tell you that the longest warranty I have ever seen from a commercial competitor is three years. And none of those systems can be opened up, repaired, and maintained. Why? Because it's not in your vested interest in a commercial company to make something that can be repaired! Your interest is in it breaks within two years so that they have to buy another one."

In Zanzibar, where a Barefoot regional vocational training center was opened in 2015, MaryBennah Nasimiyu Kuloba, the Enriche Coordinator for Barefoot College in Zanzibar, Tanzania, Kulobah described the impact of the program.

"Solar mamas" working with engineering material. (Photo via Channa Van Leijsen)

"Access to electricity in the rural communities in Zanzibar has been a great challenge. [But] through the solar program, grandmothers have been empowered as solar engineers, they have been able to bring light in the household. The children have the opportunity to further extend their study hours at home. Business working hours [have] also [been] extended."

In fact, the solar engineering program touches on fourteen of the UN's seventeen Sustainable Development Goals—a deliberate decision Barefoot has made in honing their programs.

Over the past decade, Barefoot has trained over 1,300 women as solar engineers. "These are rural poor women who are both illiterate and semi-literate—no formal schooling is needed. The curriculum is taught without the written word, it's entirely visual."

Fallone tells me it was with some of the solar mamas that the idea for Barefoot's Enriche programs came about. These co-curricular workshops cover women's health; financial inclusion; human, legal, and civil rights; micro-enterprise; livelihood skills; self-awareness, aspiration, and agency; digital literacy; and environmental stewardship. One of the workshops Fallone said women gravitate toward the most is on reproductive health, menstrual health, and nutrition. The other is aspirational mapping, in which women draw murals of what they desire for their communities and work together to achieve their goals. Following solar electrification in Madagascar, it was through aspirational mapping that women installed community toilets. Now they are working toward smart rice farming.

A woman sewing in one of the Enriche programs. (Photo via Channa Van Leijsen)

The sewing and beekeeping programs are other formalized Enriche programs through which women—many of them also solar mamas—develop social enterprise skills that are boosting their local economies.

Barefoot's first honey line was launched in East Africa. "It teaches the women from the very beginning all the way through the supply chain process and the sales and marketing process," remarked Fallone. "This one will be turned over to a 100 percent local crew in Zanzibar in December. And that's pretty incredible in 18 months, I think."

READ MORE: Here's How the UN Hits Their Sustainable Development Goals on Climate

"The livelihood programs have seen the solar mamas taking up additional skills that are useful to them," Kuloba added. In Zanzibar, where both the sewing and beekeeping programs were launched in 2015, "So far, 16 women have been trained on sewing and 11 on beekeeping… This has given them a position in their community. The community has been able to recognize their efforts, which is very important in their growth as leaders who are making a difference in their communities. They are able to take up new challenges and are ready to learn."

Women in the beekeeping program. (Photo via Channa Van Leijsen)

Other Barefoot programs include campaigns to get girls in rural areas into school.

The overall mentality of Barefoot is different than that of many NGOs in the development world. Fallone summed up, "The best thing we can do is really to catalyze people to do it themselves. And that may not be the carbon copy of how we see it happening. They might reinvent and come up with something better. Or maybe not. It's important I think to not have to own it forever. To have it be good enough to inspire people to take it to the next level or inspire it in the way that's right for them. That is a very different and disruptive mentality in the NGO space, because there's so much proprietary influence there and it's all about money. It should be about impact."

Join in Barefoot College's mission and visit their website to learn about donations, volunteering, and fundraising opportunities.

If you live in the US and want to support renewable energy in your hometown, including solar, consider supporting the Sierra Cub's Ready for 100 campaign.