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Delightful story of how illiterate women are illuminating villages with solar power

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Women fixing solar lanterns in her workshop – Photo credit: TheGuardian

She is not educated – reading and writing is an issue with her; so she only listens and memorizes colour codes to remember permutation and combination of wires to install a solar panel or build a solar lantern.

This is no fairytale – it is a livelihood story of many illiterate and semi-literate women in rural India.

Women are being trained as solar-power engineers to help make their villages see electricity for the first time by a vocational training college in Tilonia village in Ajmer, Rajasthan (some 100km from Jaipur City).

The Barefoot College, started by social activist and educator Sanjit Bunker Roy in 1972, is a social work and research center, responsible for training and mentoring thousands of women to light their own home, other homes in their village and that of homes in nearby villages.

First Barefoot graduate now teacher at the college – Photo credit: TheGuardian

The Barefoot College initially stated with the ambition to provide solutions for water problems in rural India. This was because before starting the college, Bunker himself worked as an unskilled labourer, blasting wells for water.

Over the years, the main mission of the college changed to sustainable development (largely solar) along with development and empowerment of the marginalized, rural population.

Ever since its change in mission in 2003, Barefoot College has produced thousands of ‘Barefoot’ solar engineers.

The college admits illiterate and semi-literate men, women and children from the lowest casts and poorest section of remote and inaccessible villages of India. The college largely trains women from villages; since, it believes the men after learning the trade, have a tendency to move out of the villages to big cities in search of better work and money. Women on the other hand are more rooted and they stay back in villages to serve their homes and the village at large.

Women on rooftop of her home maintaining her self-installed solar panels – Photo credit: TheGuardian

Bunker says,

Do you know why we insisted on women? Because training men is pointless. They will grow restless and go to big cities in search of jobs. Women have more patience to learn the skill. And especially since they are from poor families, they will stay back home and prove their worth to their communities.

Barefoot College imparts vocational training to students (largely women) to become anything from solar and water engineers, to architects, accountants, midwives and pathologists and more

Barefoot College touts of having trained over 15,000 women in skills including solar engineering, healthcare and water testing. The college is spread over eight acres of land and itself runs completely on solar power, all of which is maintained by in-house Barefoot solar engineers.

Women posing for portrait with a solar lantern – Photo credit: TheGuardian

Considering all the prevalent dogmas and taboos, it was initially very difficult for Bunker and company to convince male members in far-flung rural villages to allow women from their homes to venture out for training. In 2003, when the college began to train illiterate rural women as solar engineers, the stings began to bend.

Now, women educated and trained from Barefoot College, leave to begin solar panel and light installation practices in their villages.

Santosh Devi, former student of the college, is mere 19-year-old, but she wears the badge of being the first Dalit (low cast) solar engineer in India. Since graduating from Barefoot, Santosh has introduced solar power to over 20 homes in her native Balaji Ki Dhani village in Nagur District of Rajasthan. Her villages, to her efforts, is now 100 percent solar-powered village (one amid very few in the country).

Since, the solar power education has begun at the college, over 300 Barefoot engineers have graduated to bring power to more than 13,000 homes across India.

Inaccessible, remote and non-electrified villages are not just a story in Rajasthan or in India for that matter. Barefoot College realizes this; therefore, it has been training women (of varied age groups) from various parts of India, and countries such as Bhutan, Afghanistan, Mozambique, Fiji, Sierra Leone and few other African countries. The women, largely grandmother (called mamas or solar mamas) are taught how to install, maintain and repair solar panels.

African women posing for portrait with solar lantern – Photo Credit: CatchNews

Under the India Technical Economic Cooperation Programme of the Ministry of External Affairs, the Barefoot College has imparted training to over “700 solar mamas in 70 of the least developed countries in the world.” Through the program, over 20,000 homes have been solar-powered.

The Barefoot Solar Women Engineers of Africa are improving the rural living and lighting up their villages in the remotest of areas for less than $1 a day. The women help provide, install and maintain low cost solar-powered lighting in their villages, serving the community outrightly.

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