Solar Sisters: Barefoot women solar engineers

September 23, 2009 at 10:43 am 4 comments

Illiterate, poor African women aged 35-55, many of them grandmothers, leave their families to spend 6 months training in India to be solar engineers. At the Barefoot College in rural Rajasthan they work with their hands, identifying parts by color and relying on oral instruction and sketchbooks. There’s not a lot of electrical theory.

But upon returning to their villages, these women have the skills to solar electrify tens, even hundreds, of houses. Across Africa, 60 engineers have electrified 40 villages at a cost of only 1.5 million USD.

Here’s the video (via ICTworks).

The Barefoot College model is one of radical self-reliance for the poorest of the poor. Management, control, and ownership of the technology lie with the community. The village decides how much to spend on electrification, and chooses the woman who will receive the training. And it is the community itself that certifies the woman as a solar engineer, acknowledging her training and supporting her ongoing work.

The Barefoot College video points out “universal lessons” from the African project.

  • Any illiterate woman from any part of Africa, even if she has never left home, can be trained in 6 months in India to be a confident and competent solar engineer. (There are Barefoot Colleges throughout India. It would be interesting to see how the model and code of conduct translate to Africa.)
  • Prepare the community first by having them make major decisions on behalf of the whole village, and only then bring in technology.
  • Keep urban based “paper-qualified” solar engineers out of the process. A top-down approach doesn’t work. External experts don’t have the vision, faith, or courage to train women as engineers. They also lack the communication tools to speak to villagers as equals.
  • No paper certificates are issued; experience shows that in programs where men are paper-certified, they immediately leave their villages for the cities. (I believe that by training older women, the Barefoot College designers are deliberately choosing a population that will be less likely to leave for the city, paper certificate or no.)
  • A partnership model, where initial training and materials are donated but expertise and ongoing expenses reside in the village, can work to reach the very poorest.

The video glosses over the process of choosing a woman to receive this training, and the effects on her life and her family’s life. In India women of differing ages have become barefoot solar engineers. This story of 19-year-old Kausalya hints at some of the difficulties.

Kausalya of Buharu village in Tilonia, presents another heartening story. All of 19, Kausalya is adept at fixing and maintaining solar energy systems. What she is also good at is local governance. She used to attend the village night school when Barefoot College introduced the Bal Sansad, or the Children’s Parliament. The concepts of local, state and central governments were explained to school students, who were encouraged to compete for the posts of ‘MLAs’ (legislators) for the Bal Sansad. Prompted by other girls who were too timid to take on male students, Kausalya filed her nomination. She was the token candidate of the entire female electorate, and bagged the post from her school.

Then followed the prime ministerial contest in which all the ‘MLAs’ from over 50 schools in Tilonia contested. Once again she got all the girl votes, while some infighting among others got her a substantial chunk of the boy votes. Kausalya became the prime minister of the Bal Sansad at the age of 13. In three years of heading the Sansad, Kausalya’s ‘cabinet’ solved a host of problems – from the lack of electricity in one village school, to the local sarpanch trying to usurp the land of another. At the end of her term, Kausalya’s parents discontinued her education, and she took up solar training at SWRC.

Life took another turn when she came of age and was packed off to her husband’s home (she had been married when just a few years old) in Jaipur’s Pandwa village. Here too, Kausalya worked on the infrastructure of Pandwa, including solar lights and a new water pipeline. Unhappy with her ‘activism’ to begin with, her husband and parents-in-law gradually came to admire her efforts. “My husband will never say it, but I know he’s very proud of me,” says Kausalya. “Now he asks me to maintain his accounts for him!”


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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Anna Rooke  |  September 24, 2009 at 5:09 am


    Thought readers who are interested in this article might like to know that The Barefoot Solar Women Engineers of Africa is one of 12 finalists in this year’s World Challenge competition – an annual contest that rewards projects from around the world which bring economic, social and environmental benefits to their local communities.

    Voting for the competition opens on September 28th with full information available on the website.

    You can also keep up to date with the competition and find out what other people have to say about the finalists on the World Challenge Facebook and Twitter pages:



    • 2. Ellen Francik  |  September 24, 2009 at 10:54 am

      Thanks for the Twitter and FB links, especially since the voting is timely!

  • 3. Carolyn  |  February 9, 2010 at 10:34 am

    The link to the “code of conduct” is broken — sounds like it would have been a fascinating read. What was the jist of that page?

    • 4. Ellen Francik  |  February 9, 2010 at 11:03 am

      It’s hard to retrieve at this point, and may be under revision. Here’s what I’ve gleaned.

      From Barefoot College’s Facebook page:

      The Barefoot College and the individuals who work with it have established a code of conduct for our organisation.

      We believe we must:

      – Live and work in close proximity with the rural community.
      – Create a space for creative and constructive personal growth – not discriminating against caste, religion or political thinking.
      – Ensure gender equality within the organisation.
      – Have an intrinsic belief in the democratic political process and not follow partisan political agendas or include partisan politicians on the board.
      – Judge the worth of people by their willingness and ability to learn – not by their paper qualifications.
      – Believe in the law of the land and have a commitment towards social justice through non-violent means.
      – Have respect for collective, traditional knowledge, beliefs, wisdom and practices of the community.
      – Be committed to the preservation of natural resources and not endorse processes that destroy, exploit or abuse natural resources.
      – Use appropriate technologies that sustain the community and not encourage technologies that deprive people of their livelihoods.
      – Set a personal example in adhering to the code of conduct.

      As I remember, the code of conduct not only focused on the agency of poor, rural, illiterate workers, but also put in place mechanisms to ensure transparency in financial dealings, gender-neutral meritocracy, and the establishment of a living wage.

      As the Schwab Foundation notes, at the time the code of conduct was controversial and visionary.

      Bunker Roy has been a leading figure in the Indian NGO community for the past 30 years and is a source of inspiration for many younger social entrepreneurs. The code of conduct debate he launched 10 years ago was then a groundbreaking, controversial, but visionary initiative. It sought to promote the standardization of social auditing to render the Indian voluntary social sector more transparent, effective, reliable and accountable.


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