Posts tagged ‘Development’

Solar Sisters: Barefoot women solar engineers

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!”

September 23, 2009 at 10:43 am 4 comments


Twitter Updates

Recent Posts

Feeds


%d bloggers like this: