Sunday, April 29, 2012

Barefoot College - Electrifying Empowerment

In some of the poorest villages of India and Africa, illiterate grandmothers are bringing the gift of light. This is the amazing story of Barefoot College, responsible not only for training illiterate solar engineers, but also water engineers, designers, communicators, midwives, architects and rural social entrepreneurs.

Barefoot College, established in 1972 by Sanjit "Bunker" Roy, has been championing a bottom-up approach to education and empowering rural poor since 1972. Roy's vision was to educate the local people, who would then be able to use the skills and knowledge to raise themselves from poverty. He initially hired what he describes as "paper-qualified urban professionals," but found they would spend only a few months at the project before leaving for positions in the cities. Beginning in 1977, he began using local people who had attended the college to do the teaching, designing the programs to use simple technology in innovative ways.
Roy's model -- educating local people through peer-to-peer learning -- is transformational in that it relies on the passing on of traditional skills and knowledge rather than an emphasis on outside educators bringing new ideas and influences. Local people are trained as doctors, teachers, engineers, architects, designers, mechanics, communicators and accountants.

Roy has disrupted the model that many NGOs and well-endowed foundations promote in the developing world, namely a top-down approach led by outside, often governmental, institutions.

"You have a graveyard of successful failures everywhere in the world with this top-down solution that has not worked. With foreign expertise... they don't know the culture and they don't know what's happening in the countries." His voice intensifies. "It has to be bottom-up, it has to be indigenous, it has to develop solutions from the ground up, and it has to be both community based and community managed."
The Barefoot College campus in Tilonia, Rajasthan, is a testament to the power of solar, relying on the sun for all its power needs. Computers and other electronics are powered from solar cells. Night classes are powered by solar lanterns; food is prepared using a parabolic solar cooker.

For his efforts, Bunker Roy was named as one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People of 2010. The college he established has trained more than 15,000 women. As a result, more than a half-million people now have access to basic services such as healthcare, drinking water, electricity and education.

The Electrification Project

According to United Nation estimates, around 1.5 billion people still live without electricity. Often the best and most immediate way to rectify the situation is with solar energy, according to Roy.
"The way to go about this is not a centralized grid system, which brings in power from hundreds of miles away," he says. "It is to bring in basic light right down to the level of basic household wherein they take ownership and control over that technology."

Roy says that the school has trained 150 grandmothers from 28 countries, electrified around 10,000 houses with solar power and saved several thousands of liters of diesel and kerosene from polluting the atmosphere.

"We have shown that solar-electrified villages can be technically and financially self-sufficient," says Roy.
Students, backed by their villages, travel to the campus in Tilonia, Rajasthan, perhaps their first trip ever outside their village. There they spend six months learning the intricacies of the simple solar power systems. Classes are taught primarily with sign language and color-coded circuits to overcome any language barriers and a high rate of illiteracy among the students. They learn to build and maintain a variety of solar-powered lamps and chargers.

After returning home, the women each install and maintain 100 solar light systems. The villagers pay for the service from money saved by not having to buy kerosene.

Santosh's Story

Not every graduate of Barefoot College is a grandmother, however, and the impact of Barefoot College can be personalized no better than by the story of Santosh Devi.
Securing the end of her bright yellow and orange sari firmly around her head, Santosh Devi climbs up to the rooftop of her house to clean her solar panels. The shining, mirrored panels, which she installed herself last year, are a striking sight against the simple one-storey homes of her village. No less remarkable is that this 19-year-old, semi-literate woman from the backwaters of Rajasthan has broken through India's rigid caste system to become the country's first Dalit solar engineer.

While differences of caste have begun to blur in the cities, in rural India Dalits – also known as "untouchables" – are still impoverished and widely discriminated against.

Growing up, Santosh had to avoid the upper caste people of her village or cover her face in their presence. Nowadays, they seek her help. "For them, I am a solar engineer who can repair and install the light installations," she says. "From looking down on the ground when higher caste people passed to looking them in the eye, I never imagined this would have been possible."

Since she became a Barefoot solar engineer, the total income of the family has doubled.

Santosh climbs down from her roof and reflects on her modest ambitions for her family: a television, a grinder to make flour, and a motorbike for her husband, who has to walk the 10km to work every day. With her livelihood secure thanks to her training, these small luxuries are now within reach. "I never thought I would be able to do anything worthwhile," she says proudly.
The graduates of Barefoot College change the villages they return to as profoundly as the college changes them.
Choti Devi, an upper caste Hindu in her late 60s, is Santosh's immediate neighbour. She can't stop gushing about her solar lanterns. "With the light, it is easier to make the beds at night. During the rainy season many poisonous insects roam around, but now that we have light in the night we do not worry as much. The lanterns have also helped us to guard our cattle properly while getting them back to the house in the evenings," she says.
As regular readers of The Tireless Agorist are aware, I'm a big proponent of bottom-up solutions, personal empowerment, decentralization and the improvement of living standards through technology. The story of Barefoot College exemplifies all of those ideals. I challenge my readers to remember the story of Barefoot College and find your own ways to empower yourself, your families, and your communities.

...and that's all I have to say about that.


  1. I lost my voice in September and haven't gotten it back yet. Given the difficulty in learning enough sign language to communicate even the simplest of things without talking, I can't even imagine trying to explain circuits using sign language! Wow.

  2. Excellent! I'm sending this blogpost to some young friends in Ghana. I hope they can make contact with these folks and start something similar there.

    Thanks for posting about this!!