Lighting up lives: Training women to become “barefoot” solar engineers
An illiterate grandmother from a small village in Malawi, Stella, found it hard to imagine the future that lay ahead when she arrived at the Barefoot College of India.
Six months later she emerged as one of 25 trained African solar engineers. Her mission: to electrify her home village using renewable energy sources.
“I never imagined that technical knowledge like this would be open to women who were illiterates, like us,” she reflected at the end of her training in Tilonia, in the state of Rajasthan. “But coming to Tilonia has given us this confidence that we can learn about new things and make our lives better.”
By collaborating with the Barefoot College and its NGO partners, UN Women is supporting a programme to empower marginalized women across the world, and help them start to drive their local green economies.
The programme, running since 2004, teaches engineering skills to illiterate older women from rural communities – a particularly vulnerable age group worldwide– before equipping them with solar lamp kits to assemble and install in their own and neighbouring villages.
During this training session which began in September 2011, women travelled from across Africa, from countries like Uganda Liberia and South Sudan, to take part. Each were selected or nominated by their local community and supported by a variety of local and international organisations, and in some cases, their governments.
The purpose of the training is to empower the women, many who have laboured in agricultural work their whole lives, to gain a skill more age appropriate, while affording them a new position and respect from the community.
Bawor Mamma, for example, has spent years recovering from the lingering effects of civil war and economic dislocation in Liberia. At 53 she prefers assembling solar lanterns to the physical strain of agricultural work. “I am not just a farmer like everyone else,” she said with a clear sense of pride. “I am a solar engineer now and I want to electrify my village and other neighbouring villages.”
“What Barefoot College has effectively demonstrated is how the combination of traditional knowledge (barefoot) and demystified modern skills can bring lasting impact and fundamental change when the tools are in the control and ownership of the rural poor,” says Dr Bunker Roy, the Director of the Barefoot College.
Yet the transition is a challenge for many women, who came from different cultural background, customs and languages. Their trainers, who mostly speak Hindi, cut across linguistics barriers using gestures and signs.
“In the beginning, many women face problems, since it is the first time they have left their children and village,” says Leela Devi, a teacher in the solar engineering department. “But we have to be like their sisters, and constantly remind them of the advantages of being here and learning solar engineering.”
The women are also supporting a greener form of energy usage. Many live in villages without any electricity at all, where kerosene usage is high. Yet kerosene is not a sustainable resource, nor is it cheap or healthy; and villagers can stand in line for hours waiting to buy it.
To ensure the sustainability of the project, the women are also taught how to train other villagers in the maintenance of these lamps, and encouraged to set up electronics repairs shops, which will generate an income.
In the span of six months, women of many educational backgrounds, experiences and nationalities have transcended their geographical and cultural boundaries and emerged as leaders, change-makers for their communities, and most importantly – as self sustaining solar engineers.