Organization(s): UNDP in cooperation with the Barefoot College (India) and the Ministry of Federal Affairs, Ethiopia

Country(ies): Ethiopia

Primary thematic focus: Sub-national capacity development: local solutions, national strengths

In a Nutshell:

In 2004, as part of a pilot initiative on decentralized service delivery in the 4 poorest regions in Ethiopia, 34 illiterate villagers were trained to build, install, and maintain solar photo-voltaic PV systems bringing electricity for the first time to remote villages.

The Story:

The sun was just beginning to dip below the horizon, coloring the azure sky with brilliant pink and orange hues. Ahadi Ahmed realized that she had to pick up the pace. Gingerly perched on top of the thatched roof of her neighbor’s mud hut, she expertly connected the copper wiring to the solar panel units, which she had assembled earlier in the day. A crowd was beginning to gather with all eyes fixed on the village chief as he ceremonially flicked on the main switch as thunderous cheers erupted. For the first time in history, light had come to Wasaro-Sabure, a remote village in the Ethiopian state of Afar, 400 kilometers from the capital, Addis Ababa. Ahadi was not used to all this attention. After all, she was not an urban educated electrical engineer. She was a mother of five children, a goat herder who had lived in Wasaro-Sabure her entire life, who had never attended school, and was illiterate. Ahadi’s accomplishments may have been remarkable given her humble background, but hers was by no means an isolated experience. Her story had been repeated several hundred times over the past decade, primarily in villages across India. Ahadi was a “Barefoot Solar Engineer” (BSE)—one of the first in Ethiopia and in all of Africa. The experience of poor rural women trained as BSEs from India suggested that illiteracy, extreme poverty, and social exclusion did not produce insurmountable barriers to acquiring applied skills that could lead to income generation, greater empowerment, and self-reliance.

The concept of the ‘Barefoot Solar Engineer’ was developed by a well known NGO in Rajasthan India, called the ‘Barefoot College’ ( Its founder, Bunker Roy had already tested this approach successfully in India in the late 1990s with the support of UNDP India. As the Assistant Resident Representative of UNDP Ethiopia charged with implementing a large decentralization support programme, I found the Barefoot approach quite innovative and appealing, not least because of its focus on grassroots capacity development and empowerment of the poor. While UNDP Ethiopia’s decentralization support focused overwhelmingly on developing institutional capacities of the central and sub-national civil service, including training of civil servants towards enhancing public service delivery, in the absence of civil servants, particularly in remote regions, I felt it was also necessary for communities to also develop their own capacities and address their immediate development needs through self-help. Following a high-level study visit by the President (Governors) of the 4 ‘Emerging Regions (poorest provinces) of Ethiopia to the Barefoot College in India, an agreement was made to send 34 illiterate/semi-literate villagers to India to be trained as ‘Barefoot Solar Engineers’, supported by UNDP Ethiopia and the Ministry of Federal Affairs.

Results and Critical Factors:
This pilot initiative was an eye-opener– few people would believe that an illiterate Ethiopian villager could be taught to build and operate solar PV systems, which is something many electrical engineers with 4 years of university education find difficult. But it has happened and is being replicated beyond Ethiopia. In the Ethiopia case, UNDP has commissioned an evaluation of this initiative which is currently underway. However, some of the preliminary findings suggest the following results after 5 years:
– All of the 34 trained BSEs in Ethiopia continue to serve their respective communities (none of them have left to go to the towns or cities to get better paying jobs, so capacity is retained).
– More than 500 households have been successfully solar electrified, with an additional 170 mobile solar lanterns across 16 villages in 4 poorest regions
– The community collectively agrees to pay the BSEs a fixed monthly maintenance fee per unit, which generates employment for them.
– 10 rural electronic workshops established for repair and maintenance of the solar PV systems
– Children able to study in the night for longer hours and anecdotal evidence from some villages state that the students’ class performance has improved
– Village mid-wives are able to help in delivering babies, which they previously used to do in darkness

– A number of villages have used electricity to watch television and programs on health and HIV/AIDS which promoted better hygeine and preventative measures.
– The initial successes in Ethiopia have paved the way for the Barefoot College to replicate this approach across Africa and globally.

For video documentation, please visit: 1) Barefoot Women Solar Engineers of Africa 2) Interview with Bunker Roy, Founder- Barefoot College

Name of Primary Contact Person: Jamshed M. Kazi

Title of Primary Contact Person: Mason Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School & former UNDP Asst. Resident Rep, Ethiopia

City: Cambrige, Massachusetts