The Barefoot Approach
The Barefoot College believes—and has demonstrated—that people living in rural and impoverished areas do not need educational qualifications in order to acquire skills that can be of service to their community. As a result, villages that are inaccessible, remote and non-electrified and those lit up by grandmothers are considered for solar electrification.
How it Works
Every year, the Barefoot College team will identify a few villages in India and in other developing countries—places where it would seem impossible to have a solar electrification system, especially one implemented by illiterate grandmothers. Next, the Barefoot team works with local and national organizations to establish a commitment with the village elders. The elders agree to select two grandmothers to be trained as solar engineers, to choose a village committee composed of men and women to help operate the solar program, collect funds from each participating household and provide a workshop building where the grandmothers can run their operations. The solar engineers are specifically middle-aged women. These women have strong roots in the village; they influence daily life and play a major role in its development rather than migrating to neighboring cities soon after training, as younger community members might.
Most of the villagers are hesitant to trust the idea of harnessing the sun’s energy—and they are in complete shock when they hear that the solar engineers must be grandmothers!
Barefoot College collaborates with local elders and other interested community members in order to help them understand that the solar lighting system is a community ownership model and that each family, irrespective of how poor they are, must contribute money and time to maintaining the system.
Barefoot College holds two training classes per year with an enrollment of 100 solar engineers from India and 80 from other areas of the world. During their six months of school at the campus in Tilonia, the grandmothers experience an amazing personal transformation as they prepare to install, repair and maintain solar lighting units for a period of five years. The grandmothers realize their ability to learn complex concepts, which builds their self-confidence and fuels their potential to be valuable sources of positive change in their villages.
Upon returning to their villages, the grandmothers start solar electrifying each house and bring renewed hope and inspiration to the village. In return for their installation, maintenance and repair services, the women engineers receive a monthly salary from the village solar committee.
Since 2008, the grandmothers have managed to provide electricity to more than 40,000 households, bringing light to more than 450,000 individuals in 1,015 villages.
In addition, communities have seized the opportunity to provide electricity to numerous public facilities, including schools, hospitals, local administration offices, religious buildings and community centers. Most importantly, the projects have managed to reduce CO2 emissions, slow the negative impacts of deforestation and decrease air pollution from burning firewood and kerosene.
Long Term Impact
The solar electrified villages experienced considerable reduction in air pollution, fire and health hazards. Communities that had previously relied on using firewood saw significant reductions in deforestation and land degradation. For example, with the help of solar energy, annual kerosene consumption in villages across Mozambique fell by 27,375 liters and annual firewood consumption fell by 91,250 metric tons in the same region. CO2 emissions were reduced by 82,125 kg each year. Thanks to solar electrification, communities across Africa and Asia have managed to replace 50-95% of kerosene lamps with solar powered lighting, and some villages have succeeded in eliminating kerosene lamps completely.
Participating communities are remote, rural towns who have no prospect of being included in the traditional power grid. Therefore, the socioeconomic impacts are considerable. Communities registered significant cost savings over expenditures for kerosene and batteries. Beneficiaries in Ghana have been able to register savings of 76% in solar energy expenditures over kerosene. Similarly, solar energy resulted in considerable time savings, freeing women from spending many hours hauling wood and kerosene from distant locations. Instead, they can devote their time to more productive activities.
However, the most profound impact of solar electrification has been on community-wide economic activity. Solar lighting has enabled the extension and improvement on the continuity of economic activities after dark. This has had particularly positive implications for women who are now able to expand income-generating activities into the night. In the case of Ghana, solar energy has been providing lighting for two food processing plants where women produce shea butter at night. In Niger, women engaged in increased honey production; in Rwanda, women increased craft-making; and in Ethiopia women increased production of handcrafts and “tela,” a locally brewed beverage.
Education and Employment
These communities are experiencing additional long term benefits of solar electrification. The programme will reduce unemployment and increase information and communication technologies, since participating households received at least one electric plug through the project. All communities noted a substantial increase in mobile phone usage as solar energy users were able to charge their cell phones on a regular basis. In addition, radio, television, and other electronic media facilitated more efficient information gathering and educational activities.
Solar energy will have a long term impact on children’s education in particular, since students now have the opportunity to study after dark. Extended daylight hours allow for more flexible schedules for completing domestic tasks, work and studying. Several communities, including those in Bhutan and Ghana, installed solar energy kits in school buildings. Several communities have also implemented adult literacy programs, along with community television and radios airing audiovisual education programs.
All participating communities experienced the powerful effect of the solar grandmothers on the social status of the illiterate women trainees. Women trainees felt empowered to acquire complex technical skills and returned as qualified solar engineers to serve their communities. Pursuing the training in India in a multicultural setting also broadened their horizons and introduced them to new opportunities for learning and cultural exchange. Most of the women managed to translate their new livelihood activity into better living standards. Overall, participating communities noted that the perception of women and girls vastly improved. In Chad, for example, women and girls are very “excited” and “attracted” by the solar energy program. It has given women a valued place in the community and allowed them to take on community leadership roles.