Women in India and across the world learn to be energy engineers.
It was a sweltering July day last year when about ten people from WWF offices around the world went to visit the amazing Barefoot College in the north-west of India.
Based in the remote village of Tilonia, in India’s desert state of Rajasthan, the Barefoot College has spent the last four decades training thousands of illiterate and semi-literate people from all over the world to become skilled engineers, carpenters, even lawyers and dentists. These are mainly older women with the talent, but who’ve never had the opportunity.
We love the Barefoot idea. It’s based on the principle that local problems are best solved locally, and that we should make better use of the skills and knowledge of ordinary communities. We see obvious links with WWF’s approach to protecting the natural world. Conservation is often about social change also, and local knowledge plays a vital role.
Based on this thinking, WWF partnered with the Barefoot College. Some of their main success has come from training people, often grandmothers, to work as solar engineers. Bringing about an energy transformation through renewable energy is something that’s obviously close to our belief of a living planet.
Why grandmothers? It’s because Barefoot College founder Sanjit Roy has found that there are advantages to training the women in a community. Women are more likely to pass their knowledge on, while men, he argues, value the certificate so that they can leave and get a job elsewhere.
The Barefoot ethos is about demystifying technology – in this case solar power – and making it accessible to poor and uneducated communities. They select women from rural villages around the world, often places with little or no access to electricity. Energy in these areas comes from sources like oil lamps and wood stoves that may be bad for the local environment, or human health, or both.
So far, the college has brought together women from as far apart as Afghanistan, Colombia, Jordan, Panama, Belize, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Nepal and Sierra Leone. There, in the little Indian village of Tilonia, they stay for six months and learn to become solar engineers.
Last year, WWF also helped women from Madagascar take part in the Barefoot training programme. As Voahirana Randriambola from WWF Madagascar explains, “It’s not only a technology project, it’s a human project – it’s built on human relations.” Here’s a video telling their story:
It can be a challenging six months. A lot of these women have never been away from their homes or families before. Most are illiterate, with little or no education. They don’t even share a common language. Yet, gradually, patiently, often using a mixture of sign language and images, they learn how to identify electrical components, solder circuit boards and build solar lamps.
When they go back home after six months, they can not only install solar lighting systems, but they train other villagers to do so. The equipment can either be sponsored, or bought on credit and paid back by the community, depending on their financial situation.
The solar lamps improve opportunities for education – children can study in the evenings – and even provide jobs and income for communities. In short, solar electrification brings a social, cultural and environmental transformation. It’s a real win win.
Scaling up, and seizing your power
WWF is helping scale up the idea of off-grid solar systems like the ones being built by the women of Barefoot College. We are also doing some behind the scenes advocacy, nationally and internationally, to help improve access to renewable energy around the world.
We work in lots of places where access to energy is minimal, and we need to make sure that as the demands increase, the supply is provided from clean, green, sustainable sources, not dirty fossil fuels.
WWF believes that the world needs to join forces and work together on transforming our energy systems. Barefoot College is proving that the desire and skills to embrace renewables like solar power exists among women in local communities. But they require support to get started, to source and pay for the component parts, materials, tools and other needs.
That’s why we launched the Seize Your Power campaign. We’re calling on governments and financial institutions to significantly increase their funding for renewable energy and at the same time to divest from fossil fuel industries, particularly coal, that are fueling runaway climate change.
The Barefoot concept is already working in local communities. The global approach has been defined. It’s time for action to move it all forward, together.
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Source: Aarti Khosla, WWF-India