Sanjit “Bunker” Roy has found a better way to solve poverty: train women as engineers so they can transform their villages.
Early one morning in March 2010, Susanna Adelheid Huis left her home in the village of Uis Tsaurob in the central plateau of Namibia. Her family scratches a living as smallholders, here on the one per cent of her homeland that is forgiving enough to support subsistence agriculture. She took a last look at her house — one of 12 in the settlement — and thought of her husband, five children (the youngest of whom was four) and two grandchildren whom she wouldn’t see for six months. She would miss the coming cool months, returning in September when it was beginning to get hot and dust would be thick in the air.
As Huis neared the capital, Windhoek, 300km away, she was already missing her family. But she was excited too: “It was the first time I ever flew,” the 49-year-old with a ready smile later recalls. Her trip would take her through another three airports — Johannesburg, Delhi and Jaipur. She was embarking on an adventure she hadn’t been entirely convinced about when the idea had been put to her several months before by a tall, distinguished-looking Indian man who had shown up in Uis Tsaurob one day. He had travelled 8,000km with a proposal for the local people: would they like to send some women from the village to his college in India to study for six months? But why, they had asked, should they travel so far? What would they learn there?
The man replied that he would like to teach them to be engineers. The villagers talked among themselves and eventually decided that they would send three women.
One of them was Huis. The tall Indian man was Sanjit “Bunker” Roy, a social activist, educator and the founder of Barefoot College, an organisation based in Tilonia — a small village two hours’ drive west of Jaipur through the arid farmland of Rajasthan — that aims to help the estimated 41 per cent of the Indian population who live below the international poverty line. 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 and they use simple technology in innovative and disruptive ways: mobile phones are set to work monitoring water quality through an online dataset, solar-powered cookers are constructed to break dependence on wood or costly kerosene. Some lessons at the college are recorded and uploaded to the internet. There is no hierarchy: everyone eats sitting on the floor and no one receives a salary of more than $150 per month. Importantly, there is financial transparency. Staff bank accounts are published, as are company finances.
“The model has taken into account the pace at which people think, the culture, which is respected, and the capacity — the infinite capacity — of the community to adjust to, apply and to disseminate ideas,” says Roy, 65, in a calm baritone as he sits cross-legged on a rug beneath a rotating fan in his simple office on the Barefoot campus. He wears a loose red shirt, or kurta, with white pyjama bottoms. His glasses hang from a chain around his neck. “That’s what scalability is all about. It’s a model that people understand, it’s not complicated. It respects the skills that people have rather than discarding them or replacing them.”
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. Critics argue that this methodology doesn’t offer long-term sustainable growth and isn’t scalable. Roy is among them.
“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. “There is a growing anger We have to look for alternatives. 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.”
There are now 24 colleges inspired by the Barefoot model in India. Since 2004, Roy has brought women from 15 African nations as well as Bhutan, Afghanistan and Bolivia to train at the camp as solar engineers. He hopes soon to bring women from Palestine. The college says it has trained 15,000 women in skills including solar engineering, healthcare, water testing and social activism, and that as a result, around 500,000 people have been provided with basic services such as healthcare, drinking water and education. On the Barefoot campus you can meet women who, only six months earlier, were day labourers and are now practising dentistry, women who formed a collective to manufacture solar ovens, illiterate farmers now overseeing engineering projects, and girls who attend Barefoot night school because they work in the fields during the day when state schools are open. Roy estimates that, in India, the Barefoot solar-electrification programme saves two million litres of kerosene every year.
The tech used at Barefoot College is simple — nothing more than a mobile phone or PC. An ongoing project is the monitoring of water quality in the region. Barefoot workers distribute testing kits and upload the data, which can then be accessed by villagers with their mobiles. Another is the Barefoot radio station which, as well as traditional music, broadcasts health and education information. People within 30km listen on their mobiles — which are charged using the solar lanterns manufactured on campus.
Mobile penetration in India is significant: a 2010 UN report estimated that more Indians have access to a mobile than a toilet and that, by 2015, there would be a billion phone connections in the country. Drive through remote Rajasthani villages at night and you see groups of young men hanging out, their faces lit only by the light from their mobiles. In 1972, when Roy founded the college, it had the only telephone in Tilonia. The number was 316. “It was a miracle to crank it up and listen to people in the outside world,” he says. “Now all my 300 staff have mobiles.”
Spend time with Roy — pass through an airport with him, say — and you can understand how his patrician charisma makes him something of an NGO rock star. “You’re lucky to see him,” says Yogi Durlabhji, who describes himself as a “friend and squash victim” of Roy’s. “He shuttles between Bill Clinton and whoever else.” The “whoever else” could be the Dalai Lama — who visited the Tilonia campus in February — or Jeff Skoll, the eBay founding president who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Barefoot College, or George Soros, whom Roy buttonholed once at the Aspen Institute in Colorado to tell him he was wasting his millions donating to top-down solutions.
Operating at rarefied levels of governance and diplomacy is the life that Roy was born into: he was educated at two of India’s elite educational establishments, the Doon school (alumni include former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, writer Vikram Seth and artist Anish Kapoor) and the University of Delhi. “I received an education that was very elitist, very snobbish, very exclusive,” he says. In 1965, however, the then 20-year-old Roy visited Bihar, in north-eastern India, where he witnessed famine first-hand. The experience affected him deeply and, after graduating, he rejected a career as a diplomat or doctor in favour of digging wells in Rajasthan as an unskilled labourer. There he met a man who taught him how to drill and use explosives to blast down into the bedrock to find water. One day the man took him to a small village named Tilonia.
Roy was shocked by the poverty he encountered there. The villagers were equally surprised to see a man of such pedigree in their midst. “They asked, ‘Are you running from the police?’ I said, ‘No,'” Roy says. “‘And you haven’t got a government job?’ I said, ‘No.’ ‘And you have a degree?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘So why are you here? Is there something wrong with you that we don’t know?'”
Suspicion arose because then, as now, educated Indians didn’t move to rural areas. “It’s very sad what the formal education system has done to people all over the world — not just in India, in Africa [too],” Roy says.
He stayed. Amid the poverty, he had found an old tuberculosis hospital that had been built by the British: a series of one-storey buildings with high ceilings and shaded verandas at the end of a road just outside Tilonia. The buildings were owned by the government and used as warehouses. Roy brought to bear the benefits of his upbringing: he spoke to a friend who was now a senior government figure in Delhi who agreed that Roy could rent the warehouses — but only for a year. Roy asked why he wasn’t allowed to take a longer lease.
The official replied that there was no point: Roy wouldn’t stick it out in the countryside. They agreed a fee of one rupee per year and Roy registered The Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC) — Barefoot College’s original name — as an NGO in February 1972.
“We’re still to surrender it after 40 years,” he says with a smile.
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 hired what he describes as “paper-qualified urban professionals” to come to Tilonia to do the teaching. But these educators would spend only a few months at the project before leaving for permanent positions in the cities. Roy realised he needed to change his approach, and from 1977 onwards his strategy shifted: he asked the local people who had learned skills to do the teaching.
The college began by training men from the local village. But those who gained the expertise didn’t stick around — they left for the city in search of well-paid jobs. One of Roy’s tenets for the programme had been to discourage migration, but he discovered that having skills had exactly the opposite effect on people. One day he had a revelation: he was training the wrong gender.
“So we switched to women,” Roy says. “We thought that they’d be the best to train because they’re not compulsively mobile.”
Advocating for the poor at the state assembly meant Roy and other Barefoot workers found themselves opposing local legislators and landowners. In 1979, the project was plunged into crisis when a worker whom Roy had dismissed for embezzlement was elected to local government and made an attempt to have the lease on the warehouses withdrawn. Roy received a letter telling him the campus must be vacated by January 1980.
Then, in the autumn, Roy received another letter from, to his surprise, Robert McNamara, president of the World Bank. McNamara, who had served as US secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, had made it his business to use his office to reduce poverty, and wanted to visit Tilonia to see what Roy was doing. Soon afterwards, McNamara arrived in India with George Bundy, who had been secretary for national security under Kennedy and Johnson.
McNamara’s visit softened the attitude of the local government to the college, but Roy was sure of a reprieve only when, in January 1980, the month the college was due to close, Indira Gandhi was re-elected to power. The order to repossess the college buildings was overturned.
The experience made Roy realise that, as long as he depended on others, the project could be derailed. So he decided to build a second “campus” on some land about a kilometre from the former hospital. The initial design took shape in 1986 after funding had been secured from the Indian government. Roy needed to find an architect to oversee the construction. He eventually settled on a man named Bhanwar Jad, one of the villagers who had filled the vacuum left by the departure of the urban professionals in the 70s.
One Wednesday morning in July 2010, Jad, 48, stands on a hill above the Sambhar, India’s largest saline lake, which is about 100km southwest of Jaipur. It’s 45°C and children walk along the road holding their school bags over their heads for shade. Jad is surveying a Barefoot project, a recently constructed dam with a capacity of 20 million litres that supplies fresh water to 15 villages below. Jad, who wears a gold hoop earring and has greying black hair, smokes a cheroot while talking enthusiastically about his role as an architect and engineer.
“I’m an illiterate farmer,” he says, squinting in the midday sun. “But I apply my mind. I think about gravity and pressure and design, and I learn from everything I do.”
The 2,800m2 campus was funded by the Indian government, the United Nations Development Programme and other humanitarian organisations and was completed in 1989 at a cost of $21,430. It was designed to be completely solar electrified: there are five solar units, each producing 10kW, enough to power 30 computers, 500 lights, 100 fans, a fridge freezer, a fax machine, telephones, the campus router and the community router. The rooftops are used to harvest rainwater, which is kept in underground storage tanks with a capacity of 500,000 litres. It is a model of self-sufficiency.
Much of the construction work in the area is done under the auspices of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, thanks to legislation passed in 2005 which guarantees rural people 100 days per year of unskilled work at the minimum wage. Roy’s wife, Aruna, a political and social activist to whom he has been married for 40 years, was one of the masterminds of the scheme.
“In India I’m always Aruna Roy’s husband,” Roy says, proudly.
There are puddles in the sandy earth alongside the verandas of the old tuberculosis hospital. The first rains of the year have been heavy. Flocks of birds fly overhead and cicadas chirrup noisily as dusk falls. A large goat the colour of rust forages for food.
Inside one of the former wards — plaster walls painted sky blue, ancient fans rocking overhead — is a long, scarred wooden bench about ten metres long. Women in brightly coloured clothes — their traditional clothing accessorised by saris — are huddled in groups of two and three on both sides of the table, concentrating hard on the work in front of them. The room is quiet except for a young man shuffling about with a tray of chai. This is the “International Training Center” where trainees from six countries — Namibia, Gambia, Kenya, Tanzania, Chad and India — are learning how to construct and maintain solar lanterns. Each group has in front of them a training manual, soldering irons, a voltmeter and a partially constructed lantern.
When they return home, the women will each install and maintain 100 solar light systems; the community will pay for the maintenance and spare parts from money saved by not having to buy kerosene. Because the women are often illiterate, they learn by identifying parts visually using a sequence of colours.
According to Barefoot College literature, “solar engineers are trained to understand and identify basic electrical terms, components and equipment. They assemble and fabricate circuits and solar lanterns, solar lamps, charge controllers, choke coils and transformers, and learn to connect modules, batteries, lamps and charge controllers.”
The women can talk on the phone with their families — who have been supplied with mobile phones for the six-month period — for ten to 15 minutes per week. The government of India pays for training expenses, a $100 (£62) monthly stipend that goes to support the women’s families and travel to the college. Their eyesight is tested and they are given dental treatment. Huis and the two other women from Namibia keep a large clay pot in their modest room, which is wrapped in damp sacking to keep the water inside cool. The African women say that their biggest challenge while in Tilonia isn’t learning the electronics — it’s the vegetarian diet. Two Zambian women joke that they have got their eye on the rust-coloured goat.
The 26 non-Indian women now being trained in Tilonia are part of an approach that, according to Roy, has resulted — outside India — in the electrification of around 6,300 households, saving approximately 840,000 litres of kerosene every year.
“When the light comes, the village will not sleep,” Huis says. “When we go back the people will be very proud of us. Strong ladies,” she says laughing and punching the air. “We are not just thinking about ourselves, but about our communities.”
“They have so much confidence that, on their return, the villagers can’t recognise the people they’ve sent,” Roy says of the women. “It’s amazing how much they’ve managed to change the equation between men and women. They come as mothers and go back like tigers — oozing with confidence.”
One night in the autumn of 1989, Minkailu Bah, Sierra Leone’s minister for education, was driving back to Freetown following a meeting. As he passed through Kambia, a district about 180km from the capital, the twinkling of lights in the distance broke the darkness. Bah instructed his driver to turn off the main road and drive into the village where he saw people sitting talking by the light of solar lanterns. Surprised, he asked how this had come about and was introduced to three women, who were described as the village engineers. He asked them where they had learned their skills. They replied, “India.” Bah couldn’t believe what they’d said.
“You went to India and back?” he asked. The women told him that they had. Bah got back in his car and returned to Freetown, where he met President Ernest Bai Koroma and told him what he had seen and heard from the women. Although there were a number of solar electrification projects being developed in Sierra Leone, the men were unaware of the project in Konta, and were startled to learn that the engineering work had been done by a group of middle-aged grandmothers. The next day several members of the cabinet interrupted their business and made the journey to see the women, who explained how they came to have their skills. This prompted President Koroma to summon Roy, whom he asked to train 150 female engineers by the end of 2010.
“The president of Sierra Leone is building the first Barefoot training centre in Africa,” Roy says. “By September it will be complete, and by December we think at least 100 Barefoot solar grandmothers will be trained in Sierra Leone.” The government has committed $1 million (£625,000) to the project with the intention of having electricity in all of the 149 chiefdoms in Sierra Leone by this summer.
Roy firmly believes that the approach adopted by the government of Sierra Leone — low-cost, decentralised, community-driven — is the most productive and efficient way of eradicating extreme poverty in the developing world and that top-down solutions are wasteful and not scalable. Roy’s prime target is the Millennium Village Project (MVP), a collaboration between Jeffrey Sachs’ Earth Institute at Columbia University and the UN. The initiative is developing 13 core villages in sub-Saharan Africa, according to eight globally endorsed targets that address the problems of poverty, health, gender equality and disease. All UN member states have agreed to achieve these by 2015.
“Jeff Sachs has the Millennium Villages,” Roy says. “He spends $2.5 million in one village. It’s an absolutely ridiculous model, because I’ve said that if you gave me $2.5 million I can train 100 grandmothers, solar electrify 100 villages — 10,000 houses — and save you 100,000 litres of kerosene. Look at the amount of money being wasted on one Millennium Village just because Angelina Jolie goes with him for one day.”
John McArthur, CEO of Millennium Promise — the NGO of which the MVP is the flagship project — offers different numbers. “The budget is precise,” he says from the World Economic Forum in Davos. “For the first five years we [budgeted] $60 per person per year for five years. We call a village 5,000 people, so 5,000 people at $60 per year would be $300,000 per year, so for five years that would be $1.5 million per village. So a location with ten villages would have a $15 million budget over the [five-year] period. And so then for 80 villages, which is the total number, it’s a $120 million budget.”
John McArthur doesn’t recognise the criticism that the programme is imposed by outsiders. “I’m not familiar with many projects of this scale that are all led by Africans,” he says. “And each programme is led by local leadership as well as regional talent.
“Are antiretroviral treatments for Aids patients a topdown solution? Are long-lasting insecticide-treated nets? That’s not a top-down process at all, that’s just the nature of technology. These things require global co-operation, but they need real local autonomy to be implemented successfully, to be accountable. I see Millennium Villages as a networked approach that takes advantage of those things in the international and local and community-level environment.”
By way of comparison, the annual budget for the Barefoot project in 2008-2009 (the most recent available) was INR113,971,384.79 (£1.6 million). Of this, INR9,667,234.00 was support from the Indian government, INR87,156,786.32 came from international funding agencies and private foundations and INR17,147,364.47 came from revenue generated by the college itself. The total spent on administrative expenses was INR18.163.608, just 11.3 per cent of total expenditure. The rest was spent on supporting the college’s programmes.
“Wherever I’ve been, and I’ve been to over 20, maybe 25, countries in Africa, I’ve noticed how their backbone is broken,” Roy says. “They don’t have any confidence in themselves. They always think a white man will solve their problems from outside for them. This constant flow of experts, so-called experts from outside… The indigenous people have lost their capacity from within. That’s one of the powerful messages we’re providing through this programme: that anybody — anybody — regardless of who it is, whether he or she has been to school or college, has the capacity to become an engineer or a dentist or an architect or a designer, or work on computers.”
Susanna Huis arrived back in Namibia in September and waited for her solar-engineering equipment to arrive by ship from India. Her children had grown and the heat of summer was beginning to build. The next year looked to be busy but financially stable: local people will each pay her $5 per month for the power, which is roughly what they would spend on kerosene or firewood. If she needs spare parts they will be sent from India. While her husband continues to farm their smallholding, she is now the family breadwinner. Roy’s dream is that technology should be demystified and control of it should be decentralised so that it’s fully replicable anywhere in the world.
Huis, one of Namibia’s first solar engineers, is at the vanguard of this. She has signed a contract that commits her to electrifying 100 homes and maintaining them for the next five years. And she will teach others how to do it. This means that she can’t move away from her village, which is fine with her: she doesn’t want to go anywhere else.
“This programme,” she says. “It will change people’s lives. We go from darkness to light.”