Niembain Charlotte, a 60-year-old Cameroonian woman has empowered her community with solar energy. Here is her story.
In 2019, at the age of 60, Niembain Charlotte, a former farmer, embarked on an extraordinary journey. She left her home to take part in the Solar engineering programme with Barefoot College International.
Although women her age don’t typically encounter such opportunities, women like Charlotte are the very people that we aim to empower through this training. She envisioned a future where her newfound skills would profoundly enhance the quality of life for her community.
Having married young, Charlotte had to abandon her education early on to fulfil the responsibilities of a wife and mother. Sadly, Charlotte became a widow in 2007. She has a 27-year-old daughter and a grandson. When the opportunity to train as a Solar engineer presented itself, she didn’t hesitate to seize the chance.
Solar Energy in Remote Regions
In 2020, after Charlotte had completed her training, 400 solar home lighting systems reached remote regions of Cameroon, providing 2,800 villagers without access to grid electricity.
Traditionally, these villages relied on wood and kerosene for light, which is not only costly but also hazardous. Through Barefoot College International, Charlotte started solar electrifying homes in Mpagne, a remote village accessible by a single, often impassable, clay road that winds through a rainforest.
The clay road is frequently flooded and can be reached only by motorcycle. With good weather, the road takes 3 hours one-way. On bad days, it becomes impassable.
“When the panels arrived, I was so happy. Villages will be bright for the first time. People will be able to move safely during the night.” – Niembain Charlotte
Life in Mballa Village
Nestled in central Cameroon, Charlotte’s home of Mballa village is a French-speaking Muslim community with approximately 3,000 residents. Lacking indoor plumbing and with limited water resources, women like Charlotte bear the responsibility of water collection.
This task involves a tough hour-long walk each way to fetch water, often from unsanitary sources due to the lack of water pumps.
In addition to water collection, Charlotte’s duties included gathering wood for cooking and lighting. These communities traditionally rely on indoor open-flame cooking, which significantly contributes to the respiratory issues faced by rural people.
In parallel, the demand for wood also increases deforestation. Although Charlotte’s village is currently still lush and beautiful, this is changing at an alarming rate due to insufficient local regulation.
It is crucial to address these challenges in order to preserve the environment, improve living conditions for the local people and protect rural ways of life.
Empowerment through Education
Charlotte’s decision to study solar engineering was a game-changer. Grateful for her teachers’ kindness and generosity, she learned about carbon emissions and climate change, driving her passion for distributing solar panels and lanterns in nearby communities.
Charlotte’s determination makes her a bright light, admired in her village for her strong will and courage.
We have historically trained older rural women like Charlotte for their wisdom and strong convictions to improve their communities. These women can become influential members of society, likely to share their newfound skills and knowledge with other women and girls.
Challenges and Opportunities
Mpagne, where the first solar systems were installed, is completely off-grid. The villagers have not had a functioning school in years, nor do they have any local access to a hospital.
Women still deliver their babies on the dirt floors of their homes, and many birthing mishaps occur. If labour happens at night, they have no choice but to deliver in pure darkness.
With only 54% of Cameroon’s population having access to electricity, solar energy could provide a consistent source of safe, clean light for local people.
Although 58% of Cameroonian women work in the agriculture sector, 87% of these jobs were considered vulnerable before the pandemic This number is likely to have risen as the global economic landscape has worsened.
Moreover, 85% of working women in Cameroon are self-employed, leaving them unprotected in case of job loss.
Knowledge and Empowerment
In early 2020, just before the onset of the pandemic, Charlotte returned to her village equipped with valuable knowledge acquired from the ENRICHE and Solar training programmes. These empowered her as a woman to pursue a career in a village where such occupations were traditionally reserved for men.
Charlotte’s newfound business and financial expertise were crucial to enable her to save money and manage a bank account effectively. Coupled with the provision of a cell phone and digital literacy classes, she is now able to navigate the internet, make calls, and capture photos and videos using her phone. She also fostered a deeper understanding of women’s rights, health, and nutrition.
She fondly recalls learning to create jewellery, fostering a healthier family life, and acquiring knowledge about health and sanitation—skills that proved particularly beneficial during the pandemic.
Charlotte wishes for a brighter future for the children in her village, one filled with increased opportunities and a better quality of life.
In total, Charlotte and her fellow Cameroonian Solar engineers have electrified 400 houses, directly impacting 2,800 people across 13 villages. Her impact will be felt for generations to come.
“I took quite a journey – people perceive me differently. They admire me for my courage and sacrifices!” – Niembain Charlotte