The Barefoot Approach: Women Barefoot Solar Engineers of Africa

The Women Barefoot Solar Engineers of Africa aim to improve the lives of the rural poor living
on less than $1 a day in remote inaccessible villages off the energy grids in the 21 least
developed countries in Africa, supplying their communities with clean, low-cost household
lighting from solar energy.

Since 2005 more than 140 women from Africa, many of them grandmothers, almost all of them
illiterate, have trained at the Barefoot College in India. In six months, these women learned how
to fabricate, install and maintain solar-powered household lighting systems, and have become
Barefoot Solar Engineers transforming the lives of over 2,000 families in the first self-sufficient
and self-reliant, solar-electrified villages in Africa.

The Barefoot Approach has reached remote, poor, rural villages in 25 countries in Africa, Asia
and Latin America. Illiterate rural mothers and grandmothers who have never left their villages
before training in India have solar electrified their own villages.

A Pressing Need for Affordable Clean Energy in Developing Countries

A rural family in Africa burns around 60 liters of kerosene a year to light their home. The
average kerosene lamp in Africa spews a ton of CO2 in less than 10 years. Solar lighting can
replace kerosene and wood, and improve the health of the people and the environment.

Training Illiterate & Semi-Literate Grandmothers from Africa

The College believes the very poor have every right to control, manage and own the most
sophisticated of technologies to improve their own lives. Just because they cannot read and write,
there is no reason that very poor women cannot be water and solar engineers, designers,
communicators, midwives, architects and rural social entrepreneurs.

Illiterate grandmothers have shown they are capable of fabricating, installing and maintaining
solar lighting systems after six months of hands-on training, tutored by unschooled Indian
women who have learned to train others in the skills they have acquired through “learning by

More than 140 rural grandmothers have solar electrified 9,118 remote rural houses in 21 African
countries. It is an extraordinary story because grandmothers are considered useless in rural
African society and after their return they have become role models for their communities.
As a result of solar electrifying their communities, they have managed to save 30,000 liters of
kerosene per month from polluting the atmosphere all over Africa.

Paper Qualifications, Literacy and Even Common Language Are Not Needed

For women who have rarely left their village, it requires undeniable courage and patience to
leave their homes and families to come to India for six months. With time they adapt to new
food, shelter and clothing.

The presence of so many nationalities creates a positive environment of cultural diversity, but
initially raised concerns over language and communication. The need for expression has given
birth to a unique “language” of gestures, signs and broken English cutting across all language

“Learning by doing” has long been the philosophy adopted by Barefoot College for training.
Practical demonstrations, “hands-on” experience and regular repetition help trainees get familiar
with terms, tools, equipments and components used in the solar technology. With each passing
day their level of hesitancy decreases and confidence and technical dexterity increases.

The program breaks a critical myth associated with solar technology and learning. It proves that
“paper qualifications” are not required to become a Solar Engineer.

A Proven Model for Self-Sustaining Community Development

The Barefoot Approach was designed to demonstrate the first technically and financially selfsufficient, solar electrified rural villages in Afghanistan, Bhutan and Africa.

The target constituency has been the rural poor families living on less than $1 per day in rural
communities where the women spend hours fetching wood or kerosene, or rely on candles and
flashlight batteries for lighting at very high costs. After food, the highest family expenditure is
on lighting.

By training an illiterate rural grandmother to be a fully competent solar engineer there is no need
for an urban, paper-qualified solar engineer and eliminates the dependency of rural communities
on urban experts.

By getting the communities to pay every month for the use of the solar units (thus reaching the
very poorest of the poor who cannot afford to buy these systems even in installments), the
financial commitment is assured for the purchase of replacement components and payment of the
monthly salary of the woman solar engineer. This salary provides the incentive for the woman
solar engineer to work and look after the units regularly or she will not receive her monthly

Each household agrees to pay a fee between $5 to $10 a month for the solar lighting, roughly
what they used to spend on kerosene, candles and flashlight batteries.

A Scalable Solution for Solar Electrification Across Africa

This Barefoot model for implementation of community-owned and managed systems has
resulted in solar electrification benefiting nearly 190,000 people in over 750 communities in 16
states in India and is being replicated in 24 other countries in Africa, Latin America and South

The Barefoot Approach leverages local community contribution and participation with public
and private sector investment and financing. Working in partnership with the local community,
the Barefoot Approach draws on a mix of resources including government and international
funding agencies, private foundations, and corporate and individual sponsors to enable the
appropriate investment for cost-effective and self-sustaining solutions for delivering solar power
in poor, rural communities.

The Government of India is funding the air travel and training costs of the African women being
trained by the College in Tilonia.

Decentralizing and Demystifying Technology

Very ordinary people written off by society because they are labeled as poor, primitive and
backward are doing extraordinary things that defy common expectations. What the Barefoot
College has effectively demonstrated is how the combination of traditional knowledge (barefoot)
and demystified modern skills can bring lasting impact and fundamental change when the tools
are in the control and ownership of the rural poor.

All other initiatives providing solar-powered lighting in remote villages are implementing a topdown approach where the installation is done by a “paper-qualified” engineer coming from a city
who has no idea how to work and communicate with poor communities. The experts’ belief in
the technology is total. Their faith in the capacity and competence of the rural poor to fabricate,
install and maintain the solar units is totally absent.

The primary obstacles that are coming in the way of the demystified Barefoot Approach
spreading faster all over the world is the “blinkered” mind of the paper-qualified expert and the
limited vision to dream or take risks by the Literate Man and Woman in corridors of power.
It is beyond their comprehension and understanding to accept that an illiterate rural woman who
has never been to school or college can be a Solar Engineer. They do not believe that
sophisticated 21st century technology like solar should be or could be managed, controlled and
owned by very poor rural women earning less than $1 a day.

It is by taking whole communities into confidence and making them take all the decisions that
wastage can be minimized, urban migration reversed, and pilferage and theft of solar panels in
villages eliminated.

That is why a change in work style and mindset is required to provide clean, inexpensive,
pollution-free light to the poor around the world.

The Jim Lehrer News Hour on PBS featured the Women Solar Engineers of Africa

Videos of the Women Barefoot Solar Engineers of Africa

Illiterate grandmothers from rural villages in seven African countries train to become solar
engineers at the Barefoot College in Tilonia, India.