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Poor, illiterate, rural grandmothers are installing and managing solar power plants across India and Africa, putting ‘professional’ engineers to shame. Bunker Roy’s Barefoot College shows them how to do it.
When he was a young man in the 1960s, Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy left his privileged, highly-educated home and went to dig wells in the poorest parts of India.
“My mother went into a coma!” he joked at the TED Global 2011 conference in Edinburgh last week. In the backwaters of Bihar state, Roy made a life-changing discovery: “I was exposed to the most extraordinary skills that the poor possess.”
He told a rapt audience how those skills—such as water diviner, midwife, bone setter—became the inspiration for his Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan state: a college for the poor, built by the poor, above all where the curriculum is designed and taught by the poor.
“What the poor thought was important would be in college. It’s the only college in India where if you have a PhD you can’t join. We don’t give paper certificates. Certification comes from the community. We redefine the word ‘professional’.”
And when he talks about the poor, Roy means poor women.
“Men are untrainable. Men are restless, men are ambitious, and men all want a certificate. Why? So they can leave the village and go to the city to get a job.”
The solution that benefits the community, and not just the selfish individual, is to train grandmothers. Grandmothers don’t leave the village. Grandmothers pass knowledge on, and grandmothers can be trained in anything, even solar power engineering.
“These women know more about practical installation, fabrication, repair and maintenance than any paper qualified certified solar engineer after five years study,” Roy said proudly, daring the audience to disagree.
At the Barefoot College, they learn how to assemble charge controllers and inverters, establish a rural electronic workshop, install solar panels on roofs, connect them to batteries, and solar electrify each house in the village.
And they do all this without lectures, textbooks, manuals, or exams: indeed, without using the written or spoken word at all.
The Barefoot approach trains the women using demonstration, practice and sign language.
That’s how it trained the first three solar grandmothers who, in turn, trained a further 27 women (speaking many different languages) from all over India. They went on to electrify some 200 rural villages. The Barefoot College then brought women from 26 African countries to India for a six-month training program, again conducted entirely by demonstration and sign language.
“We had all these women sitting together, chatting away, not understanding a word of what their neighbor was saying,” recalled Roy with a broad grin.
By 2011, some 195 African solar grandmothers had electrified 12,700 houses in 170 villages. The cost of the training and these installations was about 3.9 million dollars.
To pay for the solar units, villagers agreed to pay what they previously paid for kerosene torches, batteries, candles, wood and other biomass, about five dollars a month.
The barefoot solar engineers are now recognized and respected community leaders. And not one of them has left her village.
Roy left his audience—no doubt stuffed with paper-qualified experts with certificates to burn—open-mouthed. He seemed to have described the impossible, overturning conventional wisdom on education, engineering and development.
“You don’t have to look for solutions from outside,” he urged. “Look for solutions within and listen to people on the ground….What Mahatma Gandhi said springs to mind: ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win.’”
The standing ovation was long and loud.