SEATTLE — Within six months, India’s Barefoot College transforms women with little to no education into solar engineers. Perhaps even more surprising, the teachers give their lessons in sign language.
This Indian NGO was formed in 1972 by Meghraj, a young farmer, and Sanjit “Bunker” Roy, a highly educated social worker with a peculiar vision for the rural poor. The college’s programs are geared towards promoting sustainability and development in villages across the world. Its most popular venture involves solar technology.
The Barefoot College recruits women from some of the least developed regions in the world, such as Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, and trains them to install and maintain solar power in their villages.
Applicants that make more than $100 a month are not eligible, but apart from a low income, there are no prerequisites. Most students come from communities that have never had electricity and are completely mystified by the wonders of solar technology.
Since the college’s students come from diverse areas of the world, verbal instruction is ineffective. The students, as well as some of the teachers, are also mostly illiterate, meaning written manuals are not an option either. Therefore, most instruction is given with body language, demonstrations and colored diagrams. At the end of their training, women leave with the ability to fix solar lanterns even though they cannot read.
Over 300 Barefoot College graduates lit up 19,000 homes between 2005 and 2011. By 2014, 1,083 villages and 820 schools across India, Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Pacific Islands received solar power from 604 former students. The college itself also contributes $50,000 toward equipment for up to 120 homes in each participant’s village, but the installation is left to the students.
After their villages have reliable access to electricity, they open up shops to fix solar panels and solar lanterns, for which they receive a monthly salary. Although the program is designed to increase every graduate’s income, it also tries to discourage students from using their knowledge to seek employment in larger cities by not issuing any form of certification.
The women at the Barefoot College face harsh realities at home. One student from Nepal, Neema Gurung, lives in a village threatened by tiger attacks. Without electric power, Neema’s village was completely dark when the sun sunk below the horizon. Leaving home after dark was dangerous, even if it was to use the outdoor toilet. Neema’s training represented a dissolution of fear–sundown no longer had to be the end of her day.
Another woman, Santosh, views the training as a form of social mobility. Santosh is considered to be of a “lower caste,” which in India puts her on the lowest rung of the social ladder. With her newly earned expertise in solar technology, Santosh is now a leader in her village. She has doubled her family’s income, which they have used to build a new house.
Apart from spreading solar technology throughout the developing world, this NGO has also established 549 night-schools in India for children that must work during the day. Children are taught arithmetic and reading skills through entertaining methods such as puppet shows. Adults are also given the opportunity to learn how to harvest rainwater and make handicrafts in order to supplement their income.
As a nonprofit, Barefoot College subsists on donations from dozens of organizations to provide money for equipment, travel expenses, and room and board for students. Maintenance for the eight-acre campus comes from generous donors such as India’s Ministry of External Affairs. Of course, anyone who is interested can donate on the Barefoot College website, thus contributing to clean energy and rural development worldwide.
– Emiliano Perez