‘Only 300 solar power engineers live in the whole of Africa – and they’re grandmothers,’ insists Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy with all seriousness. ‘People will say this is nonsense, but there is not one solar engineer in any of the 28 African countries I have been to who comes from a village and stays in that village. They all live in cities abroad. The only ones left are the grandmothers we’ve trained.’
The Indian social activist and founder of the Barefoot College is determined to help poor rural communities gain access to light. He says electricity is the biggest expense for families in remote areas and the only solution is to solar-electrify villages – with the help of grandmothers.
‘I’m challenging the conventional mindset of how to bring solar energy to communities,’ explains Roy in his office at the Barefoot College, in Tilonia, India. ‘There’s this myth that ordinary, rural people – including women and grandmothers – cannot fabricate, install and manage sophisticated solar technology. It’s not true and we have exploded that myth.’
Roy established the Barefoot College in 1971 to teach illiterate people from remote villages basic skills in professions such as architecture and engineering. The courses help empower villagers to service their own communities and to reduce their dependency on outside institutions.
‘You cannot address rural problems with urban solutions. The answers lie with rural people,’ says Roy. This is particularly true when it comes to lighting homes. ‘It is impossible to bring electricity to small, remote villages with a conventional grid. It costs over $70,000 a kilometre and companies make communities dependent on outside engineers.’
The key is not simply to install solar technology, but to teach people to repair and maintain it first. ‘Solar units are out of action for months because of a very small part that can be repaired in five minutes,’ complains Roy. ‘Nobody comes to fix them because there is this ridiculous system of call centres and maintenance support, which is often based in the city. Companies don’t bother with remote villages – they couldn’t care less.’
‘You cannot address rural problems with urban solutions. The answers lie with rural people’
The school began training uneducated rural Indian men as solar engineers in 1990 but 10 years later Roy decided to train only women, because the men were too restless. The moment they gained a qualification they left their villages to look for work in the cities. ‘Women, on the other hand, are committed to staying in their communities. They have roots with their children and grandchildren and want to improve their future.’
The Indian government covers the cost of interviewing and training the women. The course is a six-month hands-on programme that teaches the basics of making, installing, and repairing circuit boards for solar lamps and panels. Most of the women and instructors are illiterate, so hand signals and drawings are used to teach. Despite this setback, every student excels. ‘Illiterate people never forget. They only have their memory to rely on, which makes them concentrate harder in class.’
He also praises their ability to learn and share their skills: ‘We trained three women in Afghanistan who have now gone on to train 27 more women and to help solar-electrify over 100 villages across the country,’ he says.
The success of the programme has prompted the Indian government to pay the $250,000 cost of setting up five new Barefoot Training Centres in Africa and to solar-electrify 25,000 African homes.
Roy says his approach is a bargain that exceeds everyone’s expectations. ‘We can solar-electrify 100 villages, train 120 grandmothers and light 11,000 houses in 26 countries in Africa for a total of $2.5 million, which is what [US economist working on the UN/Earth Institute’s Millennium Villages Project] Jeff Sachs spends on just one village in Africa! Yet that is the ideal development model that the UN is trying to push, which is ridiculous and a waste of money. Villagers just want light – so give them light.’