This is Where Illiterate Women Become Solar Technicians

Barefoot College is a not-for-profit, grassroots social enterprise that has been providing basic services and solutions to the challenges facing rural poor communities for more than forty years, with the objective of making them self-sufficient and sustainable, valuing and respecting the knowledge and wisdom that they already possess. The College was founded in 1972, and today it has campuses in four countries, including its main campus in Rajasthan, India.

Barefoot College believes in keeping alive the lifestyle and work ethic of Mahatma Gandhi by offering down-to-earth, collective and applied, practical learning experiences. The College demonstrates—from the knowledge, skills, and wisdom of village elders and young participants alike—that simple, inexpensive solutions are more sustainable. The College often is shown as an example of what is possible if very poor people, who have never been to school, are allowed to develop themselves. It is a concept that has stood the test of time.

The College demonstrates that simple, inexpensive solutions are more sustainable.

What the College has effectively demonstrated is how sustainable the combination of traditional knowledge (“barefoot”) and demystified modern skills can be when the tools are in the hands of those who are considered “very ordinary” and are written off by urban society. Just because someone is illiterate does not mean she cannot be a solar engineer, architect, designer, communicator, computer technician, or builder of rainwater harvesting tanks. There are many more powerful ways of learning than the written word.

The formal system of education demeans and devalues traditional knowledge, village skills, and practical wisdom that the poor value, respect, and apply for their own development. Just because it is not “certified” does not mean it is inferior. Village knowledge and skills have been respected and applied for hundreds of years, well before the certified urban doctor, teacher, and engineer turned up in the villages.

Barefoot professionals include educators, doctors, night school teachers, solar engineers, water drillers, architects, designers, midwives, masons, communicators, hand pump mechanics, computer programmers, and accountants. Tens of thousands of students have passed through the College and are productive, responsible members of rural society.

Tens of thousands of students have passed through the College and are productive, responsible members of rural society.

In rural India, 60–70 percent of children do not attend school during the day. Instead, they help their families with essential activities, such as collecting firewood or drinking water. Formal school traditionally has not been perceived as a valuable use of the children’s time. But they have time to attend school at night.

Since 1979, the Barefoot Night Schools have educated more than seventy-five thousand children, three-quarters of them girls, making learning accessible to all and relevant to young people in poor rural areas. The Night Schools’ unique approach exposes the children to how village institutions work. Through an elected children’s parliament with a twelve-year-old prime minister, they learn about democracy. Currently, some eight hundred and fifty villages have solar-lit night schools, and more than three thousand Barefoot teachers are reaching twenty-five thousand children who are going to school for the first time. In addition, the Night Schools employ more than nine hundred traditional communicators, with evening puppet shows helping to educate more than one hundred thousand people in remote villages where there is no television and no newspapers.

Barefoot College also has been in the process of expanding the role of education to help empower women not only to survive, but to thrive. It is the only college of its kind in the world. There is no other place of learning where illiterate rural women from some of the most inaccessible villages in the world can learn how to be solar engineers in six months using only sign language. The focus is on giving opportunities to rural women and providing them with skills usually identified with men. Sophisticated technologies such as fabricating solar lanterns, cookers, and heaters are no longer complicated for the illiterate rural women to handle, repair, and maintain.

Women often have more patience, are more skilled with their hands, and, the older they are, are more respected and listened to more seriously.

Barefoot College trains women only between ages forty and fifty, because more mature village women tend to stay with their families in the village. Men, on the other hand, tend to use skills to find work outside the village and to send money home. Women often have more patience, are more skilled with their hands, and, the older they are, are more respected and listened to more seriously.

Barefoot College’s solar engineering students come from poor families with little or no educational qualifications. No translation, no interpreters, and no written language is required. They learn with their hands. They are practical and intelligent and willing to learn, showing enormous patience. Once they are trained, they are less likely to leave their communities, because they have been given a chance to prove their worth to their own communities. Many graduate knowing more about fabricating charge controllers, inverters, and solar lanterns than graduates of five-year university programs.

Using the Barefoot College approach, nine hundred and twenty-four Solar Mamas have been trained from seventy-two countries. They have solar-electrified more than sixteen hundred remote villages all over the world, and, in the process, they have become powerful change agents of the future.

This article is excerpted from the latest edition of State of the World which examines how, by rethinking education, people worldwide can better adapt to a rapidly changing planet.


Bunker Roy is the founder of Barefoot College.

Banner Photo: UN WOMEN Pacific


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00-cover-SOTW2017_mg-768x989With global environmental changes locked into our future, what we teach must evolve.

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