Generating the Unlikeliest of Heroes

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

DOHA, QATAR – Persuading the Indian immigration authorities to grant entry visas to illiterate African grandmothers who claim to be trainee solar engineers is no easy task.

Yet, Sanjit Bunker Roy, an Indian educator, has, since 2005, succeeded in bringing 140 such women to the Barefoot College, a school he founded in 1972 in Tilonia, a village in Rajasthan State, about 95 kilometers, or 60 miles, from the state capital, Jaipur.

“Never in the history of Africa have so many women traveled so far away, for so long, to be trained as solar engineers, without knowing how to read, write or speak the language,” said Mr. Roy at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha in November.

In India, they receive a six-month training course, taught in sign language and color codes, in which they learn to install, maintain and operate household, solar-powered lighting systems.

The women are taught to install integrated circuit boards for solar home lights and off-grid solar units generating up to 500 kilowatts per day. They are also taught to assemble simple solar lanterns and compact fluorescent lamps, parabolic solar cookers and solar water heaters.

Then they return home to electrify their villages.

According to Barefoot College, in the five years since Mr. Roy extended his program to Africa, the 140 women have provided solar power to 9,118 remote homes in 21 African countries.

“When people tell me there are no local solutions, I don’t believe them,” Mr. Roy said. “There is an indigenous solution everywhere.”

When he started the college, Mr. Roy had no idea his reach would extend beyond India. His aim was to address the poverty and energy crisis that continues to plague rural India – where still, today, more than 70 percent of the country’s nearly 1.2 billion people live.

According to Mr. Roy, about 40 percent of rural Indian households do not have access to electricity. More than 85 percent of them rely on kerosene for lighting and firewood for cooking.

Lack of access to electricity, he said, exposes rural people to serious health risks, impedes local economic development and contributes to rural migration. To combat those problems, Mr. Roy decided early on that his best weapons were illiterate grandmothers.

“Young people are untrainable,” he said. “They are obsessed with training certificates, which we do not provide, and once they get the training, they leave the village looking for money and opportunity in the city.” In contrast, he said, older rural women are less likely to desert their villages for greener pastures.

If that is a long-term advantage, it is also a large short-term challenge.

“The women are totally bewildered when they first arrive in a strange land,” Mr. Roy said. “On top of it, they are expected to become solar engineers. It is frightening prospect.”

Using what he calls a “demystified and decentralized” approach, Mr. Roy employs a staff of 400 to teach about 50 women per session at the college. The teachers themselves are illiterate grandmothers, all alumnae of the school.

“With every month in India, the women grow in stature and self-confidence,” he said. “They come as grandmothers and return as heroes to their village.”

Source: The New York Times (link opens in a new window)