Barefoot College Empowers Women in Developing Countries Through Solar Energy

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Fighting gender inequality, providing humanitarian solutions, and supporting environmentally-friendly initiatives are usually separate missions for non-profit organizations; but Barefoot College found a creative way to combine all three. The organization trains women in rural areas to be solar engineers and educators in their communities, fostering sustainable solutions for generations to come while fighting poverty and providing economic solutions.

What Is Barefoot College?

Barefoot College was founded in India 45 years ago and has been changing lives ever since. To make these massive community changes happen all over the world, the organization brings women from rural areas of the globe to India. They spend the next six months studying and training to be solar engineers. Once they have the necessary technical skills, Barefoot College teaches these women basic entrepreneurial skills they can leverage in their communities in order to create small-to-medium solar enterprises.

According to CEO Meagan Fallone, Barefoot College utilizes a curriculum that is free of the written word in order to ensure that the program is accessible to all of the women in their program, as well as their communities back home. They utilize visual teaching tools, leveraging technological aids such as tablets and multimedia pictograms.

Who Does Barefoot College Serve?

This nonprofit has served over 80 countries during its time in operation, primarily in India, Africa, and Asia. They work with mostly-to-semi-illiterate women from remote areas of the world, especially in communities that are just barely surviving, with an average household income well below the global poverty line. Barefoot College offers the communities they serve a radical and effective way to generate and control their own income — an opportunity that is often in short supply in impoverished communities.

Why Solar Energy?

Barefoot College’s program was designed to teach women how to electrify their villages with solar power. For remote, poverty-stricken communities, having access to both engineering and entrepreneurial training is a huge leap forward, opening the door to take advantage of a wide range of other economic opportunities in the 21st century.

The implementation of solar-generated electricity provides these communities with the ability to access the internet, open bank accounts, and create their own businesses. It has a major impact on both economic opportunities and quality of life with minimal environmental implications.

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Five Maasai Grandmothers Learn How to Utilize Solar Power at Barefoot College India (Photo: Adventure Travel News)

Solar Mamas

The women chosen by Barefoot College to become solar engineers become known as “Solar Mamas.” This nickname is based on the idea that these women will become engineers while continuing to inhabit their existing roles as mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and women with family responsibilities. Rather than separating these women from their maternal role, the moniker indicates how Barefoot College provides their Solar Mamas with even more power to provide stability, guidance and wisdom to those around them.

Solar Mamas are able to use their engineering training from Barefoot to fabricate, install, and repair solar energy solutions in their communities. They are able to implement a range of solar technology, from home lighting systems to large solar panels to handheld solar lanterns and torches.

As of today, 2,546 Solar Mamas are meeting 14 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations. Barefoot College has been instrumental in providing newfound access to light in 1,896 villages across 96 countries, rippling out to impact over two million people. Today, Barefoot has Solar Mamas on 14 Pacific Islands, 39 African countries, 19 Latin/Central/South American Countries, and 18 Asian Countries.

By providing access to education in engineering and entrepreneurial skills, Barefoot College is utilizing the drive, perseverance, and willingness to learn exhibited by women in rural, disadvantaged communities in order to improve their lives as well as the lives of everyone around them. 

A Deeper Look

Sue Stevenson, Director of Strategic Partnerships & International Development at Barefoot College, spoke to Like A Boss Girls about the importance of empowering and educating women in impoverished communities. Stevenson is passionate about the way that Barefoot provides their program participants with the means to be a catalyst for positive change their their community.

Q: How does Barefoot College implement their program in each location?

A: Barefoot College works with ground partners from around the world. These organizations include local charities and NGOs as well as global organizations, such as such the UN and local government municipalities. Ground partners are vital to keeping everything running smoothly. They help women travel to India by providing health checks and vaccinations, passport applications, and reintegration after training.

Some organizations, such as the WWF in Madagascar, also provide high level financial support to the regional training center there. Other funding is provided by project-based partners from UN Women, and other multilateral organizations. Funding also comes from family and corporate foundations, and online donations from individuals and organizations. The latter has had a hugely positive impact on Barefoot College and its Solar Mamas in the past two years.

To keep this system running smoothly, Barefoot employs Regional Coordinators. They work with ground partners in specific localities and different parts of the world. This is so that women can be selected, trained and provided with solar equipment in a problem-free operation. The Regional Coordinators empower young girls, and enrich and educate women.

Q: How are Solar Mamas selected?

A: The selection process to become a Solar Engineer/Solar Mama is carried out in situ by the communities themselves. They often have the entire community involved in the selection process. We do it this way because Barefoot has found that it is important to begin all Solar Mama programs by including the whole community in the journey of choosing which women will become engineers. This helps each individual in the community to feel valued in the process of selection.

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Image: Tilonia campus of Barefoot College in Rajasthan (EnergyNext.in)

Q: What does the selection process entail?

A: To choose the Solar Engineers, the entire village or town hosts a meeting. However, this can sometimes be difficult, as it must be arranged so that all community members can attend. It’s not uncommon for this meeting to take three or four tries before it successfully happens. At the meeting, women who are interested in becoming Solar Engineers can submit their candidacy. This is then discussed by the entire community, who must decide which women should undertake the journey to India. It’s wonderful, as everyone feels involved in the decision making!

Barefoot College’s Founder, Bunker Roy, has found it helpful in the past to attend as many of these meetings as he can. This way, he is there to assuage the worries of families and communities who are sending these women away for six months.

Once the women have been trained as engineers, they return to their communities with the solar equipment necessary for electrification. After this, they go on to share their new knowledge with the young women of their villages, along with their families, friends and neighbors.

Above all, one of the most important parts of the Barefoot selection process is how our program is set up to be able to educate any woman, regardless of her level of literacy. Illiteracy does not mean a woman is unintelligent; it simply means that she needs to learn through different, visual means. Barefoot believes that illiterate women can still be educated and make a difference in their communities.

Q: What is “ENRICHE” and how do you train women to be entrepreneurs?

A: In 2015, Barefoot started ENRICHE as part of our training for Solar Engineers. ENRICHE runs parallel to our engineering training and involves a structured education in micro-enterprise skills. This program focuses on digital and financial literacy, environmental sustainability, human rights, and women’s health.

Q: What is the aim of the ENRICHE Program?

A: The aim of ENRICHE is to train women to build small-to-medium-sized enterprises through the use of their engineering skills. Our training enables participants to do things like setting up internet access for themselves or their businesses, opening bank accounts, budgeting and managing their income, and teaching others to do the same.

ENRICHE essentially provides women with additional hard and soft skills to their engineering training. It allows our Solar Mamas to build on their own aspirations, skills, self-awareness, and self-confidence. This is a natural extension of the training Barefoot already provides, and an answer to the fact that one of the biggest gaps between First World and developing countries is digital inclusion.

The ENRICHE Program provides each woman trainee with an iPad when she arrives in India. With this tool, she is able to familiarize herself with digital technology. This helps her to learn visually during her training and assists her in mastering computer technology. The iPads provide an excellent way for each woman in our program to feel in control of her own training.

Ultimately, Barefoot’s training program empowers women to value themselves for more than their procreative abilities. As a result of Barefoot’s training, higher numbers of women in Barefoot communities are staying in school, which enables them to learn about farming and other livelihood creation techniques. In the past, it was more common for girls to drop out of school as soon as they began menstruating.

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Barefoot International

Q: Does Barefoot train men as well as women?

A: Barefoot used to train both men and women. However, we quickly discovered that after completing our training, men were prone to immediately leaving their communities upon their return and migrating to cities. Women, conversely, go back to their communities to work in their own homes and villages. This is why Barefoot now uses Solar Mamas and trains women exclusively.

There are a variety of factors that contribute to this, including the fact that women in the countries we work with tend to have less freedom of movement and social standing than the men. Barefoot is hugely grateful that women who become Solar Mamas overwhelmingly seem to want to return home to their communities after training.

Q: How is Barefoot College helping global communities?

A: Barefoot College provides the tools needed for people to control their own electrification, and to build and sustain their own livelihoods. On a broader scale, access to electricity means access to clean water, safe cooking and lighting facilities, and communications technology.  

Barefoot College provides women and their communities with education. This, in turn, allows them to understand the technical development of solar power. Through our Solar Mamas, these communities learn how they can make improvements to their way of life within their own society. Many of the communities we work with have traditionally segregated women from school and the workforce after menarche. By doing this, the community is losing half of its potential workers and holding back the potential advancement of their society.

Q: How does Barefoot College’s education serve to empower women?

A:  The tools that women learn from the Barefoot College program give them economic and personal value to their community. These women are doing more than improving their own personal circumstances; their empowerment creates positive change around them as well.

Once a Solar Mama has completed the Barefoot training program, she is able to return to her community and prove that she has value beyond procreation. She has the power to show how excluding women from access to education and the workforce is both fundamentally wrong and unprofitable for everyone. Barefoot’s programming makes sure that Solar Mamas will have the support of their communities right from the start.

Barefoot’s aim is to help our participating communities to better themselves. We want our program to help community members discover the value and skills that exist within their own female family and friends. Ultimately, this is the silver bullet in how Barefoot College operates — the improvements become self-sustaining because we give local communities ownership and agency over implementing the changes.

Sustainable Solutions

Barefoot College is changing the world for the better by paving the way for sustainability in developing countries. This organization is making huge strides toward empowering disadvantaged communities by allowing women to take the lead — and this is an M.O. we can get fully behind!


For More on Barefoot College:

Website // Facebook // Donate // Solar Mamas Film

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