African grannies and solar power

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African grannies and solar power

Indian activist Bunker Roy is bringing electric light to rural villages. He trains grandmothers to be solar engineers, reports Georgia Hanias.

‘Only 300 solar power engineers live in the whole of Africa – and they’re grandmothers,’ says Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy. ‘People will say this is not true, but there are no solar engineers 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 who we’ve trained.’ The Indian social activist (who started the Barefoot College) really wants to help poor rural communities get electricity. He says electricity is the extremely expensive for families in remote areas and the only solution is to get solar power – with the help of grandmothers.


Bunker Roy jokes with one of his trainee grandmothers. Bata Bhurji

‘This goes against the traditional idea of how to bring solar energy to communities,’ explains Roy in his office at the Barefoot College, in Tilonia, India. ‘Many people think that normal, rural people – including women and grandmothers – cannot make, install and manage complicated solar technology. This is not true and we have ended that myth.’

Roy started the Barefoot College in 1971 to teach people with no education from remote villages basic skills in professions such as architecture and engineering. The courses help empower villagers to help their own communities and not be so dependent on outside institutions.

‘You cannot solve rural problems with urban solutions. The answer is to use rural people,’ says Roy. This is very true with the problem of lighting homes. ‘It is impossible to bring electricity to small, remote villages with a normal electricity grid. It costs over $70,000 a kilometre and communities become dependent on outside engineers.’

The solution is not simply to put in solar technology, but to teach people to repair and maintain it first. ‘Solar power units often do not work for months because of a very small part that people could repair in five minutes,’ says Roy. ‘Nobody comes to repair them because there is a stupid system of call centres and support, often in a distant city. No-one cares about small, remote villages.’

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 wanted to move away. When they got a qualification, they left their villages to find work in the cities. ‘But women want to stay in their communities. They want to be with their children and grandchildren and want to improve their future.’

The Indian government pays for interviewing and training the women. The course is a six-month practical programme that teaches them to make, install, and repair circuit boards for solar lamps and panels. Most of the women and instructors cannot read or write, so hand signals and drawings are used to teach. But every student learns very well. ‘Illiterate people never forget. They only have their memory, so they concentrate harder in class.’

He also praises their ability to learn and teach others: ‘We trained three women in Afghanistan who have now trained 27 more women and to help solar-electrify over 100 villages across the country,’ he says.

Because the programme is so successful, the Indian government has paid $250,000 to set up five new Barefoot Training Centres in Africa and to solar-electrify 25,000 African homes.

Roy says this way of working is not expensive and it is better than everyone expects. ‘We can solar-electrify 100 villages, train 120 grandmothers and bring electricity to 11,000 houses in 26 countries in Africa for $2.5 million. This is what Jeff Sachs [US economist working on the UN/Earth Institute’s Millennium Villages Project] spends on just one village in Africa! Yet that is the ideal development model that the UN is encouraging. This is ridiculous and a waste of money. Villagers just want light – so give them light.’

Georgia Hanias is a freelance journalist in London.

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