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Barefoot College in India

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The students are mostly women. Some are grandmothers. Hundreds have come through here from villages across India and a dozen other countries to learn how to install and maintain solar energy in rural areas.

Even though it’s sophisticated coursework, the only pre-requisite for admission to the Barefoot College is that there are no pre-requisites, not even to speak the language.

Until we arrived with a translator, these Mauritanian women who’d been here four months hadn’t spoken to anyone else in Arabic, the only language they know. But language is not a barrier to learning, says the college’s founder.

BUNKER ROY (Founder, Barefoot College): Our job is to show how it is possible to take an illiterate woman and make her into an engineer in six months and show that she can solar-electrify a village.

DE SAM LAZARO: Bunker Roy, a social activist influenced by Gandhi, founded the Barefoot College in 1972. He wanted to use traditional knowledge and sustainable technology to help this impoverished desert region. It began with basics, like finding safe drinking water, then several years later, solar energy.

Mr. ROY: In 1986, no one ever thought of solar electrification. It was far too expensive. But today we have 50 kilowatts of panels on our roofs. All our 20, 30 computers, electronic machines, telephone exchange — all work off solar.

DE SAM LAZARO: Today solar energy drives not just the equipment. This is a larger social experiment to improve the lives of some of the world’s poorest people. It begins in the classroom run by instructors who themselves have little or no formal education. Instruction is delivered with a mix of body language, a few essential terms in English, and lots of hands-on practice.

The students create an illustrated manual they’ll take home. It’s the closest thing to a diploma certifying their training as solar technicians. But just coming here is an unlikely achievement for students like 56-year-old Sarka Mussara, a widowed grandmother. She’d never attended school or even left her village in the West African nation of Mauritania.

Sarka Mussara

SARKA MUSSARA (Student, through translator): At first we did not even have a passport. We started little by little learning the solar energy system. Day by day and little by little we were able to put things together.

DE SAM LAZARO: Roy was educated at elite Indian schools, on a path to medicine or diplomatic service before he founded the Barefoot College. The idea of self-reliant learning was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi — also by a legendary American.

Mr. ROY: Well, it’s Mark Twain who said never let school interfere with your education. School is something that you learn — reading and writing. Education is what you learn from the family, from the environment, from the community.

DE SAM LAZARO: Using grants from the U.N. and private foundations, Roy travels extensively in developing countries, seeking potential students. He doesn’t want city dwellers or, unless they are physically handicapped, men.

Mr. ROY: We’ve come to the sad conclusion men are untrainable. They expect too much. They are restless. If they’re young, they’re impatient. The first thing they ask even before the training starts is, do I get a certificate? They will use that certificate to get the worst job possible in a city, whereas if we take middle-aged grandmothers to be trained I don’t have that problem of migration.

DE SAM LAZARO: Their new skills and income should improve these women’s standing at home and in the community — communities that, like much of the developing world, are not electrified.

Mr. ROY (to students, through translator): How many houses are in the town?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN STUDENT #1: About 500 people.

Mr. ROY: Five hundred.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN STUDENT #2 (speaking to Mr. Roy, through translator): May God reward you for what you have done, because those people did not have any light and now they will have light.

DE SAM LAZARO: And these women will have an income installing and maintaining solar systems. They are a common sight in villages near the Barefoot campus, where people have replaced lanterns that use dirtier and more expensive fuels.

Bunker Roy

Mr. ROY: We said they should pay as much as you pay today for kerosene, for wood, for batteries, for torches, for candles. Comes to about $5 a month. They’re willing to pay $5 a month for the use of a solar light.

DE SAM LAZARO: Solar has opened new opportunities for work and study, especially for girls. In both the majority Hindu and minority Muslim communities here girls have traditionally been restricted to household chores.

Mr. ROY: It is the girls who go and graze the cattle and graze the goats and the sheep. There is a feeling in the family that the boys should be getting better education — better education, whatever that means. So we started the night schools of Tilonia in 1975, purely from the point of view of attracting more girls who graze cattle in the morning to come to school at night.

DE SAM LAZARO: Today some 7000 children attend night school here and across rural north India. In song, these girls plead to their parents to allow them to study, to delay marriage until they turn the legal age of 18. That law is frequently ignored in rural society

PUPPETEER (during performance speaking with kids, through translator): OK, eight and five make how much?

KIDS (through translator): Thirteen.

PUPPETEER: And 10 plus three?

KIDS (through translator): Thirteen.

DE SAM LAZARO: Entertainment programs promote the Barefoot College and encourage children to attend school. There have also been various other campaigns to promote public health and citizen demands for government transparency. The new economic activity seems to be eroding social barriers. For example, several women work to create solar stoves, a Barefoot College enterprise. The solar cookers made at the Barefoot College are a simple but precisely engineered contraption. These mirrors track and capture the sun’s energy and direct it to a cooker, which really cooks. For these technicians, most with little or no formal education, working here means they can hope for better things for their children.

SITA DEVI (Solar Technician, trough translator): My daughter must be educated. She will be able to do things, to progress so much faster than I can because of going to school more. For me, for example, it takes so much more time to measure out three centimeters when I’m welding here, whereas someone who is educated could do it in no time.

Shahnaz Banu

SHAHNAZ BANU (Solar Technician, through translator): In our village, in our community, women were not allowed outside the house. My husband was reluctant. But I said if we stay behind the veil we won’t have anything to eat. Some people object to women working, but if we can add income to the household that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

DE SAM LAZARO: Roy says a key to sustaining rural jobs and development is to use technology that can be managed by the local community, like solar lanterns and technology that’s more familiar, like rainwater collectors.

Mr. ROY: All the roofs of this whole campus are connected underground to a 400,000 liter tank. We collect every drop of rain that falls on the campus.

DE SAM LAZARO: For Roy, decentralization is the key. It’s a departure from the typical approach of aid agencies, which he says want to bring big infrastructure and big ideas created by outside experts.

Mr. ROY: If you ask an engineer what they think is the solution, they’ll have one power plant of five kilowatts that you saw on the roofs of the campus and then have transmission lines going to the houses, centralized. We say no. The solution is decentralized right down to the household level, where the house actually maintains and looks after the solar unit. It shouldn’t be centralized. Any technology that brings in dependency on anybody on the outside is not a technology that will work.

DE SAM LAZARO: So far, Barefoot College has solar electrified some 350 villages across India and dozens more in sub-Saharan Africa and even war-torn Afghanistan.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, this is Fred De Sam Lazaro in Rajasthan, India.

  • shayne bushby

    i am marveling over this accomplishment! i would like to be able to communicate with Bunker Roy. if he has an e-mail address that would be perfect.

  • Godwin Obi

    This great enterprise of Mr. Bunker Roy deserves an award of a Nobel Prize or something better and much more commendable accolade. I am very sure that if this is allowed to be replicated in other places, particularly in poor countries of South America and Sub-Sahara Africa, it will change many peoples lives and help greatly in saving our globe.

    Please I will appreciate if you help me contact Mr. Bunker Roy. I am interested in learning more about him and his enterprise. My email is obichukz77@gmail.com Thanks.

    Godwin Obi

  • Joseph Fagbamila

    Thank you for your efforts to bring positive changes to hopeless and helpness. I will like to learn more information about your programm. I understand you don’t have interest in admiting men. I just want to know how I can purchase some panels to a project I am developing in my home town, Nigeria.
    Thank you again

  • Moises Becerra

    Mr. Bunker Roy, I just got amazed with your wonderful job. I am student from Mexico but I am studying in the U.S.A. Part of my scholarship is to apply a proyect to my community. And I got impress because my project is based in the same way you are doing.. I really would like to know more about it and present you my project someday. thank you beforehand and go on.

  • Moises

    please if anybody has his E-mail, please share it to me.
    mobecerrah@hotmail.com

  • ServantofTruth

    I too highly commend the effort. Local sustainability and eco-harmony is the key. Thanks to Bunker Roy for this innovative work.

    We run a nonprofit organization called Free All With Truth. We would very much like to learn more and about these sustainability methods and launch initiatives in other parts of the world. If we may contact Mr. Roy or simply receive more information, please email to ServantofTruth@FAWT.org. Peace & Universal Prosperity.

  • merepeace

    this message is Hope ! Hope! Hope ! Bunker Roy has opoened the world to growing Hope in addition to do-able sustainable futures Now ! and technology for truly disadvantaged women and his beloved country India – Bravo !!

  • Yosra

    Asalamu Alaykom~I’m wishing that God continue to bless the women, their families, and The Barefoot College founder. It’s wonderful to see covered women, such as myself, being given the tools and the techniques to rise above their culture and serve their families, communities and God.

  • Michel

    Has anyone been succesful in contacting Mr. Roy. I’m very interested in learning how he achieved this great program and try with his help to mimic it in the caribean.

  • kumar Ram

    Proud to be an Indian. People in the west are proud of big things(which is great), but happiness also lies in small things. Namaste.

  • G.Thomas

    I am interested in learning solar lighting and thermal systems so that I can involve myself in to similar activity in the state of Karnataka and tamilnadu.Pl.advise.

  • D Venkateswara Rao

    Dear Dr Bunker Roy
    i am a retired from DRDO. i would like to do community development service to nearest villeges. i am presently positioned at Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. Also i would like to make a Solar panel for my house. Please advice how to go about.
    thank you for the outstanding work.

    Venkateswara Rao

  • Gautam Chatterjee

    The job being done at the Barefoot college is just mind boggling! God be with Mr. Bunker Roy and his team . I am a retired person and keen to absorb the teaching method and some of the processes/products to disemminate the same to my local community . I have noted Mr. Roy’s unwillingness to let men be students at his college though. Still hoping to be considered.

  • bev

    when living not in a third world country,and peole that do… and would do anything for money,, how much do theses women get paid to work these “awsome advances in technology” when they live on 3.00 or so a month.. keeping in mind their ecomony is diffrent. but how does a village afford a solar panel when a canadian would have to pay a months wage to even buy one? i wonder what the real price is?and do they benifit from it or does their goverment????? Just wondering..

  • Oseya Andrews

    Almost anything can be achieved when you believe. Its amazing seeing women with little or no education becoming technicians. I live in Nigeria, i believe in this project and i also believe it can be replicated in other places. Am willing i only need an opportunity. May God bless mr Roy and his team.

  • Richard Gwananji

    You are an amazing humaritarian Mr. Roy. Thank you for a job well done. I am amazed your efforts have not yet been recognised by Intertional Authorities. How can common folks such as i help publicize your efforts? The third world needs you and your team. I am a Cameroonian residing in the USA, and your dream is the kind of reason i went abroad in search of. Please let me know how i can be of assistance and make your dream come true in my poorverty striken area. Good job and God Bless.

  • Padma

    I can provide Mr. Roy’s email address. Email me at: aryal.padma@gmail.com

    Thanks
    Padma

  • Arvind Tripathi

    Mr. Roy,
    Marvelous work and what a great human you are. This is true accomplishment and depict your commendable humanitarian thoughts and true follower of Gandhi.
    I would like to learn from your experience since I share the same passion and believe in doing something for our country and rural area.

    Please suggest how can I get some advice from you.

    Thanks,
    Arvind

  • moises maramba jr

    I am impressed! I like to duplicate in smaller scale what you have done. We used up our trees fpr charcoal and kaingins. Solat power is it!Our women will take you up! Thanks.

  • Margaret Muzarirehe

    While listining to BBC Radio 4 Womens hour, the 22nd March 2010 thats when I learned about how rular women in India are training to become Solar Engeeners to help the poor in their communities., and was impressed.
    I am a community worker in Kabale Southwestern Uganda, Africa. working with women and children promoting health and tackling poverty. My question is that, “How can I enroll on the course this year at Barefoot college in India? so that after the course I can help and train my community how to get clean energy.
    I would be very grateful if I hear from you soon through my email especially the Prject Officer Mr. Ilaria Caetani or from the boss himself Mr Bunker Roy.
    God bless!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Margaret

  • Margaret Muzarirehe

    My Comment is that Mr.Roy deserves the Ghandi Prize Award. and

    This is my request: I would like to study at Barefoot College India to become a Solar Engineer.
    Would you please send me an e- grant application to enable me to study in India .
    I am a grandmother aged 53 years and a project cordinator in Africa working with rual women promoting health and tackling poverty.
    I am ready to travel at a short notice if you would accept me at Barefoot College.
    Waiting to hear from you soon. Thanks for your time.
    Margaret

  • France Cyrill

    I have watched your program in the television and i am interested to learn more about solar energy and enroll in this program of Mr.Bunker Roy ..
    Does anybody knows how can i enroll this year at Barefoot College India?

    I will appreciate your help..
    Here is my e-add: fc_marigondon@yahoo.com..

    thank you

  • shubhangi k jungle

    respected sir i want to take admission but i want to know duration of courses and fees of respective one plz reply thanking you.

  • morufu

    i will like barefoot college founder ,to help me so that i can help others to be able to make solar energy equipments through correspondence.

  • rebeccasu

    I am very much interested in solar electricity and would like to enroll at Barefoot college. I am 55 years old from the Philippnes and would like to contribute what I will learn from your college to our poor rural community. Would appreciate hearing from you.

  • Saleh Idris Muhammed

    Dear Mr Roy.
    I am fascinated by your work which not only improves the quality of life of rural citizens in particular but also of the general population in general through saving the environment and alleviating general poverty and hardship among the poor. I wish we could have your solar technology taught to people in Tanzania in general and Zanzibar in particular where we have deficiency in electricity supplies, the cost of alternative source of energy is sky rocketing and our forests are being converted to deserts. Please advise how we can seek your help working through a nongovernmental organization.
    I am 75 years old and belong to anNGO that deals with youth, education, envirnoment and health and my wife is 70years and work with an NGO dealing with women progress and development.
    Regards.
    Saleh I. Muhammed.