An illiterate grandmother from a small village in Malawi, Stella found it hard to picture what lay ahead when she arrived at the Barefoot College of India.
Six months later she emerged as one of 25 trained African solar technicians, ready to electrify her home village for the first time.
“I never imagined that technical knowledge like this would be open to women who were illiterates, like us,” she reflected at the end of her training in Tilonia, in the state of Rajasthan. “But coming to Tilonia has given us this confidence that we can learn about new things and make our lives better.”
By collaborating with the Barefoot College and its NGO partners, UN Women is supporting a programme to empower marginalized women across the world, and help them start to drive their local green economies.
The programme, running since 2004, teaches engineering skills to illiterate older women from rural communities – a particularly vulnerable group worldwide – before equipping them with solar lamp kits to assemble and install in their own and nearby villages.
During this training session, which ran from September 2011 to the following March, women travelled from across Africa, from countries like Uganda, Liberia and South Sudan, to take part. Each were selected or nominated by their local community and supported by a variety of local and international organisations, and in some cases, their governments.
The purpose of the training is to empower the women, many of whom have laboured in agricultural work for most of their lives, to gain a skill more age appropriate, while affording them a new position of respect in their communities.
Bawor Mamma, for example, has spent years recovering from the lingering effects of civil war and economic dislocation in Liberia. At 53 she prefers assembling solar lanterns to the physical strain of farming. “I am not just a farmer like everyone else,” she says with a clear sense of pride. “I am a solar engineer now and I want to electrify my village and other neighbouring villages.”
“What Barefoot College has effectively demonstrated is how the combination of traditional knowledge (barefoot) and demystified modern skills can bring lasting impact and fundamental change when the tools are in the control and ownership of the rural poor,” confirms Dr Bunker Roy, the Director of the Barefoot College.
The women are also supporting a greener form of energy usage. Many live in villages without any electricity at all, where kerosene usage is high. Yet kerosene is not a sustainable resource, nor is it cheap or healthy. Barefoot College estimates that the initiative now saves around 160,000 litres of kerosene a month across South America, Africa and Asia.
To ensure the sustainability of the project, the new technicians are also taught how to train other villagers in the maintenance of these lamps, and encouraged to set up electronics repairs shops, which will generate a regular income.
The programme can be a formidable challenge for the women. “In the beginning, many women face problems, since it is the first time they have left their children and village,” says Leela Devi, a teacher in the solar engineering department. “But we have to be like their sisters, and constantly remind them of the advantages of being here and learning solar engineering.” Their trainers, who mostly speak Hindi, must cut across linguistic and cultural barriers using gestures and signs.
Yet the desire to light up their communities and empower the women in them, has proven a unifying bond. With just six months training in the college, students have shown that they can transcend tremendous barriers, and emerge as self sustaining solar engineers, and change-makers.