Solar mamasSurrounded by desert, the village of Tilonia in Rajasthan (India) has become world-famous for training women in solar energy. A local NGO named The Barefoot College has teached more than 1000 women from 81 countries how to set up and maintain solar panels. All of them come from the world’s most remote places in Africa, South America, Asia and Oceania, where people have no access to electricity. According to the United Nations, 1.4 billion people in the world still live in the dark. Many of these “solar mamas” - as the Barefoot calls them - are also illiterate housewives who could never dream of becoming financially independent from their husband. Yet after a six-month program, they go back to their community with new skills and a job.
The story began in 1972, when Sanjit Roy, a well-off young Indian engineer settled in Tilonia for his first assignment. Inspired by Gandhi’s philosophy, he became an advocate of the development of rural communities. He understood that problems such as access to energy could be solved with the use of simplified technologies, understandable by uneducated people. Since then, the Barefoot College has started to train villagers in mastering solar energy, with a strong emphasis on women.
“In traditional communities, jobs always go to men, Sanjit Roy says. We wanted that, for once, opportunities go to women.” The Barefoot College’s founder sees the training as a way to empower women. “The solar mamas have skills than nobody else in their village has. It gives them power and self-confidence.” At the entrance of the campus, a workshop makes solar cookers. It is run by a cooperative of women now independent from the NGO. “We wanted to show people that women can run their own company”, says Norti, a villager in her 40s wrapped in a colorful sari.
The international program was created in 2007. The travel expenses are taken care of by the Indian government while the UN, Unesco and private companies pay for the solar equipment. It took three days to Ledua Fane, a 63-year-old woman from Fidji, to come to Tilonia from her village lost in the Pacific Ocean. Her husband, eight children and 42 grand-children encouraged her. She found hard to cope with her first months in India. “I couldn’t stand the hot weather and the spicy food”, she remembers. But she fought hard to study and overcome homesickness. During classes, teachers use sketches and videos as most of the trainees don’t speak English.
In a few days, the 44 women of the batch will leave India. Beatrice Thiabo, a 42-year-old woman from Senegal, already imagines what her new life will look like. “My children will no longer have to do their homework with candles and kerosene lamps”, she says. For the first time, she will also earn a wage. “I will have my own money while helping my community. I hope to pass on my skills to other women in my village.”
Assignment for GEO Magazine
Text by Alexia Eychenne