Barefoot College: Changing Lives Through Solar Energy

 

Barefoot College

Barefoot College

A powerful system to improve the life of people in poor rural villages.

During Bunker Roy’s college years, his first visit to an Indian village, in 1965, shattered his world. The experience revealed a neglected society, suffering alone and dealing with starvation, debt, and all the problems that come with the territory of being a poor Indian village.

After graduating, he shocked his parents by deciding to devote his life to social service. The 22-year-old Bunker left the world he knew to start a new life amongst the poor, drilling wells to provide drinking water in Ajmer. Five years later, he visited Tilonia, Rajasthan, where he established the Barefoot College. The year was 1972.

For the last 40 years, Barefoot College has been a pioneer in different fields, such as solar energy, water, education, communications, and even advocacy. According to Lauren Remedios, who has been working with Barefoot, the project has experienced “tremendous growth” and its solutions are now being replicated all across the world.

Let us, first, provide you with some context to the idea of the evolution of the idea. The concept of the Barefoot College was born during Roy’s stay with the poorest of people, people who would tell him stories and share their skills, knowledge and wisdom, things that no books had offered him before then. Roy understood that India and Africa are full of people with skills, knowledge and resourcefulness who are not recognized as engineers, architects or water experts because of the poverty within which they live, but who can bring much more to communities than governments or big businesses.

Bunker Roy

Bunker Roy

The Social Work and Research Centre (“SWRC”), widely known as the Barefoot College is a voluntary organisation working in the fields of education, skill development, health, drinking water, women empowerment and electrification through solar power for the empowerment of rural people.

For the last 40 years, Barefoot College has been a pioneer in different fields, such as solar energy, water, education, communications, and even advocacy. According to Lauren Remedios, who has been working with Barefoot, the project has experienced “tremendous growth” and its solutions are now being replicated all across the world.

Let us, first, provide you with some context to the idea of the evolution of the idea. The concept of the Barefoot College was born during Roy’s stay with the poorest of people, people who would tell him stories and share their skills, knowledge and wisdom, things that no books had offered him before then. Roy understood that India and Africa are full of people with skills, knowledge and resourcefulness who are not recognized as engineers, architects or water experts because of the poverty within which they live, but who can bring much more to communities than governments or big businesses.

Image source: i'M Magazine

Image source: i’M Magazine

Since its inception, the Barefoot College has demystified and decentralized sophisticated technological processes by handing control to poor communities in rural India. It believes that even the poorest of the poor cannot be denied the right to use, manage and own technology that will improve their own lives.

No one expected a rural grandmother, who had had barely any schooling, to be capable of setting up, managing, and teaching other grandmothers the intricacies of solar engineering. The people helped by Barefoot College work hard and pledge to utilize their newfound skills for the improvement of the community. By developing their skills and self-pride, Roy teaches them that the sky is the limit, whether illiterate or not. Roy tells us: “That’s one of the powerful messages we’re providing through this program: that anybody — anybody — regardless of who it is, whether he or she has been to school or college, has the capacity to become an engineer or a dentist or an architect or a designer, or work on computers.”

Bunker Roy’s – open-mindedness have given villages the opportunity to unveil their potential to the world, and the results have been nothing but amazing. As Lauren explains, in the last 4 years it has also made possible to educate over 800 semi-literate, mostly unschooled women, in addition to reducing carbon emissions, and has saved gallons of kerosene, on a global scale.

Image source: Barefoot college

Image source: Barefoot college

Although the solar initiative has grown exponentially, other Barefoot solutions have also impacted the lives of many. In the years after its establishment, “Nearly 5,000 artisans (blacksmiths, carpenters, weavers, handcrafters) have earned more than 500,000 dollars, raising them out of poverty and upholding rural traditions and passing them along to the next generation. In the education realm, 4500 barefoot teachers have been employed to teach 75,000 dropouts, boy and girl shepherds, and children who never had a chance of going to school in rural crèches and night schools.” Lauren further highlights that “80% of the children attending night schools are girls” and that “the water solution in rain water harvesting, dams and desalination plants (…) has impacted 909 communities in India and around the world.

As previously explained, these ‘Barefoot solutions’ can be broadly categorized into solar energy, water, education, health care, rural handicrafts categories, and so on. They can empower women and help entire families. Here is an example of how:

Bijli, commonly known as electricity, is a resource that not everyone gets to enjoy in their daily lives, especially if you live in a small village in India. Kachukara, where Ritu and her family lives, is about 6 km from the nearest grid-electrified village, which has resulted in their use of other alternative fuels, that are not so environment friendly, such as Kerosene, firewood and smoking stoves. This lack of energy is also one of the factors that has led to mass migration of the locals to the cities and overcrowded slums.

All this changed dramatically three years ago, when Hachukara village was lit up, literally, by solar energy with the arrival of the “Barefoot Solar Mamas”. Ritu’s house, a little whitewashed building with a single room and an outside kitchen area, was gifted with a solar panel that stands on the rooftop. “The most important thing is that I can go to the bathroom in the night. I used to be really scared of snakes and hold my pee in. Then in the mornings, my tummy would hurt and I could not go to work”, explains Ritu.

Ritus-house-solar-power-Barefoot-College-Lauren-Remedios-620x350

Image source: Barefoot College

This woman used to wake up every day at 4am, and her daughter was forced to walk to their friend’s home so that she could do her homework. The main changes that occurred in this family unit’s life have been as simple as gaining the ability to detect worms in food or even snakes in the house at night, or as important as enabling a child to study and read at home. Not to mention that, now, the air in the house is clean and Ritu can sleep a little longer.

Ritu is confident that solar energy changed their lives for the better, and she is happy that she can now see to check on her children during the night. The simple matter of being able to see her child at night somehow sums up everything we’ve been writing about. What mother doesn’t deserve to watch over and take care of her children in the best way possible?

barefoot

Image source: Barefoot College

In order to keep extending Barefoot’s reach, there have been some decisions taken for the following years. Barefoot is launching 5 regional training centers and Clinton Global Initiative has made the commitment of reaching more people and demystifying solar technology. To do so, and to set up other learning institutions, they need assistance from “stakeholders, supporters, as well as donors and funders, who endorse barefoot’s mission and philosophy to lead in sustainable community development.”

There is a direct correlation between electricity provisions and socio-economic progress in rural areas. This is to say that electricity affords the same kind of developments that water or education related changes have provided. These improvements lead to advancement in these areas but, more importantly, they mean that entire families can change lives for the better.

To learn more about this college and find out about some of the testimonials, read the article previously published in IM Magazine (written by Inês Rodrigues and with design by João Lourenço).

This article was first published by I’M Magazine