Rural electrification: Barefoot College is currently training 35 women from Africa in Tilonia to become solar engineers. Pradeep Gaur/Mint

There are many women like Santosh in Bihar, Sikkim, Andhra Pradesh and, yes, now even in Africa, who are being trained by Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, to become solar engineers. This non-governmental organization (NGO), founded in 1972 by Sanjit “Bunker" Roy, a social entrepreneur and educator, works with rural communities in the field of solar energy, water management techniques, education and women’s health. There is special emphasis on solar energy. The organization launched its solar electrification work in villages in 1986, teaching the village communities to use solar-powered cookers, reverse osmosis, or RO, for water purification and solar lighting at the night schools Barefoot College runs in these villages. “Solar (power) is a way to improve the lives of the rural poor who earn less than a dollar a day and have to cook with highly polluting technologies," says Roy, who believes that the clean, non-polluting and decentralized nature of solar technology can help empower rural women and hence the communities. It can also help reverse migration to cities, by giving communities the skills that would enable them to earn their livelihood in the village itself. Hence the creation of “solar engineers".

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Kewal Chand, 30, is one of the rare men to be trained as an engineer at Barefoot College. He came for training to the college 10 years ago from a village in Barmer district on the Indo-Pakistan border. Today, he is back in Tilonia—this time as an instructor. “It’s only people like him, now trained, who can teach villagers with patience and compassion. A high-powered teacher simply won’t work," says Roy, explaining why Barefoot College prefers to hire villagers as instructors.

ITEC has so far trained nearly 300 women from 28 of the world’s least developed countries (LDCs). A grant from the US’ Skoll Foundation has covered the cost of training people from 10-15 countries.

The current group of 35, from different countries, is learning the trade through a mix of broken English, gestures, symbols, charts and manuals. It’s tough, but the women are purposeful and positive. Says 39-year-old Alaffa Mwamba from Tanzania, speaking through her friend and interpreter, Fatma Juma, who is also training: “I miss my family, my children, but I am happy that I can come and learn here and go back and give my village light."

Barefoot College: www.barefootcollege.org

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