Indian Solar Economy Brings New Vocation for Women

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

India has started to make significant advances in developing solar power technologies for the poor. There are now whole villages using solar energy and improving their standard of living. Various companies and projects are selling inexpensive solar appliances – from cooking stoves to lanterns and power generators – across the country. This new solar power ‘grid’ is also bringing further economic opportunities: jobs for people to repair and maintain the new equipment.

An interesting initiative is turning the need to repair and maintain solar-powered equipment into a job opportunity for poor women.

More than 1.7 billion people around the world have no domestic electricity supply, of whom more than 500 million live in sub-Saharan Africa, and 400 million in India (World Bank). Some 600,000 Indian villages lack an electrical supply. India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has pledged “power for all” by 2012. An ambitious goal, and one that acknowledges that without electricity, many development goals remain dreams that will never be achieved.

Being able to see at night, for example, unleashes a vast range of possibilities – such as being able to work or study later – but for the very poor, lighting is often the most expensive household expense, soaking up 10 to 15 percent of income.

The power of the sun can help transform this situation. According to Greenpeace (http://www.greenpeace.org/international), India could generate 10 percent of its electricity from solar power by 2030.

In the Indian State of Rajasthan, more than 30,000 homes in 800 villages have turned to solar power for lighting and cooking needs. It is this increasing solar power grid that the Barefoot College (http://www.barefootcollege.org) based in Tilonia – where it was founded over 30 years ago – has turned to as a new economic opportunity. The College is training women to be solar engineers, developing both useful skills and a new income source. So far, Barefoot College itself has solar electrified some 350 villages across India and dozens more in sub-Saharan Africa and even war-torn Afghanistan.

The College prides itself on stripping out academic jargon while inspiring confidence in students’ innate talents and skills so they can take on new vocations.

The solar engineers – many of whom are illiterate – are taught by their peers. Given a box of tools and hardware, the students undertake practical projects to learn-by-doing how the solar devices work and can be repaired. They are introduced to technical terms and concepts and learn how to wire circuits and do daily repairs.

“It is only, we have found, an illiterate woman who is a teacher who can actually train an illiterate women who is a trainer,” the college’s founder, Bunker Roy, told the BBC. “They have the patience, tolerance and improvisation.”

Roy says the training teaches more knowledge of the technical aspects of solar power than a typical student would glean from an undergraduate university degree.

The Barefoot College takes its inspiration from former Indian leader Mahatma Ghandi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohandas_Karamchand_Gandhi), who felt the wisdom, knowledge and skills already existing in rural villages should be the basis for any development. He also believed deploying sophisticated technology in poor communities should be done on their terms to avoid exploitation.

The College is a passionate believer in the inherent skills and abilities of the poor to improve their conditions. It eschews formal qualifications, believing these can be as much a hindrance as a help, trapping people in rigid methodologies.

The Barefoot College has been working on solar electrification in poor and rural villages since 1989. It has used similar techniques to train teachers and teach medical skills.

The course has successfully attracted sponsored students from as far away as Africa. Sarka Mussara, a 56-year-old widowed grandmother from the West African nation of Mauritania, had never attended school or even left her village before coming to India on a UN sponsorship.

“We started little by little learning the solar energy system,” she told PBS. “Day by day and little by little we were able to put things together.”

The solar engineers become highly skilled and can even fabricate complex components like a charge controller (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charge_controller) when they are back in the village.

One of the additional benefits of training skilled solar engineers is the more confident role these women play in their communities when they return. They often take the lead on other projects in the village.

The College also picks the tough cases: only villages that are inaccessible, remote or non-electrified get help.

Its approach is to have a meeting to introduce the benefits of solar lighting to the community. If the community wants it, then a village committee is formed. Any household that wants solar power has to pay a small fee, no matter how poor. This is to ensure they feel a sense of ownership of the new technology.

Some members of the community are then selected to be trained as “Barefoot Solar Engineers,” or BSEs. They will install, repair and maintain the solar lighting units for at least five years. A workshop is set up to carry out repairs fully equipped with tools and replacement parts. The solar engineers attend a six-month course at the College, leading to work for at least five years.

The Barefoot College encourages middle-aged women and widows and single mothers to become engineers. Experience has shown them to be the most reliable and less prone to moving to the city after training.

Resources

1) D.light Design is dedicated to bringing modern lighting and power to more than 1.6 billion people globally currently living without electricity. They aim to be the number one player in off-grid lighting and power solutions worldwide. Website: http://www.dlightdesign.com

2) Solar Power Answers is a one-stop-shop for everything to do with solar power. It has a design manual and guides to the complex world of solar power equipment. Website: http://www.solar-power-answers.co.uk/index.php

3) Sun King solar lantern: The lantern provides 16 hours of light for a day’s charge. Website: http://www.greenlightplanet.com/ourusers.html

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