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'Barefoot Grannies' Light up Some of the World’s Poorest Villages

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10 January 2014

Young men are being passed over in favour of their aging grandmothers who are being selected to travel from far-flung villages across the world to India, where they receive innovative training as solar engineers.

A college in India is showing how educating some of the more elderly female members of rural communities in solar energy provision can be a savvy investment in the future, providing long-term sustainable energy solutions.

“The view of Barefoot College is that men are untrainable,” smiled Kathrin Legg, President of the Friends of Barefoot College. “Once they have a certificate they will move away to the cities and leave the communities.”

“Whereas grandmothers, they have their roots in the communities and as they often say, ‘Teach a grandmother, teach a community’,” she said.


Barefoot College in India has been pioneering solar electrification in remote rural locations since 1989. To date, the college has trained over 850 solar engineers to bring sustainable light and electrification to impoverished villages across the world. 


In 2012, international nature conservation charity World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) teamed up with the Barefoot College to promote access to sustainable energy in developing countries. Their first joint project ‘Turning Grandmothers into Solar Engineers’ was launched in Madagascar, where 80 percent of the population lives without electricity.

To date, seven Malagasy grandmothers have completed their six-months of residential training in India and are now back home setting up solar panels that will provide their community with light long after the sun has set.

According to Voahirana Randriambola from the WWF Madagascar and West Indian Ocean Programme Office, the women will install and maintain more than 380 solar systems in three different villages.



"These villages are so isolated, they are unlikely to ever benefit from rural electricity programmes or be of any interest to the private sector,” said Ms Randriambola. “What we try to do is offer them an opportunity to gain access to a self-sustained electricity model, by the communities, for the communities. This is exactly the Barefoot College’s approach: where capacity development comes from the communities themselves.”

“It is wrong to say illiterate people living in rural communities cannot develop themselves or count if they cannot write,” added Ms Randriambola. “They identify solutions themselves, but need a little help.”

And this is where the Barefoot College comes in to provide the training these women need to light up their villages.

In Madagascar, two women were chosen from each community. Before departing for India, they were given support to prepare them for what may well be the biggest journey of their life. Many of the women had not travelled far from their village before and certainly had no experience of international travel, airports or foreign languages.

The college itself operates an innovative teaching method that uses sign language and basic English alongside specially developed and colour-coded equipment.

“Most of the time there are classes of between 36 and 40 women and none of them actually speak English and all of them speak different languages, they come from all over the world,” said Ms Legg.

If the women need spare parts they send back to the college, ensuring that the new pieces are appropriately colour-coded for slotting into place.

The programme has been such a success that WWF are working with Barefoot College to collect funds for the creation of a regional training centre in Madagascar. A similar regional centre is going to be created by Barefoot on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar to role out similar training programmes across Africa.

Rural electrification through renewable and sustainable means, like solar, is not just a ‘green’ choice, according to Jean-Philippe Denruyter, WWF’s Manager, Global Renewable Energy Policy. 

“From an economic point of view,” said Mr Denruyter, “most of the solutions for rural access to electricity or sustainable energy is renewable. So we don’t necessarily need to lobby a lot of renewable energy when it comes to access to electricity.”

“Centralised grids are not necessarily the solution. Most of the electricity to poor people will be decentralised in the future,” he continued. “With the fossil fuel prices being high right now, this really is the moment to change.” 

Leaders in some developing countries are too often focused on big-ticket projects, overlooking the potential benefits of small-scale, locally developed and managed renewable projects such as this.

“There is a need for a shift,” said Mr Denruyter, “overwhelmingly we see it still a debate about grid extension, hydropower and diesel. And that needs to change.”

On the eve of the 2013 European Development Days, held in Brussels from the 26-27 November, WWF staged a debate ‘Empowering African communities to sustainable energy access’. WWF used the event to showcase their activities with Barefoot College in Madagascar.

Klaus Rudischhauser, Deputy Director General Policy and Thematic Coordination at the European Commission attended the event. According to Mr Rudischhauser, the EC is working to see how sustainable energy can be enshrined in future programming.

“We do not know today how this can be integrated into a framework, but it is clear that energy and in particular sustainable, renewable energy, has to play a very important role in a future global framework,” he said.

“These projects can tell us very important lessons of how to support sustainable energy delivery,” he said, “and what is essential to make it work.” 

“Access to energy is also an important topic discussed in New York in the ongoing work for post 2015 goals and targets replacing the Millenium Development Goals.”



For Ms Randriambola, involvement in this project has changed her whole concept of how to go about a process of development.

“This approach goes against traditional thought processes for people like me that have been to school and higher education,” said Ms Randriambola, who admits that many development projects in her experience focus too much on a top-down approach.

“We should really be more open to what communities can do,” she said, “and truly listen for hidden potential and capabilities they don’t disclose.”

You can watch Kathrin Legg’s video interview here, and Jean-Philippe Denruyter’s video interview here, in the Public Group on Energy.

WWF hosted the ‘Turning Grandmothers into Solar Engineers’ 'lab' session at the EU Dev Days 2013. Please listen to the podcast here.


This collaborative piece was drafted by Sarah Simpson with input from Stefania Campogianni, Camelia Paraschiv and support from the Coordination Team

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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