A Gandhian college that brings solar light to the world

The National, Feb 24, 2012

TILONIA, INDIA // It’s not a sight you would normally expect in a remote Indian village, deep in the Rajasthani plains.

But walk in from the quiet, sun-blasted courtyard among old colonial buildings in Tilonia and you discover yourself among 30 African women working away at electrical circuits and soldering wires into solar panels.

These are the latest students learning to be solar technicians with the Barefoot College, a landmark charity built around Gandhian ideals of self-sufficiency and sustainable development. The women in this workshop have come from South Sudan, Liberia and Malawi, learning to install solar lighting in their homes with skills they can pass on to their neighbours.

“When I first came here, I didn’t even know the name of these materials,” said Asumta Achan, 35, a mother of two from a village in South Sudan. “Now I have many skills I never thought I would learn, and I can bring electricity to my village, which we have never had.”

Since the programme began in 2004, there have been more than 250 graduates from 28 countries, including Peru, Afghanistan and Ethiopia.

Barefoot pays for their transportation and stay.

The programme has proved such a success that the government of Sierra Leone recently agreed to set up its own version of the college, with 12 women who trained in Rajasthan leading the way.

“These women come from very simple backgrounds, but when they return, they will be leaders in their community,” said Bata Bhurji, one of Barefoot College’s full-time staff.

Around the corner, women from the surrounding Rajasthani villages were demonstrating their own skills, building large solar-powered cookers.

The disc-shaped mirrors reflect sunlight down towards a small stove, concentrating enough heat to set paper alight in only a few seconds, while a clockwork mechanism rotates the device to keep it automatically in line with the sun.

“In summer, a village can save up to 10 gas cylinders every month by using one of these,” said Norti Devi, a 40-year-old from Kakalwadi village.

In a bright red sari, she hardly looks like a master welder and machine-tool operative. But after six years on the job, her years of raising children and herding goats are long behind her.

“I love this work. I never thought I would find myself doing this kind of job,” she said.

Read the rest here…

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