The sun always means new beginnings. In the old life, light came from candles and kerosene lamps with diesel generators providing electricity for just a few hours a day. But then Luisa, Norma and Liliana crossed paths with the Barefoot College. Six months in India, in a school that didn’t feel like a school, before they returned home bringing the sun with them. And that sun brought the dawn of a whole new life.
They call them the “solar mamas.” They’re all between 40 and 50 years old and have never been to school. They live in remote villages in India, Mexico and Peru. And they are the living proof that the wonderful utopian dream of the Barefoot College has become a reality. Its 73-year-old founder, Bunker Roy, who himself was educated in India’s elite schools, says he was inspired in his work by Mahatma Gandhi. His college “built by the poor, for the poor,” does, however, have strict selection criteria: all the students are women, illiterate or semi-illiterate and from small remote communities well off the main electricity grid. They receive training involving non-academic methods (puppets, colours, sign language) in using clean energy and then take what they have learned back to their home communities. Learning by doing, in other words. “It is the only college that doesn’t give out diplomas. The only diploma you get is what you will teach your communities,” explains Roy, adding: “This is the only place where a woman who hasn’t been to school can become an engineer.”
Since 1972, the Barefoot College has worked with 650,000 people in 96 different countries across three continents. Its partnership with Enel Green Power dates back to 2012. Since then thousands of women have learned how to assemble and repair solar kits in small villages in Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Guatemala and Brazil. As time went on, the project evolved and last year it was launched in Africa. Thanks to Enel, in fact, five Masai women from Kenya were able to make the trip to train in India. Our Group is also helping to build and equip a training centre in Tanzania. This is a completely new direction for the project as, thus far, all the training has taken place in Bunker Roy’s homeland.
Educating women is the key to the partnership between Enel and the Barefoot College. “The difference from traditional philanthropy is this: we could just have donated solar panels to the villages, but that would have involved the risk of creating technological graveyards in the future. The goal here is to make the local communities self-sufficient through empowering women. This is why we train more mature women: because they will go back to their villages and won’t move to the big cities and towns,” explains Antonella Santilli, Head of Sustainability at Enel Green Power, in charge of the project on the Group’s behalf.
The knowledge is spread from one woman to the next and actually stays in the community. It is a minor revolution of sorts. “They leave as grandmothers and come back tigers,” Roy declared in a Ted Talk a few years’ back. Perhaps this is why the chief of the village of Caspana in the Atacama Desert in Chile banned the “solar mamas” from installing panels on their return from India. But one of the women, Luisa, went a step further. In order to market and sell the aromatic herbs she was growing, she installed 3 kW solar kits which were far more powerful than the 40 watt ones she’d learned to assemble in India. She was a grandmother. But now she is a small-scale entrepreneur.
In the former mining village of Ollague, in the Chilean Andes near the Bolivian border, two solar mamas who trained at the Barefoot College even set up a hybrid wind and solar power system using solar-powered lithium batteries. In Peru, thanks to Enel Green Power, women from a community in the south of the country were able to make an 800-kilometre trip north to teach other women how to install solar kits in a small fishing community near Lima.
In Mexico, Norma Guerra travelled from her home village of Cachimbo in the state of Oaxaca, to install solar panels on the roofs of houses in an earthquake-stricken village 60 miles away.
So far the Enel Green Power project has embraced 36 villages in eight countries in South America, bringing electricity to over 19,000 people as a result. This has improved life in the most remote villages: solar energy means that the local people can study in the evening, watch TV, charge their cell phones and, in some instances, even connect to the internet.
Affordable and clean energy is the seventh of the UN’s Agenda 2030 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which provide the touchstone for Enel’s sustainability strategy. The Barefoot College project also spans other objectives: gender equality (SDG5), quality education (SDG4), decent work and economic growth (SDG8), sustainable cities and communities (SDG11).
Enel helps the solar mamas get to India (visas, passports, transportation, etc.) and then donates the solar panels and monitors the project for five years in partnership with local NGOs. A “solar committee” is set up in each community to analyse the amount of energy costs saved by each family and to create a fund that will pay the “mamas” (for maintenance work also) and purchase spares. The ultimate goal is to make the communities sustainable - to ensure they are fully self-sufficient: experience is being passed on, benefits are multiplying and the process of providing stable access to clean energy is picking up pace. Changing Luisa, Norma and Liliana’s lives and those of their families forever.