Sky is limit: Sierra Leone’s ‘barefoot’ women solar engineers

UNIDO

By Leisa Burrell

Pictures by Barefoot Photographers of Tilonia

An initiative that started 50 years ago in India in a bid to empower rural, illiterate women has now spread to ninety-three countries around the world. The ‘Barefoot’ Solar engineers of Sierra Leone, supported by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), and funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), found themselves in the spotlight during an official visit to Sierra Leone by Amina J. Mohammed, the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General. Mohammed’s visit, at the end of 2020, helped shine a light on the project that has been equipping rural women with the means to connect their communities to solar energy since 2010.

The ‘Barefoot’ women, from India to Africa

The ‘Barefoot story’ is an engrossing tale: women battling the odds to better themselves in order to help their families and their communities by way of solar energy. The first Barefoot College was established in India in 1972 to train illiterate or semi-illiterate women, and to provide them with the basic skills to be solution-providers in their rural communities. As the school’s founder, Bunker Roy, explained in his 2011 TEDTalk, Learning from a barefoot movement: “There are only two rules for enrolment – you must be poor to attend and you must take your learning home to your village.”

Barefoot College training enables participants to support their families and help communities to become more self-sufficient in a range of areas, including education, and health care. One programme, which has been running since 2004, teaches solar engineering skills to illiterate, older women from rural communities – a particularly vulnerable group worldwide, before equipping them with solar lamp kits to assemble and install in their own and in neighbouring villages. Any woman over the age of thirty-five, from a remote, inaccessible, non-electrified area can enrol for the course, provided she is backed by her village.

Not being able to read or write is not an obstacle to learning for the trainees as the College’s courses are designed to enable them to learn through listening and memorizing, using colour-coded charts that help them to remember the arrangement and combination of wires.

Introducing the Barefoot Women of Sierra Leone

The West African country of Sierra Leone, has been described as possessing “everything that a traveller could desire: pristine and almost uninhabited beaches; elephants, hippos, pygmy hippos, crocs and, reportedly, even lions”.

Despite its natural beauty, which, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, saw it becoming an increasingly popular tourism destination, it is a country that is still grappling with the legacy of its decade-long civil war, which ended in 2002. The country remains poor, ranking low in both gender equality and energy access. In the latter category, Sierra Leone has one of the world’s lowest rates of modern energy access, with only 15 percent of the total population having access to electricity, and just two per cent of those in rural areas.

Sierra Leone’s first cohort of solar engineers came from humble beginnings, but in 2010 they travelled 6,000 miles to train at the Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, in western India. After six months of training, they returned to their country to establish the Barefoot Women Solar Engineers Association of Sierra Leone (BWSEASL, commonly known as the Barefoot College), located in Konta Line, Lower Koya in Port Loko District.

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