AJMER — In India, 70% of the population lives in rural areas, mostly in poverty.

But as a voluntary program has proven, impoverished people can become experts in solar power. Thanks to Barefoot College, an NGO based here in Ajmer, in the western part of India’s Rajasthan state, some 600 women have been fully educated about solar power, a small step towards eradicating poverty.

Sunaina Das, 20, is reviewing all the components needed to make a solar lamp. Though she doesn’t know how to read or write, she’s learning to become a solar engineer.

“I’ve come here for training,” she says. “I haven’t been here long, just 10 days. What I’m learning here is all new to me. Once I’ve learned everything I’ll go back to Jharkhand,” Das says.

She’s one of 25 women from Jharkhand, in northeastern India, who will spend the next six months learning about solar power at Barefoot College, which was founded more than 40 years ago.

On the popular TEDx talk show, its founder Bunker Roy says he wants to help women in rural communities by applying solar energy solutions. “Food here at the Barefoot colleges is solar-cooked,” he says. “The people who made that solar cooker are women — illiterate women. They actually built the most sophisticated solar cooker.”

Each year, the college trains around 100 women in a six-month solar engineering training program. According to Ram Niwas, the college spokesperson, “In Barefoot College they can learn to assemble a solar system and they can set up fully a home light system, which is a panel on the rooftop connected with a battery charge controller. In the future, if they know which function is not working properly, they can repair it themselves.”

Barefoot College founder Bunker Roy — Photo: kris krüg

They choose to teach women for a reason, says Ram Niwas. “If we train women, families can get benefits through them. It’s especially important in the poor rural areas, where men migrate from the village to the town for jobs. So men leave while women stay in the village with their kids.”

They teach the complexities of solar power with a simple technique using colors and numbers. Dasrat, a teacher at the college, is also illiterate but explains that it’s not a problem to teach people who don’t know how to read. 

“How do illiterate people teach illiterate people? We created our own system. Black is zero and red is two and orange is three. Meaning that all the solar components have world standard colors, so that illiterate women can read the value of a resistance through color, for instance.”

Sunaina now knows how to set up and maintain a solar light panel that she will put on the roof. This will allow her to install a light and battery charger in her house. She can’t wait to return home and apply her new knowledge.

“In my village, we don’t have electricity,“ she says. “But when the lights are installed, it will be easier for us to read and for children to study. If they can’t study at home, they won’t do well at school. For the children in particular, this will make a big difference.”

After the training, Sunaina and the other students will be given solar lighting units to bring electricity to 25 households. The program will also mean saving on the cost of wood and kerosene.