Barefoot College

The Barefoot College aims to demystify and democratize technology and put new tools in the hands of the rural poor and at-risk populations with a singular objective of spreading self-sufficiency and sustainability. With a geographic focus on the Least Developed Countries, the organization trains women worldwide as solar engineers, innovators and educators, who then return to their villages to bring learning to their community.

A 2013 video report, “The illiterate grandmother who became a solar engineer,” follows the story of a woman from rural Malaysia who had never attended school. Yet after spending six months at the Barefoot College (BC) in Rajasthan, India, she learned how to be a solar engineer. Then she went home and built solar panels that provide her entire village with energy. She is still illiterate in her own language and she does not speak any Indian languages. But through her own perseverance, instruction in sign language, and a model based on women’s empowerment, she was able to learn specialized skills that have immeasurably improved the quality of life in her isolated village.

CC image courtesy of The Barefoot College

Sanjit “Bunker” Roy founded the first Barefoot College in 1972 in Rajasthan, India. His vision: to teach illiterate rural people the skills they need to become self-sufficient. His guiding belief is that rural, illiterate, traditional people have skills, knowledge and resourcefulness that bring more to communities than outside institutions. “A professional,” he says in his 2011 TED talk, “is someone who has confidence, competence and belief. A midwife is a professional. A water diviner is a professional.” Roy’s vision is based on the Gandhian philosophy of service and sustainability, driven by a culture of social justice and a commitment to bottom-up innovation and local community knowledge — a vision that was far ahead of its time when the organization was formed.

His road to founding was not without its personal challenges. His peers and family thought he was wasting his education at the most expensive college in India by choosing to pursue what was considered a risky path of working with the poor in rural areas.  Village elders were suspicious of his educational attainment, possible elitism, and his motivations. He had to work to gain their trust, and did so by listening to them and their advice not to bring in external consultants to impose solutions, but rather to trust that the rural poor he would be collaborating with already had the tools to apply toward ensuring their own sustainability solutions.

The college’s model is implemented through partnerships across sectors, in a global south-south model of investment. The approach is aimed at poverty reduction and fighting climate change through village-led solutions starting with solar power. The college trains women from under-resourced areas in India and across the global south to be solar engineers, educators, community leaders and entrepreneurs. The women, who both self-select to attend and are selected by their communities to attend the program, are sent by their governments. It is an act of courage for most of these women to leave their homes and set out to learn. Once they arrive at the BC facility, they are provided a fellowship from the Indian government.

CC image courtesy of The Barefoot College

The women learn in cross-cultural cohorts over a period of six months. The curriculum has been designed to be taught and learned without the use of written or even a common, language. The college’s flagship project is the course in solar technology, which alongside the technical aspects of the technology includes a curriculum called ENRICHE. The ENRICHE program teaching digital and financial literacy, basic human and legal rights, women’s health, wellness and nutrition, sustainable living practices, micro-enterprise skills, and livelihoods.

In addition, BC tackles social norms that perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Women’s empowerment through education, for example, is based on the belief that better informed woman will raise more capable rural children, who will in turn go on to be happier and more productive people.

Upon graduation, there are no certificates. However, a stipend is provided, and the women can use it as seed funding for projects in their home communities. Also, while the college communicates its belief that these women will lead the charge to shift their communities to self-sustainability, the community itself gives true acknowledgement of the graduates’ success.

Moving Forward

From Roy’s vision in 1972 to date, the “Barefoot Approach” has scaled and been adopted in 1300 communities in over 80 different countries, with the organization stating it has helped nearly one million people gain access to energy, self-directed leadership, and income.

As the organization moves ahead and innovates on its own model, Meagan Fallone, Barefoot College International’s CEO, has been working to evolve the organization’s vision and impact. BC is building impact across the global south with Barefoot College Women’s Vocational Training Centers opening or in development on four continents. In addition, BC is moving towards digital integration, both within the organization itself, and also as a route to the dissemination of sustainable livelihood, and environmental, technical, and enterprise skills for the rural poor women the college trains.

Learn more: