Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy, founder of the Barefoot College in India believes that in order to support rural communities become self-sufficient, we must redefine what it means to be a ‘professional’. 

Despite his wealthy background and expensive education, Roy turned his back on the vocations his parents dreamt for him in order to dedicate his life to helping impoverished villages in rural India. In 1986, he established the ‘Barefoot College’, a global network of women-centred, training and support centres dedicated to enabling and nurturing sustainable development in the poorest communities. 

The Barefoot College is centred upon “grafting formal urban knowledge on rural wisdom" to develop self-sustainability. 

Leaders of the College visit rural villages to select older women to travel to the College in India and learn a skill that could transform her community. For instance, during a six month stay, the women learn to handle sophisticated charge controllers and inverters (solar cells produce direct current, DC, which is converted into standard alternating current, AC, using an inverter), install solar panels and link them to batteries, build solar lanterns and to establish a local electronic workshop where they can carry out all major and minor repairs to the solar power system themselves merely by listening and memorising.

"We communicate through sign language and colour codes which are numerically arranged and help them to remember the permutation and combination of the wires without needing to read or write," Roy said. “It's the only college where the teacher is the learner and the learner is the teacher. And it's the only college where we don't give a certificate. You are certified by the community you serve. You don't need a paper to hang on the wall to show that you are an engineer.”

The success of the College in India meant that is has since gone global and has been replicated across Africa and the Middle East, teaching solar engineering skills to illiterate older women from rural communities, with 'no access to lighting, electricity, learning or clean drinking water'.

Living its ethos, the first Barefoot College was designed and built by 12 illiterate Barefoot ‘architects’. Yet in 2002, the same architects were awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture due to the building’s “exceptional contribution in building rainwater harvesting structures and homes for the homeless."

The college is fully solar electrified harvesting sunlight using 45 kilowatt panels on the roof to power the building. “So long as the sun shines, we'll have no problem with power. But the beauty of the system is that it was installed by a Hindu priest who's only done eight years of primary schooling, yet he knows more about solar than anyone I know anywhere in the world, guaranteed,” said Roy. 

Even the food cooked at the Barefoot College, is cooked by applying the student’s ingenuity. Over 60 meals are cooked twice a day on a fabricated solar cooker made by women without any education, qualifications or schooling, who use their knowledge of cooking to come up with a design for a cooker that best meets their needs.

Despite Roy’s belief that formal education is not the only route to a profession, he does believe that part of empowering impoverished communities is to facilitate access to education for children of these poorer villages. However, to do this, he had to overcome a series of cultural barriers. For example, in rural India, 60% of children don't go to school because they have to look after animals or herds. Understanding the importance of this role for the wider families, the Barefoot College opened a night school for the children of the Tilonia region in India – working around their lives to ensure they receive an education. 

Since opening, over 75,000 children have gone through these night schools, not studying towards qualifications, but learning how to help their community to best function. For example, they learn democracy, citizenship, practical skills such as what to do if an animal is sick, how to get the most from crops, allowing them to help their community build an economy from which they can trade with their neighbours and lift themselves out of poverty. 

The key skill learnt at Barefoot College is that of solar engineering. Bringing electricity to a village can completely transform lives. It allows them to work, meet and socialise in the dark. Having established the programme in India, Roy flew to Afghanistan to meet villagers in rural communities, struggling to make ends meet. He and his team selected three Afghani women to travel to the Barefoot College in India to learn how to be solar engineers. They were not given papers or tests but taught how to build, maintain and repair solar networks that could light up their villages, using sign language. Just six months later, these women returned to their Afghani villages and were able to establish entire solar-electrification networks for their villages, selling their skills to neighbouring villages and enabling an industry and trade to thrive. 

The first village in Afghanistan to be solar-electrified first was set up by these three women, one of whom was a 55-year-old grandmother who single-handedly solar-electrified 200 houses. Her success means that she was invited to meet with Afghanistan’s engineering department where she explained how she brought power to the countryside. Since their trip to the Barefoot College, these three women have trained 27 more women and solar-electrified 100 villages. 

The most important part of the college’s approach is to empower those with the fewest opportunities to support their communities and encourage prosperity. As Ritma, a Barefoot Solar Engineer explains: “In my childhood I always dreamt of doing something big for my society. My mother laughed at me. Now my family and even the village elders respect me and value my contributions.” 

The sud to many other avenues of sustainable development. By turning away from exams, study and lessons, the students are able to learn at their own pace, in a way that they already understand ensuring that in almost every case, the student leaves armed with the skills to light up her community and those around her.

Roy believes that in an age of extreme global challenges, we must stop looking to science to save us and instead listen. He said: “I think you don't have to look for solutions outside. Look for solutions within. And listen to people. They have the solutions in front of you.”

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