The story of the barefoot engineers
In a remote village in northwestern India, a rural college aims to lift people out of poverty by passing on traditional knowledge and skills.
The Barefoot College, based in Tilonia, relies on peer-to-peer learning to train locals to become engineers, communicators, accountants and more, using simple technologies such as mobile phones and personal computers (PCs). Now, it is getting ready to open its first branch in Africa.
"It's a model that people understand, it's not complicated. It respects the skills that people have rather than discarding them or replacing them," says the college's founder, Sanjit Roy.
Roy cites a "graveyard of successful failures" based on top-down solutions that have left rural communities defeated and dependent.
"They always think a white man will solve their problems from outside for them … The indigenous people have lost their capacity from within. Anybody — anybody — regardless of who it is, whether [or not] he or she has been to school or college, has the capacity to become an engineer or a dentist or an architect or a designer, or work on computers."
"I'm an illiterate farmer," says Bhanwar Jad, who designed the college building and a water storage system for the village. "But I apply my mind. I think about gravity and pressure and design, and I learn from everything I do."
The college started in 1972. Educators from cities arrived to teach the villagers, but promptly returned to their higher-paying urban jobs. Roy turned his attention to local people with learned skills. The guinea pigs for this new approach were men from nearby villages — but they too were soon city-bound, in search of well-paid jobs.
Roy had a revelation — he was training the wrong gender. "We thought that [women would] be the best to train because they're not compulsively mobile." But that trait hasn't stopped female would-be engineers from travelling thousands of kilometres to learn skills to bring home to their communities.
To date, the college has trained 15,000 women from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bolivia, India and several African countries.
Around 500,000 people have been provided with basic services. In India alone, Roy estimates, the college's solar electrification programme saves two million litres of kerosene every year.
Africa's first Barefoot training centre will open in September, in Sierra Leone. "By December we think at least 100 Barefoot solar grandmothers will be trained," says Roy.