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Barefoot and empowered: NZ’s link to solar grandmas

From a village in India, New Zealand-born 2018 Hillary Laureate Meagan Fallone is bringing solar electricity to some the poorest people in the most remote corners of the world.

She’s the inspirational and aspirational CEO of The Barefoot College, an institution which helps train rural women to be solar engineers. The 3000 engineers it has trained, mainly grandmothers with limited literacy, generate 1.4 gigawatts of clean electricity a year.

“They are pretty powerful, no pun intended,” said Fallone, who estimates the grandmothers generate electricity for roughly one million people.

“We see women as an under-utilised and under-valued resource in the developing world. They have been left out of a formal education process ... we’re trying to put that on its head.”

The social enterprise college is based on the approach of Mahatma Gandhi, who Fallone said recognised the abundance of knowledge in communities. A lack of formal education is no barrier to acceptance to the college’s programmes, which include solar engineering, water sanitation and the teaching of artisan industries.

Since Fallone joined the organisation nine years ago, campuses have sprung up around the world and its programmes have impacted lives in 96 countries. The college estimates it’s replaced 500 million litres of kerosene with solar energy and collected a billion litres of drinking water.

Fallone said the college focuses on training women for a good reason.

“We see women as an under-utilised and under-valued resource in the developing world. They have been left out of a formal education process, so we say ‘Oh, they’re not literate, they aren’t highly numerate, therefore they’re not valuable’.

“We’re trying to put that on its head.”

Women are “beautiful teachers and passers of knowledge”, according to Fallone.

"What's the best way of communicating in the world today? Television? No. Telegraph? No. Telephone? No. Tell a woman.”

It’s a quality first identified by the founder of The Barefoot College, Bunker Roy. In a Ted Talk Roy explained why the college chose to focus on training women when it was established 48 years ago.

“One lesson we learned in India was men are untrainable. Men are restless, men are ambitious, men are compulsively mobile, and they all want a certificate. All across the globe, you have this tendency of men wanting a certificate. Why? Because they want to leave the village and go to a city, looking for a job. So we came up with a great solution: train grandmothers. What's the best way of communicating in the world today? Television? No. Telegraph? No. Telephone? No. Tell a woman.”

Mature women were most likely to have strong roots within a community. Teaching the grandmothers was found to be the best way the college found to keep knowledge in a community to benefit all inhabitants.

Fallone sees providing a village with free grandmother-installed solar energy as like providing the community with a key to unlock potential.

“Imagine yourself in a village in the rain forest in Borneo, in Sabah, Malaysia. You’re a five-hour walk from the nearest track or road to catch a ride to the nearest town which is at least 45 minutes away from that, to buy a small amount of kerosene, and then have to return home.”

The light a kerosene lamp provides is low-quality. Its black smoke causes upper-respiratory conditions and children using it to try and read by are likely to develop eye-sight problems by puberty.

With proper lighting children can learn after dark and adults can participate in economic activities, such as producing items for sale, or fixing a fishing net for the next day’s work. People can move safely from one house to another and the "whole social structure at the end of the day changes dramatically". Often high birth rates drop as there is something else to do in the evening.

Kerosene is not the only cost villages without reliable electricity supply face.

“Everybody has got a mobile phone, we all know the statistics on that in the developing world, but they’re paying to charge those phones in places where there is not access to proper electricity. You’ve always got the one guy in the village who has got two car batteries and he’s charging however many rupees or dollars to everybody who wants to charge their mobile phone.”

Fallone said the college provides power for a whole community for lights and phone charging and will not “just trade them down to a single cheap Chinese solar lantern”.

Providing this takes more than just educating grandmothers. The college also organises the supply of solar panels and equipment. One of Fallone’s tasks is to play matchmaker between the needs of communities and entities providing financial assistance.

“The award for me is a recognition that human beings count.”

To date the college has influenced energy policy in 11 countries to funnel government funds into distributed renewable energy sources such as solar power. Increasingly though, initiatives have multiple stakeholders. Governments may play a role, but there will also be private sector involvement as well as funding from private foundations and multi-lateral organisations.

A Fiji-based Barefoot College is now underway with the Fiji government contributing $2.5 million. Fallone said she has been speaking with the New Zealand Aid Programme in the hope of securing additional funding for the college which will accept students from 14 island nations.

Fallone said her whistle-stop homecoming last week was “amazing”. The Hillary Institute Laureate leadership award has special meaning for Fallone. Not only is she the first New Zealand-born recipient, but unbeknownst to the institute when it chose her as the ninth recipient of the prize, she has close family ties to Sir Edmund Hillary.

Her aunt and uncle were close friends with Hillary and helped him build the first hospital and school in Nepal.

“The work and accomplishments he did in his lifetime he is most proud of are the ones that were centred on making human beings' lives better.

“The award for me is a recognition that human beings count.”

The award recognises extraordinary mid-career leadership. Fallone has even bigger plans for the second half of her career. She wants to use technology to bridge the gap between people without literacy and the global economy, and make getting credit and processing digital payments easy.

"We have the technology right now to unlock the economic opportunities for the poorest of the poor on our planet. We’re hung up on systems that rely on literacy and numeracy."

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