Interview with Bunker Roy

Interview with Bunker Roy

“Only 300 solar power engineers live in the whole of Africa – and they’re all grandmothers,” insists Sanjit “Bunker” Roy.

“People will shout from the rooftops and say this is nonsense but believe me there is not one solar engineer in any of the 28 countries I have been to in Africa that comes from a village and stays in a village. They all live in cities abroad. The only ones left are the grandmothers we’ve trained.”

The Indian social activist and founder of Barefoot College is determined to help poor rural communities gain access to light. He says electricity is the biggest expense for families in remote areas and the only solution is to solar electrify villages – with the help of grandmothers.

“I’m challenging the conventional mindset of how to bring solar energy to communities,” explains Roy in his office at Barefoot College, in Tilonia, India. “There’s this myth that ordinary, rural people –including women and grandmothers- cannot fabricate, install and manage sophisticated solar technology. It’s not true and we have exploded that myth at Barefoot College.”

Bengali born Roy, aged 66, established the Barefoot College in 1971 to train illiterate people from remote villages basic skills in professions such as architecture and engineering. The school is the only fully solar powered institution in India and it teachers villagers to service their own communities and to reduce the dependency of outside institutions.

“You cannot address rural problems with urban solutions. The answers lie with rural people,” says Roy. “This is particularly true when it comes to lighting homes. You can’t bring electricity to small, remote villages with a conventional grid. It costs over US$70,000 a kilometre and companies make communities dependent on outside engineers.”

Roy’s approach is not simply install solar technology within communities- but to teach people to repair and maintain it first.  “Solar units are out of action for months because of a very small part that can be repaired in 5 minutes,” complains Roy. “Nobody comes to fix them because there is this ridiculous system of call centers and maintenance support, which is often based in the city. Companies don’t bother with remote villages- they couldn’t care less.”

The Barefoot method provides an efficient, cost effective service that equips villagers to manage their own solar power. “We develop the capacity and knowledge of the people in communities to fabricate solar technology, as well as install, repair and maintain it themselves,” says Roy.

The school began training uneducated rural Indian men as engineers in 1990 but ten years later Roy decided to only train women and grandmothers.  He says village men were too restless to teach. The moment they gained a qualification they left their villages to look for work in the cities. “Women, on the other hand, particularly grandmothers, are committed to staying in their communities. They have roots with their children and grandchildren and want to improve their future,” he explains.

The Indian government covers the cost of interviewing and training the women. The course is a six-month hands-on programme that teaches the basics of fabricating, installing, and repairing solar circuit boards for solar lamps and panels.  Most of the women and instructors are illiterate so hand signals and drawings are used to teach. Despite this setback, every student excels. “Illiterate people never forget. They only have their memory to rely on- which makes them concentrate harder in class,” says Roy.

Since 2005 the programme has recruited global trainees- mainly grandmothers handpicked by Roy. He praises their ability to learn and share their skills. “We trained three women in Afghanistan who have now gone on to train 27 more women and to help solar electrify over 100 villages across Afghanistan.”

The success of the programme has prompted the Indian government to pay the US$250,000 cost of setting up five new Barefoot Training Centers in Africa and to solar electrify 25,000 African homes.

Roy says his approach is a bargain that exceeds everyone’s expectations. “We can solar-electrify 100 villages, train 120 grandmothers and light 11,000 houses in 26 countries in Africa for a total of US $2.5 million dollars, which is the cost of what Mr. Jeff Sachs spends on just one millennium village in Africa! And, that is the ideal development model that the UN is trying to push, which is ridiculous and a waste of money. Villagers just want light, so give them light.”