Renewing Africa with Community Energy

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African countries are making some important strides toward a green energy sector. According to the Global Renewables Status 2009, Northern Africa boasts more than 500 MW of installed wind power, while Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania are all planning their first wind farms. Mauritius, Uganda, Kenya, and South Africa have all enacted feed-in tariffs (pricing policies that encourage renewable electricity’s access to the grid). Renewable energy targets have been set by Rwanda, Tunisia, Kenya, and Madagascar. But the energy divide between urban and rural areas remains a major challenge, with too few resources being put toward the problem. Here we highlight just a few communities who have taken matters into their own hands.

Barefoot College invites new trainees, most of them mothers and grandmothers, to come to India for a 6-month training. No written materials are used and trainees generally speak different languages. “The College often relies on sign language and gestures,” explains founder Bunker Roy. The hands-on training is conducted by Indian women who have completed the same training. “With each passing day their level of hesitancy decreases and confidence and ‘technical dexterity’ increases,” Roy says. After returning to their villages, the women are able to fabricate, install, maintain and repair residential solar lighting systems.

Barefoot College started training rural women in India to be solar engineers in the 1990s. The trainees came from all over India. Because of language barriers, the women learned by following mimed instructions, and executing technical tasks by example. The college works on the premise that the very poor have the right to have own and have access to the most sophisticated technologies to improve their own lives. “Just because they cannot read and write does not stop them from becoming solar engineers.” The Barefoot College trains only illiterate and semi-literate middle-aged mothers and grandmothers from villages all over the world. “Illiterate grandmothers are humble and easy to teach. Grandmothers have a vested interest in the village and have no desire to leave. Give a youth a piece of paper and he is off to the city to find a better job,” Roy notes.

Before a village is solar-electrified, a Village Energy and Environment Committee (VEEC) is formed. The VEEC is responsible for determining how much each family is prepared to pay for a solar unit or solar lantern per month, and for selecting a woman from the village to be trained as a Barefoot Solar Engineer. Once the village is electrified, the VEEC continues to monitor funds and the performance of the barefoot solar engineer.

It is estimated that a rural family in Africa burns around 60 liters of kerosene a year to light their home, causing health problems, fires, and polluting the air. Barefoot Solar Engineers are transforming lives and bringing light, one lantern at a time.