Empyrean Research is pleased to share its latest video interview in its ongoing series of profiles of global practitioners of participatory change. Empyrean Research director Felix Bivens interviews Meagan Fallone, the CEO of Barefoot College, at the Barefoot College campus in Tilonia, Rajasthan, India.
Deep into the arid landscape of Rajasthan, India, lies one of the most radical and enduring outposts of the India’s ‘barefoot’ movement. The barefoot approach challenged the implicit narrative of international development-- that the poor are poor because of a lack of knowledge and skills-- and instead lifted up the indigenous, grounded knowledge and practices of rural communities that they had gained through hundreds of years of close observation and engagement with their environment and innovation with available resources. The barefoot approach also highlighted the capacity of rural people to learn and practice sophisticated activities even without formal education and literacy. The movement led to the emergence of barefoot health workers, barefoot researchers, barefoot architects and more. All variations emphasized the efficacy of local knowledge and while accepting that people from rural communities were open to learning new ideas and practices, especially from peers in other communities.
One of the most recognizable figures from this movement was Bunker Roy, the well-educated son of a Delhi family who moved to isolated Tilonia, Rajasthan, after university, in 1965, to help his rural countrymen and women. His expectations were upended quickly and he became a student of the well diggers and laborers that he worked with rather than their teacher. Tilonia altered the direction of Roy's life and career. Tilonia became his new home. Inspired by the barefoot movement and finding that it resonated with his experiences in Tilonia, Roy helped to create the Barefoot College in 1972. It was indeed a college in that it sought to be a place of learning and a repository of knowledge. It was also opposite of a college in that the knowledge it promoted, in that those who taught and in that those who learned were all deeply rooted in rural communities of Rajasthan. Barefoot became a defining voice in the Barefoot movement, drawing visitors from villages across India and beyond as well as gaining international prominence. As development discourse shifted sharply away from integrated community development approaches in the 1980s and toward the macroeconomic principles of structural adjustment, the barefoot movement faded in visibility. Barefoot College continued its work all the same, building a second campus in the 1980s using local techniques and practices.
Reimagining ‘Appropriate Technology’ for Development
In the late 2000s, Roy and he colleagues moved in a direction that embraced the growing availably of high tech but low cost technologies for rural communities. Roy knew that communities could master the technology, but wanted communities to maintain their autonomy. He envisioned that these technologies could bring new and additional livelihoods rather than supplanting old ones. The college had experimented with solar on its own campus and had been teaching communities to use parabolic solar cookers for years. Now solar electricity production was viable at small scale, especially given the relatively low demand of a rural household in the developing world. So Barfoot began to develop small portable, household solar units that could fit into just a few boxes that could be carried, on foot if necessary, to remote rural communities. The technology was available, but the question of how communities maintain such equipment has always been one of the concerns of the barefoot movement. The rural development landscape is littered with wells and water purification systems which are broken down permanently because the local community doesn't have parts or training for the fix.
Roy and the Barefoot team wanted to overcome this challenge though education, by providing sufficient training that the barefoot solar engineer in the community would be able to disassemble and reassemble the components down to the very circuit boards. This posed multiple challenges. How pedagogically to train semiliterate and illiterate students to be electrical engineers. At the very least such training would take months, which raised the issue of who could leave a community to even take part in a training of this length and complexity. Like so much of Barefoot’s previous work, the answers to these questions that were arrived at were simple but unexpected and transformative.
The training system that was developed was entirely visual and based on a color-coded system for the wiring of the various components. It would be delivered through a six-month residential program that would involve hours of hands-on learning by doing everyday until the design and construction of every component would be second nature to the students. In terms of who these courses would be offered to, Barefoot selected one of the most economically marginalized demographics in any community-- grandmothers. While often much younger than grandmothers in more developed country contexts, grandmothers are still most everywhere seen as non-economic actors, who are valued for childrearing abilities rather than for their potential as entrepreneurs and community leaders. Indeed it was this marginality that made them available to participate in the program. As non-income earners it was possible for them to leave their communities for the extended duration of the engineering course. While this was a pragmatic solution, it also had transformative implications for the participant and the community she came from. The grandmother would leave her community, even her country for six months of sophisticated training in electrical engineering and then return to her community as the manager and technician of the community’s only source of electricity. No longer a marginal figure, she would be educated, important and a business owner with a reliable income.
Solar Mommas Rising
If this seems like a utopian scenario with a variety weak links that seem too implausible for success, consider that the program is now been running for more than eight years, that two cohorts of fifty solar trainee grandmothers-- now affectionately referred at Barefoot as the ‘solar mommas’-- train in Tilonia at Barefoot College each year and that five replications of the program have already been created outside of India and that four more are in the works and that the program is now sustained by an Indian governmental agency grant. By working against convention, Barefoot has created an enormously successful initiative which led to an invite from TED for Bunker Roy to give a talk about the college and the solar mommas. Three million views later, the solar engineers program has global visibility and has attracted the attention of government and business leaders, including global leaders from the tech industry.
While the program is extraordinary in its own right, a significant part of its growth and recognition is due to the efforts of Barefoot International’s CEO Meagan Fallone who took over the post in 2010. She has taken a particular interest in the solar program and often travels to the remote communities that have requested to participate in the program. Likewise she has tirelessly promoted program to funders and other governments, paving its rapid adoption in 9 countries outside of India.
My teaching work with Northeastern University provided an opportunity for me to visit the Barefoot campus for the second time in the summer of 2016. As part of the visit, the students and teaching team sat down for an interview with Fallone and Roy. We also engaged with the current batch of solar mommas and observed their training process. Please see the video above for the interview with Meagan Fallone and highlights from the engagement with the solar trainees.
Fallone emphasized the importance of the solar program on a variety of levels, particularly how it impacted women and the gender dynamics in the communities where the solar systems are installed. She quoted research that estimates that the marginalization of women from economic activities reduces global economic output by 23 trillion dollars each year. The participants in the program have seen significant increases in their incomes after operationalizing their solar businesses. Indeed electrification leads to a rise in village incomes overall. Moreover the women also report changes in their social status. They are now recognized as professionals. As well, they become part of the decision-makers in the community and find themselves operating in formerly all-male circles of power. Perhaps more importantly, Fallone noted the systemic impact on women and girls that comes with light-- increased safety at night, opportunities for study and economically productive work after dark, and as a result, fewer children in the longer run, so that family resources can be concentrated on a few children rather and dispersed across many.
During our time in Tilonia, we visited night schools organized by Barefoot. Many children in the villages surrounding Tilonia work as herders during the day, from sunrise to sunset, and as such do not have time to attend school. Using the same solar package utilized by the solar mommas, Barefoot has established night schools so that these children can receive several hours of basic education each evening after they have complete their herding work. In the short time we visited the school, a dusty courtyard outside a small earthen building illuminated by two bluish LED lights, we could see the energy and joy of the young children as they learned and socialized, a complete reversal of their long lonely days of herding, a small but important shift that may change the direction of the lives of those children. One imagines similar scenes playing out across rural communities where one of Barefoot’s solar engineers has returned home to bring light and new opportunities to all parts of the community, from the youngest to the grandmothers, to fulfill their aspirations and to participate in the world more fully, and on their own terms.