IRENA – Barefoot College Partnership Leaves Rural Footprint with Skilled Energy Champions


Embracing a common vision for sustainable energy development, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the Barefoot College recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to improve energy access and livelihoods in rural areas.

Barefoot College, with its fully solar electrified campus with a total of 300 kW located in the village of Tilonia, Rajasthan, India, views women in non-electrified villages and rural areas as the victims of energy poverty. A lack of access to clean energy can lead to a dependency on dangerous polluting fuels. To reverse this desperate situation, the collaboration of IRENA and the College includes areas of capacity building and skills development to women and youth in remote areas of Africa and the Pacific islands. The goal is to turn these individuals into local champions for the scaling up of decentralised energy systems and the use of renewable energy.

The College’s flagship initiative, Women Barefoot Solar Engineers or Solar Mama, over 20 years old now, aims to create solar energy champions and engineers among illiterate women in rural areas. Despite their total lack of any engineering background, women from different countries participate in the Barefoot College’s training on the design, assembling, installation and maintenance of solar home power systems and solar lanterns.

Since 1997, the Solar Mama programme has trained more than 1700 women from 15 Indian States and 96 countries, resulting in 75,000 houses being electrified, 1,300 villages being fully electrified with solar power and 45 million litres of kerosene pollution avoided.

Saheb from Bihar, India, one of the women trained by the programme, proudly explained how her neighbours refer to her as ‘Saheb the solar engineer’. She is dedicated to helping her neighbours install the solar home system and repair them when necessary.

Far away from India, in Ethiopia, Fatuma expressed her sense of empowerment after returning from the training. Thanks to the College, she is now able to install and maintain solar home systems that give desperately needed light to her home and village. With the new skills that allow her to contribute to her village, “I would like to train other people in the community,” she says enthusiastically.

Sanjit Bunker Roy, Founder-Director of the Barefoot College noted, “With an increasing geographic focus across India, Africa, and Pacific, we look forward to realising the partnership with IRENA to support and spread the College’s innovative initiatives in assisting more last-mile communities in accessing clean, affordable renewable energy services.”

Under the agreement, the Solar Mama programme will be linked to the IRENA-supported Entrepreneurship Support Facility programme for mentorship, peer-to-peer learning and enterprise twinning.

IRENA Director-General, Francesco La Camera, added, “This partnership is about delivering impacts on the ground and improving livelihoods. Through this partnership, IRENA and the Barefoot College will enhance the effectiveness of their activities, and move closer to achieving their mandates, while also driving renewable energy and sustainable development for people in many countries”.

Photo Credit: The Barefoot College, Tilonia