How Bunker Roy and the Barefoot College Plan to Light Up the World

A social activist taps one of our planet’s greatest power sources: grandmothers.

foot print in mud
Dan Winters for Reader’s Digest

Can you imagine a college without walls, professors, or classrooms? Educator Bunker Roy can. More than 40 years ago, Roy, now 69, founded the Barefoot College, in Tilonia, India. His school recruits a unique population—rural women, often grandmothers—and teaches them the basics of solar engineering and freshwater technology. His efforts have yielded enormous benefits. When the women return to their homes, they are skilled enough to provide their communities (some of the world’s most isolated places) with electricity and clean water. They also gain something important, if less tangible: newfound self-confidence. 

The Barefoot model has already been used to empower women throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Last fall, former president Bill Clinton presented Roy with a Clinton Global Citizen Award, which honors leaders who are addressing the world’s challenges in visionary and effective ways (other 2013 recipients included Pakistani student and girls’ rights advocate Malala Yousafzai and then–New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg). The following is adapted from the acceptance speech that Roy delivered:

If you go all over the world to very remote villages, you will often find only very old people and very young people. The men have already left. So there are two ideas we’ve put into practice in order to make the Barefoot model work. First we declared that men were untrainable. Men are restless, men are compulsively mobile, men are ambitious, and they all want a certificate to show for their efforts. And the moment you give one of them a certificate, he leaves the village looking for a job in the city. So that is why we came up with the simple, commonsensical solution of training grandmothers. Grandmothers are compassionate, tolerant, willing to learn, and patient. All the qualities that you need are there. And the second idea we’d practice was not to give out certificates. Because the moment you give a woman a certificate, like a man, she’ll see it as a passport for leaving rural areas and going to urban areas to find a job.

Barefoot College follows the lifestyle of Mahatma Gandhi: Students eat, sleep, and work on the floor. They can stay for 20 years, or they can go home tomorrow. As of today, we’ve trained 604 women solar engineers from 1,083 villages in 63 countries. The engineers have solar-electrified 45,000 houses. Please remember that our students are primarily women who have never left their villages before. They hate the idea of leaving their families and getting on a plane. When they reach India, sometimes after 19 hours of travel, they are faced with strange food, strange people, strange language. We do all the training in sign language. Yet in six months, they will know more about solar engineering than most university graduates.

Some women face problems at home for attending Barefoot College. In most of these traditional societies, the husband says, “If you go for training, don’t come back to me. I will take another wife.” Then the wife goes, and when she returns, she helps provide her village with solar electricity. And her husband says, “Please come back to me.” But she says, “No, I’m fine.” Because the respect she now has is enormous.

We taught a woman from Afghanistan. It was the first time a grandmother had left this village. Afterward, at a community gathering, she went to sit with the men, who said, “What do you think you’re doing? You should be sitting with the women.” And she said quietly, “Today I am not a woman; I am an engineer. I have every right to sit with you.”

I have a dream. I would like to provide the world’s 47 least developed countries with Barefoot College–trained grandmothers, and together they could solar-electrify more than 100,000 houses. I would like to reach a million people, and I hope you will be a part of this dream.

I’ll end with a quotation from Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.”

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Bunker Roy
Bunker Roy was born and educated in India and was motivated to start the Barefoot College as a way to combat the poverty in his country.