Why Enel is helping train "solar grandmas" in Latin America

Fri, 2015-08-21 06:00 -- Doug Peeples

At first glance, it certainly looks like an unusual approach to solving  the problem of providing electricity to the remote, isolated villages and communities of the world: bringing young grandmothers who live in those areas to a training college in India to teach them how to build and run small solar power plants to benefit their communities.

But the Barefoot College, based in Tilonia, India, has been doing just that for years. The college brings young grandmothers between the ages of 35 and 50 to Tilonia for an intensive, six-month course of training that includes assembling, managing and maintaining small solar PV plants they will install in their home communities when they return. Council Lead Partner Enel has been involved with the program since 2012 when Enel Group CEO Francesco Starace (then head of the Enel Green Power Group) signed on to support the effort and made it possible for the first Latin American grandmothers to receive training. He was convinced the Barefoot College model could be an important step in bringing electricity to areas that had never had access to it.

A better solution
"In the past this problem has never been solved properly," Starace said in an article in The Guardian at the time. "We gave people a generator or some kind of technological contraption, but they didn't take responsibility. This must be something that's owned by the people. They should know that they are the ones doing this -- which is true for Barefoot College women, since they learn how to build and manage these solar systems, they are the real solar engineers of their communities, the panels are theirs, they are in charge."

The equipment they bring home is capable of running four lights, charge a mobile phone and a solar lantern. About 300 kits are provided to each community, and the technology is recognized by the UN as an important element in its goal to bring electricity to the millions of people who have not had access.

Why grandmothers?
So far, 39 solar engineers from nine Latin American countries have been trained. It should be said it's no small feat for the women taking the training. Many are illiterate and find themselves in a foreign country and immersed in a different culture while they are trained.

So why grandmothers and not grandfathers? College founder Sanjit "Bunker" Roy offers a very down-to-earth explanation (readers may need to check their political correctness at the door here.) "Men are restless and ambitious," Roy says. "They just want a certificate and, once they have that, they leave for a job in the city. Grandmas are respected in society. People will listen to them seriously. They are rooted in their communities and will never go away."

Enel's Latin American component of the ongoing training program is continuing to develop, but has already distributed 3,500 solar kits which have brought electricity to 19,000 people.

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Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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