Barefoot Solar Womens College gets New Intake

The Sierra Leone Barefoot Womens College has admitted another batch of illiterate women destined to become ‘solar engineers in four months time. The program has been enthusiastically endorsed by His Excellency President Koroma and the ruling All Peoples Congress, APC, party. The program first came into existence when His Excellency the President commissioned the Barefoot Womens Solar Training Center (now often styled Barefoot Womens College) at Konta Line, Koya Chiefdom, Port Loko district in 2012. At the commissioning ceremony the President was quoted as saying, "we are a common man and woman's party, and as such, we decided to support the Barefoot project". The President went on to say that the centre needed to be expanded and replicated throughout the country. The graduates of the college have been assigned the task of installing solar systems in rural communities and claim to have done so throughout the country.

The Barefoot Womens College was not originally a Sierra Leonean initiative. The idea first came into existence in India in 1972 through the initiative of the Indian founder and promoter, Bunker Roy, who claims on his website to have trained over 10,000 illiterate/semi-literate women in varioius skills. The formula adopted by the Sierra Leonean government, however, has focused, controversially some would argue, on providing training only in solar installation to illiterate/semi-literate women, who then instal solar equipment in rural communities. The first set of solar trainees were sent to the founding institution in India for their training, and after their return it was decided to set up the Training Center to train women locally. The center gradually came to be styled as the Barefoot Women's 'College' and the graduands of the four-month program have formed according to the State House website a "Barefoot Women Solar Engineers Association".

 The Indian Barefoot College in 2014 announced an $11 million  program to  establish six solar engineering training centers in Africa, along the same lines as the center in Sierra Leone. Funding for the program is coming from the Government of India and from the host countries. In a previous release in 2012, the Indian Barefoot College stated that the Sierra Leone government had spent $820,000 on the barefoot program to that point.

It is unclear from the Indian Barefoot College website exactly what their trainees will be doing. Different sections of the website talk variously about "installing solar lanterns", electrifying villages and soldering wires to circuit boards. Imported solar lights are available over the counter in Freetown shops, as elsewhere, and modern electronics manufacturing techniques long dispensed with  manual soldering of components. It appears the equipment being provided by the Indian Barefoot College (supported by the Government of India) is of Indian origin. India, however, is not known to be a powerhouse either in electronics or in solar technology. The manufacture of solar panels is highly sophisticated and highly competitive, with intense research ongoing into improving the efficiency of the panels. Europe, the US, Japan and China lead in this technology. India is not a major player. Independent observers have argued that even if solar power is a viable alternative for electrification of Sierra Leone’s rural communities, one would need to examine carefully whether the equipment for this should be coming from India.

If you agree, as we at natinpasadvantage do, that electricity should be extended to rural communities as one of the priorities of government, then this program raises a whole plethora of additional questions that should be subjected to serious scrutiny rather than a reflexive resort to grassroots populism:

Is stand-alone solar energy the most efficient, cost-effective solution? Solar energy is certainly more expensive initially than grid (NPA) power within the cities, but in isolated rural communities, difficult and expensive to reach and maintain with electricity lines, solar power may be more competitive.

If solar power is the best choice should this be a larger, shared community system or single-household systems?

Should the equipment be of Indian origin or should marketplace-proven, commercially available equipment be used?

Is the concept of training illiterate women to provide this service a viable one? What are the alternatives? What is the record thus far of installation and maintenance in the field? Who pays these women for their services? Is their employment sustainable? Who provides the equipment and spares they work with? Is employment in the area for which they have received training entirely dependent on government support? If a different government came to power and decided, genuinely, that this particular method of solar electrification was not cost effective, would these women be able to continue in their occupations?

What is the cost thus far of the project? What is the cost per KWh of energy produced? Will this be a donation to the beneficiary communities or will they be expected to pay some sort of user fee for the service? The Indian Barefoot College itself says, "...the solar units are expensive ($500 - $800) and far beyond the reach of most rural households."