There are 1.2 billion people in the world living without electricity. An Indian organization hopes to change that by training illiterate woman to become solar technicians. The story of a grandmother who brought light to her village - and a number of problems.

By Stefan Schultz (Text) and Bernhard Reidmann (Photos/Multimedia) in Madagascar

For the first time in the history of Tsaratanana, a woman has been permitted to speak in front of the village council, and she has some bad news to share.

"Those who want solar lamps will have to buy them in the future," says Zafitsiha. "You'll also have to finally start paying your fees regularly."

Zafitsiha stands erect and speaks with a powerful voice, the men observing the lanky woman with her hair pulled back. They are impressed, and disappointed.

"Until now, we got them for free," says one farmer. "But I can't afford one of the units," says a second. "Why are some people in the village treated better than me?" a third man wants to know. Soon, several men are speaking all at once, angrily interrupting each other. Zafitsiha listens and nods. She's still standing straight, but her brow slowly furrows. When she set off on the long journey to bring light and electricity to her community, she had imagined a different outcome.

360-Degree Video: Zafitsiha Speaks to the Village Council

From March to October 2013, she and two other women from her village attended Barefoot College in Tilonia, a town in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan, for a course the likes of which can't be found anywhere else in the world. The organization strives to train illiterate women to become solar energy technicians.

To attend the course, Zafitsiha left her two children and two grandchildren behind, flying in an airplane for the first time in her life. Once there, she struggled to understand the complicated diagrams and the trip also resulted in strained relations with her friends. Now, three years after her return, she has changed more in Tsaratanana than she ever thought possible - including things she now wishes she hadn't.

Barefoot College is pursuing three main goals. First, it seeks to bring solar units to poor and remote villages around the world. In Madagascar, where Zafitsiha is from, 85 percent of the population has no access to electricity, and the International Energy Agency estimates that 1.2 billion people around the world live without power.

The consequences are far-reaching. Without light, adults are unable to work at night and their children are unable to do any homework. Doctors are forced to conduct operations using light from flashlights and the ill die because medicines cannot be refrigerated. There's no Internet, television, radio or any other kind of electric appliances. There is no mass production and almost no economic growth. Development workers describe the phenomenon as energy poverty.

The college aims to combat energy poverty around the world, while improving women's self-confidence at the same time. In traditional village communities, it is often men who make the important decisions and have control of the money, which is why Barefoot College provides solar training exclusively to women. They are to become financially independent and serve as role models for other women.

At the same time, Barefoot College is aspiring to create a new and improved form of development aid - one that also seeks to preserve the independence of the traditional village communities where it carries out its projects. Following their training, the solar engineers return to their villages, where they each equip 50 huts with solar units and ensure that they are maintained. The community is expected to cover the costs.

Satellite Image: See How Dark Madagascar Is at Night

Barefoot College claims to have provided electricity to more than half a million households since 2003, with its solar lamps now providing light to villages in a total of 72 countries in Africa, the Arab world, Asia and Latin America. The project is currently moving into the decisive phase, with female solar engineers now expected to provide training to other women around the world so that they can quickly bring electricity to tens of thousands of other villages. The idea is to create a snowball effect that will trigger far-reaching change in the world's poorest countries.

Before that happens, though, the project urgently needs to be further refined. Although the solar units are creating a lot of good in the villages where they are installed, they are also causing problems. In Tsaratanana, for example, villagers lament financial difficulties, social inequality and new forms of crime.

At the Fireside

In an almost entirely dark bamboo hut, a mother is cooking manioc root over a small fire, her daughter sitting next to her. The light from the flames only reaches a few feet into the room and the women's faces are swallowed up by the shadows. It's hot and sticky and it reeks of soot; the girl coughs repeatedly, sometimes spitting out phlegm.

The hut is located at the edge of Tsaratanana, a few steps away from the village square. The family would also like to have a solar unit, but, like dozens of others in the village, they didn't get one. The first 150 solar units were provided to residents free of charge, but the rest must be purchased. Many don't understand why and feel they are being treated like second-class citizens.

Zafitsiha once hoped that she could provide lighting for all of Tsaratanana. When she left for India in March 2013, everyone here lived in darkness in their huts. They could hardly work at night and couldn't even see each other's faces. The day essentially came to an end at sundown and the smoke in the huts also damaged villagers' lungs. Zafitsiha wanted to put an end to all that, while at the same time earning a bit of money.

For her entire life, she had done the housekeeping and taken care of children. At first, it was those of her siblings, but later her own children and grandchildren. Ioto Raphael, the village elder, told her that the village would pay her a salary as a solar engineer once she got back.

Ioto Raphael on Life in the Village

Other village residents tried to dissuade Zafitsiha from making the trip. Many believed the Indians wanted to bring the women to Tilonia in order to enslave them there. They even heard stories from people in surrounding settlements that the Indians wanted to steal the blood of the women from Madagascar and sell it to hospitals. But Zafitsiha didn't believe the stories.

There were three slots open for women from Tsaratanana to travel to Tilonia, but aside from Zafitsiha, only Philomene wanted to go, a petite woman whose husband had left her a few years earlier and was hoping she would be better able to provide for her children after attending the training course.

Unable to find a third volunteer, Ioto Raphael decided to send his own daughter Dotine, a delicate and shy girl, to India as a show of trust in the project. "If the women don't come back, then you can kill me," he told village residents.

The Strengths of the Weak

There are plenty of researchers who believe that Western development policies have failed. And they're not just talking about individual, misguided projects -- they're referring to the entire concept. They argue that development aid merely exports Western notions of poverty, wealth and consumerism to traditional village communities and creates an unhealthy dependency. Kenyan economist James Shikwati argues that development aid does more to boost the global economy than the people it is supposedly intended to help.

Sanjit "Bunker" Roy

Sanjit "Bunker" Roy, the founder of Barefoot College, wanted to do everything better. He spent several years himself living in remote settlements in the Indian state of Rajasthan and says he learned one significant lesson: The poor and uneducated are nowhere near as helpless as the rich and educated like to believe. Often they find solutions that we don't understand.

The training provided at Barefoot College is based on the strengths possessed by those presumed to be weak -- such as deft craftsmanship and the ability to learn by rote that which illiteracy makes impossible to write down. It is a way of maintaining traditional values. The women learn how to operate the solar units on their own and how to arrange for the financing and acquisition of replacement parts. The aim is to secure the village community's independence.

A few years ago, Roy enjoyed widespread acclaim. In 2010, "Time Magazine" chose him as one of the world's 100 most influential people and one year later, he was applauded enthusiastically after presenting his idea at the influential TED-conference. "Sanjit 'Bunker' Roy has found a better way to solve poverty," wrote the US magazine "Wired".

But now the cracks in Roy's approach are showing. One problem is that his organization never provides electricity to an entire village with its project and residents who do not receive a solar unit often feel pressured to buy one - even if they can't afford it.

Communities are also forced to rely on parts ordered from Barefoot College because the freshly trained solar engineers only learned to construct its solar units. Beneficiaries include Indian manufacturers like Ritika Systems and Exide, who sell their modules and lamp components to Barefoot College at a small profit.

A University for the Poor

Each Barefoot College solar unit is comprised of exactly 130 parts. Zafitsiha can put one together in less than two hours.

She's sitting together with Philomene and Dotine in a wooden hut near the village square in what they call the Solar House. The women would love to get started building solar lamps - indeed, they have 200 orders awaiting installation. The problem is that they will have to wait until at least December until the required parts arrive from India. November is harvest time in Tsaratanana and only then will the farmers have the money they need to pay for the solar systems they have ordered.

Wires, resistors, capacitors and cables lie on the table in front of Zafitsiha. There aren't enough parts to build an entire lamp, but they can still be used to repair ones already installed. With well-practiced moves, Zafitsiha affixes the parts to a circuit board while also helping Dotine with hers.

In the Solar Workshop

When she began her training at Barefoot College, Zafitsiha didn't think she would be able to do it, with all the buttons, contacts, indicator needles and measuring devices - not to mention the dozens of tools. She often got it wrong and had to stay into the evenings for additional help.

From Monday to Saturday, she sat together with 26 other women in a narrow, shaded room, assembling solar lamps just about non-stop - the first one from 8 to 11 a.m. and the second from 2 to 5 p.m. and so on until she had memorized the steps. Given that all the women were illiterate, the individual steps in the process were detailed in comics posted on the wall. The parts also had different colors so that they could be matched and placed in the proper position.

As they worked, the grandmothers from Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, Myanmar, Madagascar, Zanzibar and the Comoros often chatted among themselves. They didn't understand each other, but they talked together anyway. Before too long, they had invented sign language in order to communicate with each other.

Zafitsiha's Photo Album: Training at Barefoot College

A total of seven women from Madagascar traveled in March 2013 to Tilonia. Three, including Zafitsiha (second from left), came from Tsaratanana. The four others came from Iavomanitra, another village in southern Madagascar.

The women also learned how to make candles and chalk and to sew textiles and Zafitsiha used a sewing machine for the first time in her life.

It was a touching moment for her. When she was 14, her father brought her a dress from the city. Unfortunately it was far too big, and for many years, Zafitsiha preserved the dress like a treasure until she finally grew into it. She proudly wore it to a party. "I want to have a sewing machine," she told her father. "Then I could sew my own dresses." Her father answered: "I wish I had the money to give you one."

When she completed the training, Zafitsiha was full of anticipation. She believed that she would soon be able to buy a sewing machine with the salary she received as a solar engineer.

Light and Shadows

In the evenings, after the sun goes down behind the mountains, the extent to which solar power has changed Tsaratanana becomes apparent. On the floor of a hut near the village square, Dotine's mother kneels down and weaves a raffia mat in the bright light of her solar lamp. In front of her stands a shelf that her family recently purchased. Since Dotine's mother has been able to work in the evenings, she can produce many more mats than she used to. Once a week, she sells them at the nearby market.

Sitting next to her mother is Dotine's brother, Jux. Although he often has to help out in the fields during the day, he recently made it to the ninth grade because he has been able to study at night using the light of the solar lamp.

On the square in front of the Solar House, young men in baseball caps and girls in bright skirts dance in a circle. African songs accompanied by fast, electronic beats blare out of two battered speakers. Other young people stand at the edge of the dance floor, passing around a bottle of beer, chatting, smiling and flirting.

360-Degree Video: A Party in the Village

But in the hut next to the Solar House, a few men are continuing the argument that started earlier in the day when Zafitsiha spoke to the village. Each new solar unit costs 80,000 Malagasy ariary, or about 25 dollars. The villagers would normally have to pay at least 70 dollars, the true cost of manufacturing and transporting the units, but they have been heavily subsidized by Barefoot College, the Indian government and WWF. The environmental organization is hoping that the people of Tsaratanana will build fewer fires because of the solar lamps and will thus cut down fewer trees in the rain forest.

Despite the subsidized price, many families still can't afford to buy their own solar lamp. Instead, they rent a lamp from a neighbor from time to time. Families who own lamps can make a good bit of extra money by renting them out.

Village Residents Explain How Access to Light Has Changed Their Lives

Baclaudia, 30, and Merina, 47: "Since we got the solar lamp, our neighboring villages have admired us. They now consider us to be progressive."

At the same time, solar unit owners are trying to push down the fee that they are required to pay the community each month. Depending on the size and the prosperity of the household, owners are required to pay between 3,000 and 10,000 ariary a month, with the money going into a fund used to purchase replacements parts and to pay the salaries of the three women who install and maintain the solar units. But some in the village have stopped making the payments. They want the fee to be imposed only once a year, during harvest season.

In order to reduce the burden on the community, Zafitsiha, Philomene and Dotine have already agreed to cut their salaries by 50 percent to just 30,000 ariary, or around 10 dollars, each month. Zafitsiha has been forced to abandon her dream of buying a sewing machine -- and some in the village are already asking for new discounts.

Zafitsiha told the men that they would soon find themselves sitting in darkness again if they didn't pay. She noted that the performance of the solar batteries was already decreasing and that they would soon have to be replaced. But if people didn't pay their fees, there would be no money to buy new ones. The village now intends to create a list of who in the community owes money and how much. They then hope to find ways to collect the outstanding payments.

The village council also discussed the thieves who have been targeting Tsaratanana with increasing frequency. They come during the early morning hours when villagers are sleeping, sneak around the huts and try to steal the solar modules from the roofs. Many residents have begun taking their solar modules inside their huts when they go to bed.

On one occasion, a man from the village even stole the solar module from a neighboring family. The thief was quickly caught and was forced to give the family a zebu cow as punishment.

The Solstice

Barefoot College has ambitious plans for the future. By the end of 2017, it wants to have provided electricity to a million homes - twice as many as now. In the following years, it has even greater aspirations to provide electricity to entire regions. Meagan Fallone, head of global strategy at Barefoot College, wants to introduce "systemic change."

Projects like the one in Tsaratanana are essentially pilot projects aimed at showing the governments of each country that electricity can be provided to communities quickly and inexpensively using the Barefoot method. If the government is convinced, the hope is that it will jump in to finance further projects.

Often, though, there is a lot of talk but little action. In Madagascar, for example, the government announced that it intended to provide around 630,000 households in 744 villages with electricity together with Barefoot College by 2030. There are also plans for a local chapter of the college on the island. So far, though, the only concrete plans are for providing electricity to two small villages in the northern part of the country by the end of 2018. And Barefoot College still hasn't seen any of the money for those projects.

In many other countries around the world, expansion has also stalled. Negotiations with governments have unfortunately been "very slow," says Fallone.

But maybe it doesn't matter. It might even be a good thing, allowing more time to better understand the myriad social consequences that solar units have in villages like Tsaratanana. And to come up with potential solutions.

This could help Barefoot College avoid a situation where it accelerates expansion only to realize later that it has created more problems in the villages than it has solved. Solar engineers like Zafitsiha would surely be grateful for such prudence.

At the edge of Tsaratanana, a path leads into the nearby hills. One evening, Zafitsiha walked up the path to look down on her handiwork from above. The huts in the valley and on the hillsides were brightly lit and Zafitsiha felt strong and proud.

She brought light to her village, just as she had promised to do. And she swore to herself to do everything in her power to keep it from going out.


Author: Stefan Schultz

Photos: Bernhard Riedmann, Barefoot College, Getty Images

Videos und 360-degree-videos: Bernhard Riedmann

Editing: Stefan Kaiser, Heike Klovert und Jule Lutteroth

Research and fact-checking: Almut Cieschinger, Klaus Falkenberg and Maximilian Schäfer

Photo editing: Nasser Manouchehri

Programming and information graphics: Anna-Lena Kornfeld, Chris Kurt, Michael Niestedt, Philipp Seibt and Achim Tack

Coordination: Anna Behrend and Philipp Seibt

This report is part of the Expedition BeyondTomorrow project.