Illiterate grandmothers — solution to what problem?

In my recent ‘Politics of Development’ lecture, my students and I analysed the uplifting case of the Barefoot College. This inspiring initiative set up by the Indian social activist Bunker Roy, is best known for its ‘Barefoot Solar Engineer’ programme. Bringing together rural illiterate women from all over the world, mostly grandmothers, it uses colour coding and sign language to teach them how to build and service solar panels.

At first glance this sounds like a straight forward development project focusing on sustainability and women empowerment. However, a closer look reveals how both the choices of investing in solar energy and recruiting grandmothers, were not its strategic objectives, but rather its strategic solutions. The question is — solutions to what problem?

One of the biggest challenges for development projects is figuring out the most efficient and impactful ways to inject new resources into a given socio-economic ecology. With economic aid inevitably moving elsewhere, success will depend on a project’s ability to create independent and self-sustaining momentums within the communities involved. But where do you start? From an outsider’s perspective, attention is naturally drawn to mapping existing gaps and needs. Yet as Bunker Roy travelled through rural villages in India over four decades ago, he seemed to take on a different perspective — exploring what they already had rather than what they so obviously lacked.

From an operational complexity perspective this makes complete sense, after all every existing community however destitute, is still a functioning complex social system. It has an economy, its members produce and allocate resources; it has physical structures, design and layout; it has socio-political arrangements with obvious power structures; and some form of an education system which passes existing knowledge from one generation to the next. As Roy explains in his famous TED talk, poor communities have their own professionals, expertise, and exchange networks. By directing new resources and information towards enhancing these already existing structures, programmes can become more effective, and most notably self-sustaining.

With this in mind, focusing on energy consumption makes complete sense. Like all functioning social systems, even the poorest of rural villages consumes energy. This consumption carries an obvious economic cost, whether in terms of time spent collecting wood, or money spent on batteries and kerosene lamps. Solar energy provides an obvious alternative good even when not free. In other words, this is a service that can naturally integrate into the village’s existing economic ecology. Moreover, it can create further positive effects on the community as a whole. In the case of the Barefoot College, it has meant that schools could be run at night, allowing the many children doing chores or taking care of animals by day to join in.

Training community members to build and service this new energy source themselves is an effective means of injecting new resources and knowledge into an existing system. Most importantly, once the knowledge and initial materials are delivered, these new local experts can independently expand it further, building and installing more panels as well as training others.

Now that we’ve understood the ‘what’, we can turn our attention to the question of ‘who’.

When investing new resources into a system, an obvious objective is to try and retain as much of them as possible. There is always a risk of leakage, especially as the form of investment in this case — training, is given at an individual level. Hence the question — who within the community is best positioned to carry and maintain this investment? The answer lies in the system’s social network structure. As Roy quickly realised, young men, while eager to learn, are most likely to take their new knowledge and try to capitalise on it by moving to the city. Women, are traditionally less mobile, and the least mobile women around are of course — grandmothers.

By investing in grandmothers, the Barefoot College assured its community investment will be effectively embedded and maintained within the local system. At the same time, with maximum links within the social network, these women are also best positioned to share their new knowledge and train others, thereby enhancing the investment’s effectiveness.

Still, this strategy also takes on a more subversive dimension. While providing a seemingly technical solution, like all knowledge it also carries power. By putting this power in the hands of older women this project challenges deeper social structures, thereby unleashing the potential for wide ranging development momentums for years to come.

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