‘Barefoot women’ light up villages using solar technology

By Kepher Otieno

When they were told they would bring light to their communities, they laughed it off. How could they achieve a feat that even the local MP had not been able to, they reasoned.

But that was in September last year when they were preparing to travel to India for a six-month training in ‘solar engineering’.

Eight months later Joyce Matunga, Phoebe Akinyi and Phoebe Jondiko have literally lit up the once dark and sleepy Gwassi and Suba districts in Nyanza.

Since returning home, the ‘barefoot solar engineers’ have been busy installing solar lighting systems in small and inaccessible villages in the districts.

Phoebe Akinyi and Phoebe Jondiko in the lab during their training in India.

The solar panels. Joyce Matunga (second right) and Phoebe Akinyi (third left) with other members of Green Forest Social Investment Trust.

Apart from installation, the women have taken charge of fabrication, repair and maintenance of the solar project.

According to Victor Ndiege of Green Forest Social Investment Trust (GFSIT), an NGO in charge of the project, they identified semi-literate women from villages without power and sent them to India.

Monthly subscriptions

Matunga and Akinyi were selected from Achung’ Kenda women group in Gwassi East while Jondiko was selected from Got Liech ACK women group in Gwassi South.

"We partnered with Barefoot College of India which trains semi-literate rural women to fabricate, install and maintain solar lighting systems in villages," says Ndiege.

He says the communities will sustain the project through monthly subscriptions ranging from Sh500 to Sh800.

The women have formed Village Solar Committee (VSC) whose members will sensitise villagers on their roles and responsibilities. They will also collect monthly fee from every household once the solar unit is fully installed.

The women admit at first they were reluctant to take the course. It had been years since they were in school and felt they would not understand it. Engineering was a totally new field to them but today they are glad they put their fears aside and travelled to Tilonia.

At a time when rural electrification is yet to penetrate many villages — and even where it has energy costs are beyond the reach of the rural poor — the villagers are elated about the project.

"We want the districts to explore renewable and sustainable alternative energy source," says Matunga, 56.

"The skills we have are great and must be turned into an economic utility to reduce poverty," adds Akinyi.

Their aim is to implement, demystify and decentralise solar technology to rural communities.

Over the years the remoteness of certain rural locations and topography has made expansion of electricity supply difficult.

"This is the right time to develop a cohesive programme for rural communities that have little or no prospect of benefiting from the national electricity supply grid," says Ndiege.

He was optimistic that the provision of alternative energy would directly result in improvement in the income of poor communities.

The equipment for the project is at sea en route to Mombasa Port and is expected to arrive in the next two months, according to Ndiege. The homes will have power before the end of the year.

The pilot solar project demonstrates how solar energy can be used to enhance the quality of life of low-income earners in remote villages. Solar energy not only provides an appropriate alternative for heating, cooking and lighting but also contributes significantly to progress in education, health, and agriculture, "Lighting provided by solar energy can be used to run literacy courses in the evening for children and adult working in the fields during the day," says Ndiege.

Matunga and Jondiko say solar power can be used to run irrigation pumps and grinding mills and save thousands of litres of diesel a day.

"This is important for increasing incomes as well as food security for vulnerable families," says Akinyi.

First project

The project aims to empower women by training them as ‘barefoot engineers’. It will free rural women from walking long distances to collect fuel wood and reduce health hazards associated with indoor burning of firewood.

"The use of solar energy will reduce environmental pollution and degradation by reducing use of firewood, diesel and kerosene," says Matunga.

The project is a collaboration between the Government of India under the International Technical Economic Co-operation and GFSIT.

This is the first project of its kind in Kenya, similar projects are going on in Northern Tanzania, Ghana, Mali, Uganda, Malawi, Benin and Cameroon among others In Africa by end of 2009, the Barefoot College had reached 15 developing countries, 72 poor villages, 5509 households electrified by 111 women solar engineers.

The Barefoot College is run and spearheaded by India-based-social entrepreneur Bunker Roy.

Besides lighting, plans are under way to establish two solar operated grinding mills in Olando and Got Kaliech with the help of Barefoot College. The equipment worth millions of shillings is yet to be transported to Gwassi.

A house where the mill will be installed has been acquired. Villages in Africa that have solar energy save up to 300,000 litres of kerosene per month. James Ogunde says the project will no doubt save many residents the agony of high fuel costs. Currently, majority uses kerosene and firewood for lighting and cooking.

They spend up to Sh950 per month. With the introduction of solar, villagers will pay only Sh400 per month.

"With this solar project we will never be in darkness again," says Ogunde.

Dorcas Anyango says the women are a blessing to the community. "I have enrolled for solar power installation after being in darkness for ten years," she says.

She is not alone. Several villagers expressed hope that the solar project would spur economic growth.

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