View full series
Technology

Bringing power to the people

Andrianambibina Yollande doesn’t have time for bedtime stories. She is too busy fixing high-tech solar panels.

She is part of a small voluntary group in the rural village of Ambakivao, Madagascar, known as the ‘solar grandmothers’, older women who have trained as solar engineers.  

Their mission is simple: install and maintain rooftop solar panels so that they and their fellow villagers can enjoy safe, clean light. It’s going well so far: they have installed and repaired more than 200 solar panels since they started six years ago.

“I volunteered because I wanted to contribute to the development of my village,” says Grandma Yollande. “We are so proud to have gained electricity. We can work late at night and congregate together. Our kids don’t have to live with gas lamps; they live with electricity. It is bright. They can see and are motivated with studies.”

Many are not as fortunate. The World Bank estimates that 1.1 billion people live without electricity. That’s over 15% of the global population. The problem is most acute in rural areas, where over 27% live off-grid. The situation is much worse in countries of extreme poverty. A staggering 98% of the population live without electricity in Liberia and 97% do so in South Sudan.

Enter Barefoot

The solar grandmothers formed with help from Barefoot College, a social enterprise that trains women, often grandmothers, to be solar engineers. Most are illiterate and have received little formal education, let alone any science schooling. Yet they make excellent technicians.

“Illiterate people process information very differently to those with a formal education,” explains Meagan Fallone, CEO of Barefoot. “They see everything as a series of snapshots in their brain, so forget nothing. This is actually an enormous strength because they can look at a panel’s circuit board, fix it three or four times, and then they’ve got it. Rather than looking at the skills that illiterate people don’t have, we look at what they do have and build on it.”  

It’s vital to train up an army of solar engineers because the charities and companies that were donating or selling solar panels before Barefoot forgot a key fact: they break and therefore their model is not sustainable.

When this happens beyond the typical two-year warranty period, villagers are plunged into darkness. They don’t fare much better if a panel breaks before then, as the huge distances owners must travel to get their faulty panels replaced means only 40% actually end up being fixed.  

The organization, which also provides villages with enough spare components to last three years, prides itself on working in ‘last-mile’ communities, where many private-sector panel retailers don’t operate. These villages don’t just lack power, but also basic infrastructure and education, let alone any form of banking system.  

Most communities don’t directly pay for the home systems. But they do contribute to the maintenance and repair of the equipment. Part of the fees goes to pay the solar engineers and part is reserved to change batteries after five years. Barefoot works with communities to calculate what they can afford to pay on a monthly basis. ‘Smart subsidies’ funded by donors help plug any shortfall.  

From engineers to entrepreneurs   

After a while, Barefoot noticed a remarkable development. Armed with their technical experience, the solar engineers began to ask permission to fabricate panels themselves to sell to other villages. But rather than doing so for personal benefit, they wanted to enrich the community.  

The organization responded by working with villages to help understand what the barriers to doing this might be. Then, they went about removing those barriers.

They quickly realized, however, that the engineers lacked the skills to translate commercial enterprise into positive economic and social change.

Seeing an opportunity, the organization launched a comprehensive training initiative called Enriche, which educates rural women in eight key areas, including digital literacy, human rights, women’s health and micro-enterprise. It has now been running for five years.

“Enriche gives women a wholistic experience of themselves, their abilities, their environment and their bodies,” says Fallone. “In conjunction with their mastery of the technology, it creates this tiger of a women who leaves the program after six months with an utterly different sense of her knowledge, power and what she can do. That is catalytic when she goes back to the community. She injects everyone with this and becomes a leader in her community.”    

Partnering to success

Barefoot is a success story. Founded in 1972, it now operates in 89 countries worldwide. It has brought solar power to more than 60,000 households and benefitted more than 700,000 people.

Fallone attributes its success to two factors: forming long-lasting strategic partnerships and operating like a commercial business.

In fact, nearly everything Barefoot does involves a specialist partner. Before it even sets foot in a village, it consults with an extensive network of 108 institutions, including the WWF and UN Women, to identify relevant communities. The partners, which are embedded in remote communities, also help ensure that the communities buy into the technology and the project.   

The organization also counts Apple as a partner. Apple has not only helped Barefoot develop a digital-data collection app for illiterate villagers but has also assisted it in securing a steady supply of circuit boards.

Now, national governments are asking to partner with Barefoot. In October this year, the Fijian Government signed a formal agreement to build a Barefoot College. To help Barefoot’s work further, it is also lowering import duties on solar-panel components.  

Partnering may not come easy to some charities, but Fallone believes it is essential because the challenge of solving local issues has grown in complexity. “A one-dimensional solution can’t work because the problem is too multifaceted,” she says. “You need to change your thinking about how you collaborate and leave your ego at the door. You might be part of the solution, but not own it, and no-one might know you are involved. But you have to be able to live with that. The reason you created the partnership is because of the impact, not for the PR.”

Act like a business

What advice would Fallone offer to other organizations? Aside from leveraging partnerships, she says it is essential to think and act like a modern commercial enterprise.

Like most big businesses, Barefoot meticulously collects data that provides it with insight into how it is performing. For example, it routinely collects information on the equipment it has installed and maintained, panel usage, and its social impact. Because many of the beneficiaries are illiterate, the organization has developed a text-free survey that anyone can answer, which helps measure the impact of its investments.

This rich data enables the organization to make better-informed decisions and helps it to justify those decisions to donors.

Taking risks is also essential. Each year, companies bet that research and development will deliver new commercially successful products. So, why shouldn’t charities adopt a similar approach?

“We are a highly innovative and entrepreneurial organization,” says Fallone. “For example, we have an R&D department, which is quite unusual for a social enterprise of our size. Donors are often reluctant to fund innovative programs, but there is no reason why social enterprises shouldn’t do this.”

It’s not easy for not-for-profits to start acting in this way. After all, many do not possess the data analytics or risk-taking entrepreneurial skills required. But these can be learned. Perhaps they should take inspiration from Grandma Yollande.

Up next in