Barefoot women solar engineers of Rajasthan train their African sisters on how to light up their villages with the renewable resource

It's an unexpected scene that you come across in the dusty plains of Kishangarh block in Rajasthan's Ajmer district -- women from several African countries being trained by their Indian sisters to become barefoot solar engineers.

Welcome to the world of solar energy in Tilonia village. Here the campus of Barefoot College has emerged as a leading international centre for training barefoot solar engineers. Under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme of the External Affairs Ministry, women from many underdeveloped countries come here regularly in small batches for training.

Speaking to trainees from Chad, Sierre Leone, Zambia, Nambia, Kenya and Tanzania, you learn that most of them are grandmothers from African villages who hoped to light up their hamlets with solar energy after returning from Tilonia. The necessary equipment would be sent in huge parcels even before they themselves leave Tilonia.

Follow-up records maintained at the Barefoot College reveal several success stories. Fatuma Ababker Ibrahim from Beyahile village in Afar (Ethiopia) made very good progress and returned to her village to install 90 fixed solar units. She also helped to start a rural electronic workshop in her village.

Gul Zaman, a 26-year old from Afghanistan, came to Tilonia with her husband Mohammed Jan. They returned to their community to provide solar electricity to around 50 houses.

The Tilonia project serves as an amazing example of women-to-women communication skills that can overcome in innovative ways despite crucial language barriers.

Most barefoot solar engineers under the project are provided six month training on vital technical details such as fabrication of charge controllers and inverters, printed circuit boards, testing, wiring, installation of solar panels, repair and maintenance.

Trainers Leela and Magan Kanwar, who are currently active at the college, underwent the same training a few years back. They also coped with many initial problems and found their own innovative ways of overcoming them. Having gone through the entire process themselves, they are better able to understand problems faced by their sisters of Africa.

The involvement becomes so close that many trainees are in tears at the time of leaving, reveals Leela.

At a time of increasing involvement with decentralised rural energy systems particularly solar energy, such a system of training barefoot solar engineers can prove very useful in increasing the self-reliance of rural communities in installing and maintaining solar energy systems.

While there is fierce debate about the transfer of renewal energy technology from rich to poor countries, Tilonia's training provides a great example of how much can be achieved by South-South technical cooperation.

Tilonia also conducts regular courses for trainees from remote areas within the country, including villages of Ladakh and other Himalayan areas.

The training has paid off. Several women with experience of solar energy work have got together to set up the Women Barefoot Solar Cooker Engineers' Society -- a registered association of rural women involved in fabrication and production of parabolic solar cookers.

This cooker can do the most environmental-friendly, cost effective, day time cooking on sunny days. Its design too is unique. The in-built spring and clock system is accurately set to complete one rotation in fixed time, and this in turn rotates the cooker to track the sun automatically, making the sunlight fall on all the 300 (9cm x 12cm) reflectors throughout the day. So once the cooker has been adjusted in the morning, uninterrupted cooking can be carried out the rest of the day. At Tilonia workshops cookers are fabricated using precise measurements by bending, welding and cutting. Such 2.5 sq.m parabolic solar cookers have been installed in nine villages and some institutions.

It is indeed remarkable that rural women with little formal education have not only learnt to make the cookers, but also travelled to other places to install the system successfully.