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Disenfranchised women are lighting up the remote villages of Zanzibar

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Women aged between 35 and 55, many of whom have never learned to read or write, are among those being trained as community solar engineers for a project that brings electricity to rural villages on the islands of Zanzibar.

Electricity in the Zanzibar archipelago is reportedly unreliable and covers only about half of the islands’ homes. According to the news site The East African, the region’s entire energy grid depends on an underground cable that connects it to the mainland. This cable was damaged in 2009, bringing with it three months of darkness.

The Barefoot College, a non-profit social enterprise, has been tackling the challenges facing poor rural communities, with the objective of making them self-sufficient and sustainable. It has now become an integral part of an energy solution for Zanzibar.

The organisation explains that its “Barefoot Solutions” can be broadly categorised into the delivery of solar electrification, clean water, education and livelihood development. The “college”, which is also active in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Liberia and South Sudan, has been committed to empowering women as change agents, entrepreneurs and environmental stewards for 42 years.

Barefoot College Zanzibar provides education for those who have never had that opportunity before. By teaching practical skills on solar energy, beekeeping and sewing, it is providing knowledge that inspires sustainable and fair solutions across East Africa.

Communities in participating villages are asked to nominate two women aged between 35 and 55 to leave their families and travel to the college to train as engineers. Trainees in the programme are often illiterate or semi-literate women living on less than US$1.20 a day who maintain strong roots in their rural villages and play a major role in community development, bringing sustainable electricity to their remote villages.

Read: “No child should study in the dark”: Solar-powered school bags changing Cote d’Ivoire’s education

Quoted by Reuters, Fatima Juma Haji, a solar engineer trainer at Barefoot College in Zanzibar, said, “When you educate a woman, you educate a whole community. When you educate a man, he will not stay in the village; he will go away. But when you educate a woman, she goes back to her village and helps her community improve.”

Solar electrification not only reduces CO2 emissions but also slows the negative impacts of deforestation and decreases air pollution caused by burning firewood and kerosene.

Haja, a 36-year-old solar engineer trainee, vegetable farmer and mother of three children from a village on Unguja, said, “We struggle a lot to get lighting. When you don’t have electricity, you can’t do many things, like teach children. It forces you to use a lamp. The smoke is harmful; the eyes and the chest are affected… When the electricity is there, it is better.”

Another trainee, Aisha Ali Khatib, a mother of nine, added, “We only use a lamp inside. The lamp uses paraffin. Buying one spoon of paraffin is 200 shillings (US$0.09) but I can go for two days without making 200 shillings.”

Women on the project spend five months living and training at the college, after which they return to their villages and set up solar lighting systems for their family and neighbours. Households then pay a few dollars a month for power, which is a cheaper option than buying paraffin or electricity from the grid. Some of the money is also used to pay the engineers a salary in return for maintaining the village’s equipment, or it is invested back into community projects.

Women who attended the Barefoot College and became solar engineers say they have benefitted by gaining a stable income stream and a new sense of independence and respect in their village communities.

“We have been given a better life because when we leave here, we will be engineers and we will go back to teach others,” said Haja. “When I go back I will have status. I will be knowledgeable and I will be proud.”

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