Since 1970, April 22 has been celebrated annually as World Earth Day with events all over the globe to demonstrate support for the protection of the environment. Many of the events are symbolic and are focused mainly on raising awareness about environmental issues. A welcome development is the increased attention to the role of women and girls as agents of change, particularly in underdeveloped communities, not just on World Earth Day, but every day.
Recognizing this, Diwata-Women in Resource Development Inc. (Diwata), together with the Philippine Mine Safety and Environment Association (PMSEA) and the Land Rover Club of the Philippines (LRCP) (collectively, the “Project Partners”), with the support of the Embassy of India in the Philippines, embarked on a project called “Tanging Tanglaw: Turning IP Grandmothers into Solar Engineers.” It aims to empower indigenous peoples (IP), particularly grandmothers (i.e., mature women who are no longer the primary caregivers of their families) by teaching them how to harness solar power to light up their communities.
The project involves sending illiterate and unskilled women to the Barefoot College in Tilonia, India, to attend a six-month training course on solar engineering, specifically, fabricating, installing, repairing and maintaining solar lighting equipment. The Barefoot College was founded by Sanjit “Bunker” Roy, named one of TIME Magazine’s most influential people in 2010. The Barefoot College provides training in, among others, solar technology, in the belief that even the uneducated poor have the right to use technologies to improve their life and skills.
Based on the many years of experience of the Barefoot College, women, rather than men, are specifically chosen because, after receiving their training, the women return to their villages to influence daily life and play a major role in their development rather than migrating to other places as men or younger community members might.
The Project Partners arranged the logistics and assisted the Barefoot College and the government of India to select a group of four Aeta women, namely, Evelyn Clemente, Sharon Flores, Cita Diaz, and Magda Salvador (a.k.a the “Solar Lolas”) to undergo a six-month, live-in training at the Barefoot College. Evelyn and Sharon are from Gala, Zambales, while Cita and Magda are from Bamban, Tarlac. They departed for India on September 16, 2014, and returned on March 16, 2015. Their return has generated much interest from the media and the general public.
During their six months of training at the Barefoot College with other women from different countries, the four grandmothers learned solar engineering and other livelihood activities, such as making mosquito nets and sanitary napkins. Learning complex new concepts and interacting with people of different cultures built their self-confidence and fueled their desire to be agents of positive change in their villages. One of the highlights of their training was a meeting with United Nations Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the UNDP Headquarters in New Delhi.
Upon returning to their respective villages, each pair of solar grandmothers will be responsible for solar-electrifying 100 households. In the case of Bamban, Tarlac, electrification is currently nonexistent and most of the households use kerosene lamps for lighting. On the other hand, electricity is available in Gala, Zambales, but not all the families avail themselves of it. The Solar Lolas will assume the responsibility for installing and maintaining the solar panels and lamps for a minimum of five years.
Once the communities are solar-electrified, qualitative improvements in the communities’ standard of living are expected, as the members will be able to use electrical appliances and gadgets, enabling them to become more productive. The children, in particular, will be able to study at night, learn to use computers, and possibly access the internet.
In the year since the Solar Lolas returned from India, the Project Partners have worked hard to raise the amount of P2.6 million for each community of 100 households. As of this writing, the required solar equipment have arrived from India and are awaiting release by the Bureau of Customs. The Solar Lolas are expected to begin installing them in the two pilot communities within the next two to three months.
The response to Tanging Tanglaw has been most gratifying. Support has poured in not just from corporations that are keen on adopting this business model as a corporate social responsibility initiative, but also from individuals who have contributed modest amounts to add to the project fund.
Other like-minded organizations, such as the Filipina CEOS Circle, and even the Bases Conversion and Development Authority and Clark Development Corp., have stepped forward to provide support.
It has been pointed out to that cheaper solar panels are available locally. However, our project does not simply involve providing lights, but also giving our Solar Lolas and their communities the means to improve their lives. I personally witnessed how shy and unsure our Solar Lolas were when they departed for India. Upon meeting them at the airport as they stepped off their flight, I was completely amazed at how their training transformed them into confident, self-assured and articulate role models for their communities.
In communities abroad where the Barefoot College model has been successfully implemented, solar electricity has been provided to schools, hospitals, local administration offices, religious buildings and community centers. Most important, the projects have managed to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, slow the negative impacts of deforestation and decrease air pollution from burning firewood and kerosene. It is envisioned that the local communities served by our Solar Lolas will derive similar benefits, if it takes one household at a time. More important, the Solar Lolas are now themselves beacons of light who have the power to change others.