Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Solar Cookers and Grass Roots Education at the Barefoot College

It's hard to believe that a year has passed since we visited the Barefoot College in Tiloniya, Rajasthan. Desperate to break off from the tourist trail, we travelled by bus from the Pushkar camel fair, onto a train from Ajmer to Kishangarh, then jumped into a jeep for the last leg to Tiloniya. Tiloniya is a tiny town, and the train stops only once a day. There is no problem finding the Barefoot College, especially if one of the residents has jumped off the jeep with you.

Set up in 1972 by Bunker Roy, the Barefoot College is a home-grown NGO with a beautiful philosophy and effective world-changing approaches. The barefoot concept was best summed up by resident, Ram Nivas, who told the story of the beginnings of the Barefoot College radio station. A local man, Raju, had discovered upon rewiring his transistor, that it was able to pick up the signal from his cb radio. Experimentation led him to set up a local radio station, Raju Radio, which featured local news, reports of missing water buffalo and musical requests from the community. When the media bureaucracy got wind of Raju Radio, operating without a licence, they shut him down. Raju now works at the Barefoot College radio station, in a studio lined with recycled egg cartons for soundproofing. He is the classic example of a Barefoot engineer, with minimal schooling, a head for innovation, using what he has available to create useful tools for his community.

Situated in the Rajasthan desert, Tiloniya receives an average of 400mm of rainfall annually, all of which falls in a period of four days. In the last few years they have received little more than 200mm annual rainfall. Across Rajasthan water issues are at crisis point. With years of drought, well water is increasingly brackish and the water table is rapidly sinking. Barefoot College is working on this in a number of capacities. The entire college is situated on underground water tanks which collect thousands of litres of water annually. This was the only place in India in which we drank the water directly from the well, with no further purification required. They are implementing education programs on rainwater harvesting in villages through puppet shows and theatre. The puppet workshop was a sight to be seen. There were puppets of animals, political figures, there was even a puppet of the founder, Bunker Roy in the mix.

One of the most impressive of their projects is the solar barefoot engineer program. While we visited, a group of women from African villages without electricity were spending six months training as solar engineers. They would return home to set up solar electricity workshops to run solar lanterns for their villages, with the capacity to wire and repair any part of the system that broke down. This is all funded and run by a home-grown NGO in India and it works. It works because the people setting up and maintaining the systems have both the skills and the interest to keep it going. Impressed yet? There are a number of other programs running across the College. A recycling workshop uses paper and other recycled materialss to create toys, tools and bags for the Barefoot College gift shop. I particularly liked this simple maths tool that was used in one of the evening school programs.

My favourite program by far at the Barefoot College was the manufacture of solar cookers. Three times a day I sampled the meals cooked with the solar cookers, experiencing the joy they created through sight, smell and taste along with an appreciation of their engineering. The solar cookers are constructed from materials that are readily available at the local marketplace. The mirrors are individually cut from glass and painted with reflective paint before being wired onto the frame. Recycled bike cogs are used to create a clockwork system that allows the cooker to follow the path of the sun from morning to night.

The parabolic shape of the cooker focuses the sun's energy onto the cooktop for cooking rice and stews in pots or frying in a pan. Every now and again I'd walk across the path of the focused rays, forgetting their power. Ouch, hot! Sensibly, the specifications for building these cookers was written to scale on the floor of the workshop, (see pic below right).

These cookers are manufactured for sale by women at the Barefoot College, creating both livelihood and an alternative to cooking using wood-burning stoves.

Not much food is grown locally, due to the dimishing rainfall in this area. All grey water at the Barefoot College is put into groundwater recharge, and the overflow from the well is channeled to a small pond for water buffalo. A local tree, Babul, which I later identified as Babul Acacia Nilotica also has medicinal properties. A very spiky tree, I saw the branches wrapped around trees in the college to protect them from grazing goats.

The Barefoot College also runs a small hospital which places great value in preventative homeopathic medicine and a shop selling handcrafts by local artisans. We heard a lot about Neem and its medicinal and dental uses. The Barefoot College provide accommodation and three meals a day, along with chai in the evening. There is a comprehensive library on site which is the perfect place to laze around on those hot Rajasthani afternoons. They'll show you around all their workshops and there is much cricket and fun to be had in the evenings if you seek it out. For 2000 rupees per person per night. See more at their website.

Babul branches protecting tree from goats


Patricia McArdle said...

Thank you so much for your comments on and photos of the barefoot college women working on solar cookers. Solar Cookers International would like to use this information on the solar cooking archive wiki and in our hard copy journal "The Solar Cooker Review". I am preparing a short YouTube documentary about the Scheffler parabolic solar cookers, which were in the photos included in your blog. I would like to get your permission to use some of these photos. You will receive credit in my You Tube video.
Pat McArdle

Sam Downing said...

More photos of my visit to the Barefoot College at

Samantha Downing said...

Pat, could you leave a link to the Solar Cooking archive wiki in these comments?

Solar cookers said...

Hi, I think you could be interested to add a link to my website that can interest you: ;)

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