The Barefoot College: Empowering the Rural Poor


The Barefoot College is an innovative non-profit organization inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi to provide a better life for the world’s rural poor through practical education and appropriate technology. Along the way, they have empowered women, improved environmental sustainability, and spread the principles of cooperative community problem-solving to hundreds of thousands of people through rural India, and in 19 other poor countries around the world.

How They Work

The Barefoot College takes as its students the most marginalized members of society, most of whom are illiterate or semi-literate and living on $1 or less per day. The vast majority of students in the Barefoot College’s primary programs are women, often middle aged or even elderly, though many boys attend the night schools offered to educate children who are too busy with chores and household work during the day to attend school. The college also focuses some programs on enabling physically handicapped men, women, and children to improve their lives. The College deliberately avoids giving out diplomas or other certificates on the grounds that many members of the rural poor who receive such certificates are lured away to urban areas by the promise of better jobs, only to find themselves living in slums. The College regards its graduates as being certified by their local communities by demonstrating their competence and experience.

One of the Barefoot College’s most well-known programs is its rural solar electrification program. The Barefoot College trains community members from remote villages without electricity to install, maintain, and repair inexpensive solar panels, solar cookers, and solar lighting units. Generally these students are middle-aged women, because the College has found that they are the least likely to take their new skills and leave for a better job elsewhere, and the training is conducted without written material, so that even illiterate villagers are able to complete it. The Barefoot College has trained more than 400 “Barefoot Solar Engineers” who have collectively installed over 900 kilowatts of solar power to more than 19,000 houses in 750 villages across 19 countries. In addition to providing electricity and a new livelihood to members of the rural communities they serve, the solar panels and solar lanterns installed by Barefoot Solar Engineers prevent about 100,000 liters of kerosene every month from polluting the environment.

Other programs include training students in installing and maintaining rainwater harvesting and groundwater replenishment technologies, teacher training, developing direct sales and marketing opportunities for rural artisans, and training rural health care workers such as midwives and health educators.

These programs put knowledge and technical skills in the hands of some of the most marginalized people in the world, empowering them to improve their lives and communities without depending on outside assistance.

How You Can Help

Friends of Tilonia (Tilonia is the village in Rajasthan where the first Barefoot College was founded) is a US-based, tax exempt non-profit that accepts individual and corporate donations to benefit the work of the Barefoot College. In addition to donating, you can browse the store to find a wide selection of home decor, clothing, and other products created by Barefoot College artisans.

You can also support the Barefoot College’s work by connecting with them on YouTube, Flickr, or Facebook.

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