It seems implausible that an illiterate person can master the intrigue of solar energy. However, there are many illiterate female engineers who illuminate and improve the lives of their communities. Marie Tsimadiro is 47 years old, has nine children and 12 grandchildren. He cannot read or write and has dedicated his entire life to cultivating the fields for the sustenance of his family. But, now, this Malagasy grandmother combines the hoe with the repair and installation of solar panels and lamps in Ranomay, a remote rural community of 670 inhabitants in the Atsimo-Andrefana region, in south-western Madagascar.

Marie along with Marinasy, Tsiampoizy and Modestine, grandmothers the first two and mothers the second two, were chosen by their neighbors to undertake an intercontinental adventure that would change the daily life of their community. In September 2018, the four women who had barely traveled 10 kilometers from Ranomay, traveled 6,000 to Tilonia, in India. There they attended for six months the training on photovoltaic solar energy taught by the Pies Descalzos University (Barefoot College), founded by the social activist Bunker Roy. “My family at first objected, they said that the villagers had never been away, that I couldn’t speak English or French. It was my mother who convinced them by telling them to look at themselves, that because they had not left they had not progressed and that I had to go to bring development, “says Tsiampoizy, the youngest of all.

The Solar Mammas program, started in 2008, aims to train illiterate mothers and grandmothers in the design, installation and maintenance of solar systems to sustainably illuminate the remote and inaccessible areas from which they come. They must be between 35 and 50 years old, not pregnant or breastfeeding and have family approval. Since the vast majority never went to school, the teaching method is based on the chromatic language: “We did not know their language, but we learned the important words, they taught us colors to distinguish materials and thus we communicated,” says Marie. .

According to a 2015 study by the Rural Development and Electrification Agency (ADER), 84% of the population of Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world, does not have access to electricity. The accessibility rate in rural areas does not exceed 6%. To address this energy poverty and promote renewable energy, Barefoot College Madagascar partnered with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in 2012 and together they implemented the Solar Mamas project on the fourth largest island in the world. Today, with the help of the country’s Ministry of Water, Energy and Hydrocarbons, the pairing has trained almost 40 women, given birth to more than 2,000 homes and started twelve training centers. The president of Barefoot College Madagascar, Voahirana Randriambola, says that her goal, by 2030, is to train 744 solar moms who will end the gloom of 630,000 homes in a sustainable way.

And there was light in Ranomay

It is seven o’clock in the afternoon and darkness hangs over Ranomay. Tovondray (18 years old) and Lahininiko (16) study for their math exam, while a chicken flies freely around the room. A portable solar lamp helps young people do their exercises without having to figure out the numbers in gloom. Before having access to that light bulb, both studied under the light of a battery-powered flashlight, provided they had managed to find the batteries (a common good in the West, but difficult to access in Malagasy rural areas). 20 meters away, Noëlson (55), his father, runs the typical African store: a stall with “a little bit of everything.” “My store is the only one in the four villages that make up Ranomay. Before, it closed at six in the afternoon, but thanks to solar energy kits I can open until ten, ”he says with a smile that reveals his pride in being an entrepreneur.

The electrification of Ranomay has been a dream come true. There are fewer duck thefts and it has improved everyone’s life

In the village of Ranomay de Arriba, a few meters from the grocery store in Noëlson, stands the Solar House, a modest building that functions as an operations center. It is there that Marie, Marinasy, Tsiampoizy and Modestine repair, assemble and manipulate the different photovoltaic components that they install for their countrymen. They work alternate weeks in teams of two, so they can continue to dedicate themselves to their agricultural chores. Solar moms have lit 155 homes in just six months. Nantoany Sitra (50), general secretary of the TSIFA Ranomay community association, is in charge of distributing, managing and coordinating payments and installing the systems: “The electrification of Ranomay has been a dream come true. There are far fewer duck thefts and it has improved everyone’s life. For example, we no longer have to buy oil for kerosene lamps, which are a huge expense for the family economy, and children can do homework at night. ”

The population of this rural community is mainly dedicated to the primary sector. Livelihoods are very limited or almost nil. Therefore, to adapt to all kinds of pockets, the project offers various photovoltaic solar energy equipment at different prices: from a portable solar lantern with a solar panel included for 0.70 euros (3,000 MGA), to a very complete kit that includes a solar panel, 40W batteries, four portable flashlights and a solar charge regulator for the price of 2.41 euros (10,000 MGA). Each neighbor has a contract that includes repairs in case of breakage and must pay the monthly fee in person.

Realison goes to the Solar House with his lamp. Although he leaves the panel on the door of his hut to catch all the rays of the sun, he cannot charge the battery and his lamp does not light up at night. Marie and Marinasy get down to work to restore the light to their neighbor. The 23-year-old fisherman says that the children became ill from the smoke from kerosene lamps and burning wood, and that sunlight has helped the development of his town. This is also how Marinasy sees it: “Now our town shines at night. I am very proud because thanks to us, the solar techniques, our life has changed, the light has changed us, ”she says, her face lit with happiness. A change that is not only manifested in the form of light, but has also allowed women to empower themselves and take on another role in rural society. They have become ambassadors for the progress of their communities: “I believe that men and women now have the same rights,” says Marie.

Light up the future efficiently

One of the infinite uses that light has, and perhaps the most obvious, is that of lighting us. In countries with more resources, turning a switch on and off is an act that goes unnoticed in our daily lives. However, as the World Bank points out in a report published in 2019, 840 million people worldwide do not have access to electricity, and more than half are concentrated in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa (573 million). They use candles, wood, and kerosene lamps to light up at night, killing more than a million people each year. Therefore, the transformation of sunlight into energy is an efficient and healthy way of illuminating the future of these populations.

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 Tovondray and Lahininiko study in their living room. Juan Maza

The director general of the UN Organization for Education, Science and Culture, Audrey Azoulay, affirms that the natural benefits and the scientific and technological applications of light are very important to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda. The implementation of photovoltaic solar energy not only contributes to achieving goal 7 of the SDGs, which aims to guarantee access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all, but includes collateral benefits. It reduces poverty, avoids exposing people to unhealthy fumes, while reducing air pollution, plays an essential role in the world of education, and empowers women in rural areas.

Light is a tireless source of energy, benefits and benefits to be celebrated. For this reason, every Friday night, in Ranomay they pay him a very special tribute. Thanks to a solar generator installed by the four experts, large and small, they gather around the only television set in the community. They had never seen a movie before, they had never been exposed to the lights, colors and shapes that emerge from the screen. The children, amazed, celebrate each sound that the television emits. And so, with this particular ritual, the power of light becomes tangible, which not only generates development, but also draws smiles and radiates happiness.

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