Disability Inclusion and Solar Power in Rural Paraguay

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Before taking a solar-engineering course in India, Lilian Britez (left) made decorative flowers for a living. She’s now bringing solar power to her community in Paraguay.

The weather app on my phone reads 40 degrees Celsius (104°F) when we arrive in Concepcion, a four-hour drive north of Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital. If Paraguay is “the heart of South America” – as locals refer to their country – we’re now standing somewhere in the left atrium. Crammed in Lilian Britez’s modest home, we wait as she manages her way onto a shiny blue wheelchair. Her crisp clothes, light makeup, and styled hair indicate that she’s prepared for our meeting. We cross the dirt road that divides her home from a small church and gather under the shadow of a large poplar to hear her story.

Now 45, Lilian became paraplegic at 16 when a stray bullet struck her spine. In spite of that, she lives an independent life, selling Avon products and, most recently, producing decorative flowers. She learned this new skill after joining a solidarity group of Fundación Paraguaya with 19 women in her community. This model, which Fundación Paraguaya calls comité de mujeres emprendedoras (committee of entrepreneurial women), allows women to acquire new skills, such as handicrafts and soap making, and get microloans to support or start new microenterprises.

Though she enjoys the extra income that’s resulted from her involvement with the Paraguayan nonprofit, Lilian has much higher aspirations: She wants to help bring electricity to families in her community. And she’s poised to do that through a partnership facilitated by Accion between Fundación Paraguaya and Barefoot College.

A Barefoot Movement

Founded by Indian social activist Bunker Roy in 1972, Barefoot College provides basic services and solutions to problems in rural communities, with the objective of making those communities self-sufficient. The organization focuses on five areas: the delivery of solar electrification, clean water, education, livelihood development, and activism. With a geographic focus on the least developed countries – including Paraguay – Barefoot College believes in empowering women as agents of sustainable change. In a TED talk filmed in 2011, Roy asks, “Who is a professional?” He then explains: “A professional is someone who has a combination of competence, confidence, and belief. A water diviner is a professional. A traditional midwife is a professional. A traditional bonesetter is a professional. These are professionals all over the world. You find them in any inaccessible village around the world. And we thought that these people should come into the mainstream and show that the knowledge and skills that they have are universal.”

Roy realized this decades ago, and over the last 40 years has been enabling the rural poor to use their creativity and intellect to solve some of the most intractable problems of their daily lives. Funded by the Indian government, philanthropic contributions, and revenue generated from the sales of products it produces, Barefoot College has improved the lives of thousands of adults and children through its myriad initiatives. The solar engineering program, launched in 2008, has trained more than 1,100 women from 64 countries. The result? More than 50,000 homes electrified – and counting.

Today, Barefoot College is going a step further and selecting women with disabilities to participate in its solar-engineering program. Surrounded by a crowd of family and friends, Lilian introduces herself to everyone under the tree: Fundación Paraguaya staff, Accion visitors, and Barefoot College’s Latin America director Rodrigo París, who flew in from his office in Colombia for the selection of Paraguayan candidates. Rodrigo describes the program: Lilian will travel to the village of Tilonia, India, at no cost to her to attend a five-month, six-days-a-week electrical skills training program with 50 other women from all over the world. She will live, eat, and learn with them for the duration of the course. There are no language requirements or academic prerequisites. Classes are taught in English with pictorial materials and lots of sign and body language. Rest assured, he says, she will be able to follow along. She will learn how to bring light to a house powered with solar panels. Though she won’t receive a college diploma, at the end of the program she’ll be considered a solar engineer. All Lilian needs now

Surrounded by a crowd of family and friends, Lilian introduces herself to everyone under the tree: Fundación Paraguaya staff, Accion visitors, and Barefoot College’s Latin America director Rodrigo París, who flew in from his office in Colombia for the selection of Paraguayan candidates.

Rodrigo describes the program: Lilian will travel to the village of Tilonia, India, at no cost to her to attend a five-month, six-days-a-week electrical skills training program with 50 other women from all over the world. She will live, eat, and learn with them for the duration of the course. There are no language requirements or academic prerequisites. Classes are taught in English with pictorial materials and lots of sign and body language. Rest assured, he says, she will be able to follow along. She will learn how to bring light to a house powered with solar panels. Though she won’t receive a college diploma, at the end of the program she’ll be considered a solar engineer.

All Lilian needs now is interest, and to be committed to completing the course and coming back to Concepcion to deliver solar power to her community. Upon her return, Fundación Paraguaya will help Lilian conduct a needs assessment to select the homes to be electrified using its “Poverty Stoplight”, a 50-question visual survey instrument to measure poverty. One of the measurements includes access to electricity.

Then, Barefoot College will support Fundación Paraguaya in identifying donor funding for the purchase of the solar panels. A volunteer committee made up of community members will help manage the installation of the panels and provide ongoing maintenance for the newly electrified homes – an electrical company of sorts – under Lilian’s guidance and supervision. Each home will pay four to six dollars per month. The committee will establish the exact amount in consultation with community members, and 60 percent of the income will go into a savings account to purchase new solar panels (the lifespan of a typical panel is five years), with 40 percent for Lilian’s salary.

After Rodrigo’s comprehensive explanation, Lilian sits up on her chair and, with a meek look, says: “I feel healthy and motivated. I’m excited to travel to India and come back with knowledge that will benefit more than just me.”

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“Ideas conceived from a desk are usually poor. Ideas conceived in the field are often great.” Rodrigo Paris (left), Latin America Director, Barefoot College.

Making the Solar Engineer

On April 10, 2014, Lilian boarded a plane for the first time in her life, bound for India. She and the two other Paraguayan women selected for the program had embarked on an experience that would forever change the course of their – and arguably other people’s – lives.

I caught up with her on the phone in late September, when she was back in Paraguay.

“How was India?” I asked.

“So many people,” she said. “So many strangers, everyone speaking languages I couldn’t understand. And the food was so hot! I survived on rice pudding and fruit.”

“And the college?”

“At first it was very hard. Nobody spoke Spanish, and we didn’t understand much. One day we cried. They spoke English and Hindi and the students spoke our languages. A lot of us broke into tears. But, eventually we learned to communicate and we became very close with each other. By the end of the semester we were crying again, this time because of having to say goodbye.”

Classes ran from nine to five, with a one-hour break for lunch. Lilian learned the basic principles of electricity. She learned how to mount all the components of a solar panel, including soldering circuit boards, connecting inverters, testing, and the entire process of how to make a solar lantern.

Portable solar lanterns are an important part of electrifying a rural village. Think about their many uses: for fishing or farming before dawn, fetching water after dusk, tending to a sick animal through the night, gathering with family outside in the evenings.

The classroom had 10 teachers, mostly women, who spent time one on one with the students. Students were also encouraged to assist each other, which was especially important for Lilian as she had to ask for help in negotiating the campus’s sandy pathways, where her wheelchair would often sink.

There were extracurricular activities and road trips – including a few days in Agra, where Lilian visited the Taj Mahal. In July, former president Clinton visited Barefoot College and met with the class of solar engineers.

“That handsome blond with the great blue eyes,” Lilian said about meeting Clinton. “I remember seeing him on television in Paraguay.”

That day, she also had a chance to meet Paraguay’s ambassador to India. “I asked to have a word with him,” she continued. “I told him this program is fantastic and that he needed to make sure more Paraguayan women have a chance to attend.”

Disability Inclusion

Two years ago, Fundación Paraguaya began working on financial inclusion for persons with disabilities (PWDs), a population vastly underrepresented and underserved by microfinance institutions. According to the World Health Organization, PWDs represent 15 percent of the world’s population, but some estimates indicate that they make up less than one percent of the world’s current microfinance clients. With Accion’s support, Fundación Paraguaya partnered with Nobel Peace Prize–winning Handicap International to take the first steps in becoming a fully accessible institution. Handicap International developed staff training and awareness-raising tools for Fundación Paraguaya. In addition, Accion supported Fundación Paraguaya in executing an initial assessment of physical accessibility (with Libre Acceso from Mexico) and analyzing how to use technology to facilitate disability access to financial and non-financial products.

“We had already been working for a number of years on the distribution of wheelchairs in partnership with the Wheelchair Foundation and the Mormon Church,” says Jimena Vallejos, project manager for disability inclusion at Fundación Paraguaya, “so working with Accion and Handicap International on a broader disability-inclusion initiative was a natural course of action.”

The partnership yielded another positive result: In January 2014, the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion published a framework for microfinance institutions seeking to close the financial-inclusion gap for PWDs. The reference publication, to which Fundación Paraguaya made significant contributions, covers six areas and includes implementation details to help financial institutions become more welcoming to PWDs. Fundación Paraguaya is implementing this framework.

This past June, Fundación Paraguaya received a grant from the United States Agency for International Development to develop a disability-inclusive program and business model for microfinance institutions – to show that serving PWDs is not only the right thing to do, but also profitable. The grant will also support the implementation of the Roadmap to Financial Inclusion and Fundación Paraguaya’s Poverty Stoplight program among families who have members with disabilities.

“When Accion connected us with Barefoot College and suggested we select women with disabilities for the solar engineering program, we jumped at the idea,” says Jimena. “It’s been amazing to see the change in these women. The women that came through Asuncion en route to India six months ago were different. They were slightly frightened and a bit insecure. They returned from India empowered – excited to start their [solar] projects. The change is wonderful. And we are hoping to send another group next year, if Barefoot College will have us.”

Illuminating the Future

But what happens after a solar engineer brings light to her village, her mini-“electric company” is under way, and Barefoot College has stepped aside?

“When we select a community for the program,” explains Rodrigo París, “we establish alliances with local universities to conduct impact assessments in the villages. We want to know what changed with the arrival of light at the family, community, and business levels.”

The results from these studies are used to suggest community improvements, such as building a library for children learning to read, or a workshop space for women to exchange handicraft skills.

Barefoot College’s five-year vision for Latin America is to build a campus in the region – as they have done in Sierra Leone and Zanzibar and will soon do in South Sudan – to train 100 to 200 women per semester rather than the two or three from each country who travel to India currently.

Rodrigo also wants to establish the first network of solar-engineer alumni in Latin America to foster communication, idea-exchange, and problem-solving.

But all of that needs financial support.

“Ideas conceived from a desk are usually poor,” says Rodrigo. “Ideas conceived in the field are often great. Come visit Barefoot College. Once you see the magic, once you meet these courageous women, you will want to support us.”

“Ultimately,” he continues, “what we are trying to do is to strengthen, educate, and empower women, and through them – because they are the core of a family and a community – to bring light. And the light will light ideas, give hope, and foster positive change.”

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