Mary Dao, on the right corner, demonstrates to students how to compile some of the components. Only a Handful of students are now available in what used to be a very populated training hall

Women in West Africa are swimming against the current to get solar energy in clinics

For every 100,000 live births in Sierra Leone, 1,360 mothers die, which makes the country one of the riskiest places to give birth. A group of women–The Barefoot Women–want to change this, but ahead of them lies a daunting challenge.
For every 100,000 live births in Sierra Leone, 1,360 mothers die, which makes the country one of the riskiest places to give birth. A group of women–The Barefoot Women–want to change this, but ahead of them lies a daunting challenge.

The Barefoot Women’s College sits plainly along a busy highway, on the outskirts of Freetown, capital of the Western African country of Sierra Leone. What should be a busy sight with students learning how to install solar panels is dead quiet. Instructors start to worry.

Half a dozen of the college’s instructors looked dejected as they lined up on either side of a long wooden bench. They wish that students could come, but the vast training hall is deserted. On the table before them are bundles of wires, solar lamps, switches and other training materials. The blackboard bears illustrations on how to assemble solar panels and different color codes. 

The ‘Barefoot’ (naked foot) Solar Engineers of Sierra Leone (commonly called the Barefoot Women), are mostly illiterate and semi-illiterate rural women in Port Loko district, northern Sierra Leone. They started as a soap making and backyard gardening cooperative and ended up becoming a group of solar energy experts. 

Their cooperative became so popular among village women that the government decided to select a handful of them in 2010 to receive training in solar installation and maintenance at the Barefoot college in India. Equipped with the necessary skills, these women returned home determined to connect their communities to solar energy.

Their inability to read and write is no obstacle to replicating their knowledge. They designed courses that enable students to learn, through listening and memorizing, using color-coded charts to help them remember the arrangement and combination of wires. Since their return, they have trained over 300 rural women in solar installation and maintenance. 

Affected by the harrowing conditions pregnant women and their unborn babies suffer during childbirth, the women motivate themselves to electrify rural clinics to improve healthcare. They have managed to light up over 60 community clinics in different locations across northern Sierra Leone. 

A training instructor looking through one of the components

Swimming against the tide

Before coronavirus came, the Barefoot women college used to enroll up to 50 students on four-month residential courses in solar engineering, but the pandemic has badly destabilized operations.  

Right now, times are hard, says Mary Dao, a solar engineer and the deputy head of Barefoot Women’s College. “Things are really hard for us; even to get students to enroll has been difficult because of the coronavirus pandemic,” she cries out.

“The government used to give us a monthly stipend to keep the college going. But, we have not received anything for over one year now,” she says. 

Another solar engineer and trainer at the college, Isatu Bangura, says that the pandemic had devastated their income stream to the extent that they now have to depend on soap making, and bread baking to keep them going. Right now, the college is out of training materials, Bangura says, which makes it complicated for instructors to provide effective teaching. 

“Our components– the transformer, IC, transistor, coil etc.–have all finished,” Bangura points out. She went on, “without these, we just provide basic training by showing students the color codes, how to go through the resistance, and how the components function on the board etc.”

Even though the government of Sierra Leone had already invested some $820,000 on the Barefoot women project, the funding gap remains dire. Solar units cost anywhere between $500-$800, which are very expensive for most rural households. Although the government wants to reduce the tax so benefits are passed on to customers and access to solar power increases, there is still a long way to go.  

Dao points to the different color codes on the white board.

Delivering a baby at night can be risky

Power is an expensive commodity for rural clinics, especially for those that are cut off from the national grid. The ongoing Covid-19 has worsened what was already a worrying situation. 

Diversion of resources to fight the pandemic now means that community health centers will starve of much needed repairs and maintenance. It also means that women will continue to seek care and give birth under enormously strenuous conditions in often ill-equipped facilities, if they had access at all. 

Inspired by their own experiences, this group of women figured that by installing solar panels in clinics, they can save pregnant women and their babies from dying in a country where maternal deaths account for a staggering 36% of all deaths amongst women aged 15-49 years. 

Delivering a baby at night can be especially risky in Sierra Leone, because the health facility could be without lighting. According to a USAID funded project, 79% of peripheral health posts (PHUs) lacked continuous electrical power. Healthcare providers in these facilities worked in strenuous conditions and were often forced to rely on handheld lanterns or flashlights from mobile phones while delivering pregnant women at night. 

This increased the likelihood of mothers and babies dying through complications that required functioning electricity for resuscitation, warmth from radiant heaters, and operative delivery. Not much has changed. 

Dao, the deputy head of the college, reckons that solar is the answer to the deplorable power needs at the grassroots.  “It is very cheap and clean and it answers the energy problems we face at the community level,” she says.

According to a World Bank report, the country’s electricity needs are the most daunting infrastructure challenge. Add to this the cost of providing basic healthcare for the population, in one of the world’s poorest nations, then you can appreciate the challenges. 

“It is important to provide these clinics with electricity because light is life and by doing so, we save lives and serve our communities,” Dao insists. She went on, “some of our members have lost loved ones during childbirth when there was no electricity in most clinics.”

The power that the Barefoot Women provide helps clinics with a cold chain facility that allows for storage and transportation of vaccines at recommended temperatures. The women also install solar pumps that help harvest water from wells into tanks, helping clinics access clean water, a very limited resource in health facilities.

Dr. Omar Saleh is the head of Brama Community Health Center, just a few kilometers away from the Barefoot Women’s College. Saleh oversees a health center that provides services to nearly 5,000 people from different communities. He says that the solar panels installed in his facility have allowed him to attend to patients with ease, especially dealing with emergency cases at night. 

“My nurses and I relied on small Chinese lamps or lights from our mobile phones to deliver women at night. Those were very challenging and dangerous times,” he says.

Now, Saleh and his colleagues no longer have to depend on lamps or mobile phones to attend to pregnant women, all thanks to the solar energy provided by the Barefoot Women. 

Some of the solar panels in the Barefoot Women’s training hall

For these women, light is life

Energy statistics are hard to find in Sierra Leone, but it is public knowledge that very few people have access to electricity. Things may have improved slightly, but more than 90% of people in urban areas go without power. Petrol or diesel generators are often used because most of the regions lack a stable public power supply. Battery lamps or candles are mainly used and charcoal remains the main cooking fuel for the vast majority. 

About 96,8% of the population relies on firewood or charcoal for cooking. Petroleum products take up 13%, while grid connected energy accounts for the remaining with most of the energy used in households. 

This means that Sierra Leone has vast potential for renewable energy in the form of biomass from agricultural wastes, hydro and in particular, solar power, which remains virtually untapped. 

Despite its huge potential, the country still grapples with one of the world’s lowest rates of modern energy access, with only 15 percent of the total population having access to electricity, and just two per cent of those in rural areas.

With the growth of solar energy in cities helping to diminish dependency on fossil fuels, and mitigating global warming by lowering the emission of greenhouse gasses, the Barefoot Women think that with increased funding, they will reach more communities with clean and affordable power. 

”Solar does not release toxic carbon into the air; it keeps a low carbon footprint and it is less expensive,” Dao points out. But health facilities in rural areas are forced to rely on old generators that are prone to frequent breakdowns. In addition to the noise, the generators emit toxic carbon dioxide that often pollutes the entire clinic environment. 

This is what Dao and her colleagues want to address at the grassroots. But, with dwindling government funding and coronavirus squeezing the life out of their operations, Dao knows that they face an existential threat, unless students return or the government gives more money to revive the college.

Abdul Brima
Abdul Brima is a Sierra Leonean journalist currently based in Freetown. He has worked as a broadcaster, editor, journalism trainer/mentor, multimedia producer and freelance writer for over 10 years.