Solar engineers 'lighting the way' for other women, Tanzania

In Tanzania 60% of women live in absolute poverty even though they make up an estimated 80% of the agricultural labour force. Women are the main producers of cash crops, yet rarely gain access to the wealth they generate.

VSO volunteers in Tanzania manage a pioneering partnership in collaboration with UN Women to train rural, illiterate women as solar engineers. The women gain income-generating skills, improve the quality of life in their villages by increasing access to electricity, and also gain greater standing in their communities, playing an increased role in local decision-making.

A man's world

Forty year-old Arafa was born and raised in a remote village close to Mtwara (Southeast Tanzania). She remembers being forced out of school at a young age, and working the land after marrying an authoritarian husband. He spent any money she earned on himself.

It is painful for her to recollect the days when she didn’t have enough food to eat and clothes to wear. "I felt very bitter and betrayed. I was literally starving, and didn't have money for food or clothes," she said. At the age of 16 she had her first baby and two years later she gave birth again; both children died before they were five years old.

Things started getting better for Arafa when she gave birth to a third child, and remarried. The freedom she had to make decisions over her own life was greater than she had previously known, but even that can’t compare to what happened next.

A life-changing journey

Arafa is one of a handful of women selected by her village in 2011 to train as a solar engineer at the Barefoot Solar College in India. Challenging the patriarchal norms of her community, she spent six months alongside women from around the world getting to grips with circuit boards and soldering, equipping herself with the skills to power her village with solar electricity.

The pilot project is run by UN Women and India's Barefoot College, with VSO volunteers Lesley Reader and Maurice Kwame overseeing its implementation in Tanzania. Lesley describes why it focuses exclusively on women: "training women between the ages of 35 to 50 is a great investment because they return to their community instead of taking their skills to the city, which is often the case with younger men and women."

With the support of her second husband, Arafa embarked on an overseas journey she could never have dreamed of, a million miles away from the village she has lived in her entire life. "There was a big language barrier as the other women all came from countries like Uganda, Sudan, Bhutan, Malawi and Peru," says Arafa, "but we overcame this and bonded, communicating through sign language and slowly began looking after each other."

Electricity and empowerment

Arafa and her fellow engineer Sofia have fitted more than 60 solar installations in village homes. Many have benefitted including several village children who can now study using solar lanterns in their previously poorly lit homes.

But the real upshot of training rural women as solar engineers lies in the transformation they undergo as individuals and the impact this has on their community as they take on unprecedented leadership roles in their traditional villages.

Saidi Hamisi Namaruka, the 53 year-old local leader of the village said, "Nowadays those girls are heard. Even in the meetings they raise a hand to speak, people are paying attention to them and listening to them without a problem. So they have that power. They are like leaders in the village."

Part of the project involves the women setting up a village energy committee that handles the money that members of the community contribute towards the cost and maintenance of the solar equipment. 

Fatuma, a local village woman who now acts as treasurer of the committee said, "For the first time, we are being respected when we speak, people are listening to what we have to say, and the engineers are setting an example for other girls in our village who want to be like them."

VSO volunteer Lesley believes the participation of women at the local level benefits the entire community, "Women are the ones that gather the firewood; they fetch the water; they look after the children; they cook and clean. When they’re involved in decision-making, they take all of that into account."

A brighter future

Fifteen Tanzanian women have so far trained as solar engineers within the programme; aside from fitting solar panels, many of them have informally shared their skills with other community members.

The plan for the project is now to set up a training school, so the women solar engineers can share their skills with other women. In turn, they will be able to bring solar energy into their remote communities and play a greater role in local decision-making.

"Tanzania is at a crucial point in its history," remarks Lesley, who is optimistic that things are on their way up. "The country is in the process of reviewing its constitution and there's another election in 2015. Women are playing a stronger role politically – it's just about making sure that filters down to the village level as well."

Watch Women in Power – a video featuring an interview with Arafa in her village and take a look at the Tanzania women solar engineers photo gallery.

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