Social entrepreneur of the year: A place for learning & unlearning

Social Entrepreneur of the Year: Sanjit (Bunker) Roy, Founder, Barefoot College. Illustration: Ajay Mohanty
Business Standard Corporate Social Responsibility Awards 2016

For Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy, who turns 72 this August, a statement by the Father of the Nation — “live simply so that others may simply live” — has gone beyond a vision statement for his social enterprise, Barefoot College, a place that skills rural women and communities to be self-reliant and sustainable. Over the past four decades, Roy has lived the dream that Mahatma Gandhi had, of creating self-sustaining village communities — not only in India, but in 77 other countries — across 1,300 villages.

Following a chance visit to a remote and arid village in Rajasthan called Tilonia, in 1972, the alumnus of Doon School and St Stephen’s College started out by harnessing the skills of the village community in developing sustainable livelihood for women. The then 27-year-old social worker, along with associates, developed programmes around repair and maintenance of hand-pumps, developing solar electricity panels and cookers, training women as paramedics, teachers and artisans. After training for six months, women from various countries and regions across India have been going out to their respective villages to develop community-based ‘Barefoot’ solutions.

Roy describes Barefoot College “as a place for learning and unlearning, where the teacher is the learner and the learner is the teacher”. Classroom teaching is largely through use of visual aids and hands-on training. Most Barefoot professionals are non-formally educated, a large number of them being illiterate and semi-literate women from rural communities.
Using a de-centralised partnership model, Barefoot works with the local community and individuals, including 80-odd NGOs. Leading by example, Barefoot College’s Tilonia campus became fully solar-electrified in 1985. A solar engineering programme that trains women in the use of solar power for electrification, water heating, solar cookers, desalinisation of water has gained popularity globally as well. Of the 800-odd Barefoot solar engineers — many of them semi-literate and illiterate — trained over the last decade, around 560 women are from Africa. Training centres modelled on Barefoot’s campus in Tilonia have now come up at several places, including five in Africa. Countries in Latin America and the 14 Pacific Island countries are the next frontiers for Barefoot’s solar initiative. 

As part of a three-year strategic plan, Barefoot College wants to triple the number of beneficiaries from its programmes — currently pegged at 2 million — by 2018. Apart from opening more training centres globally, there are plans to ramp up infrastructure on the Tilonia campus. Adopting an open-source curriculum and teaching methods with more intensive use of digital technologies are also a goal. There are plans to raise $11 million to fund the new training centres and step up contribution from CSR funds. 

As Barefoot College prepares to scale up operations and its impact, Roy succinctly puts out his mission statement in a 2011 TED talk: “No matter where we go, the Barefoot Approach is the foundation for everything we do.”

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