Empowering the Solar Mamas of Guatemala

Since 2014, Barefoot College has been working to train Guatemalan women as solar engineers so they can solar electrify their communities. Two of the Solar Mamas were present when the organization was recently awarded the 2022 Presidential Medal, the state’s highest recognition for organizations or individuals engaged in environmental work.

Juana Emelia de León Marcos, an indigenous Guatemalan woman who trained as a solar engineer in India in 2020, has since become a Solar Master Trainer. Rosenda Francisca Garcia, who lost her husband early this year, was part of the first solar training delivered in Guatemala earlier this year and.will begin electrifying more than 34 houses in her community next month.

Rural women in Guatemala make up 25% of the population and most belong to one of the 24 indigenous groups, including Maya, Garífuna and Xinca. Barefoot College sees them as leaders for ecological and social transformation in their off-grid, last mile communities.

Initially, the “Solar Mamas” made the long journey to India for the 5-month program at the training center in Tilonia, India. But since a Guatemalan centre opened in Batzul in May 2022, they will learn in their own language without having to travel. The two-month curriculum teaches the women to assemble, install and maintain solar home lighting systems and lanterns, led by two Ixil Guatemalan solar master trainers, Juana and Feliciana, who trained in India in 2020. Women in the first Guatemalan class ranged from 20 to 69 years old. 

The Solar Mamas program has always seemed to me to be the college’s signature program. So far, they have trained more than 3,500 women as solar engineers, and those women have installed 175,000 solar systems in villages. Barefoot College also has trained more than 500 women as beekeepers. It has delivered programs in 93 countries, benefitting 2.4 million people.

In Latin America, the college works in 21 countries, with its training centre located in Guatemala, which has the largest economy in Central America. Its programs work to address economic inequality and climate change.

Barefoot College International photograph

Operating in the Mayan triangle in Quiché district where coffee is the primary industry but dismal harvests have increased migration to the US, Barefoot College aims to put development solutions in the hands of communities, with indigenous women leading the movement towards sustainable change. 

As well as learning about the specific care coffee needs, women learn to maintain and regenerate the health and structure of their soil and ecosystems. They also see various types of coffee processing and learn about the global coffee market..

The Barefoot Enriche programme aims to help rural women reach their full potential, providing them with practical knowledge and skills that are relevant to their life and priorities in eight areas. ENRICHE aims to support women’s aspirations in transforming themselves and their communities beyond solar electrification, by developing their sense of agency.