From Dishonored Grandmother to Solar Engineer

We’re all looking for stories of hope – that the world can be changed, that we are not limited by our culture, our backgrounds, our histories. Lucy Naipanoi, a grandmother of the Maasai in Kenya, one of the last hunter gatherer tribes left on the planet, represents the potential for evolution and advancement that has come to mark the twenty-first century.

Lucy In Solar Training Class
Lucy In Solar Training Class

With the help of her children, and the wonderful people at Barefoot College, Lucy has become the Solar Mama of her tribe, bringing light and energy to hers and her neighbours’ households so that they and their children can adapt and thrive in an ever changing world, and retain their respect for mother nature by adopting sustainable practices from the outset of their development.

When Lucy lost a finger in an unfortunate accident, the traditions of her people made her a dishonoured wife. Her husband abandoned her with her children, and she was forced to find innovative ways to bring value to her tribe in order to pay for their schooling.

This dedicated investment paid off not only for Lucy, but for her tribe as well. Her children returned with their hard-earned knowledge and taught her English so that she could better trade in the marketplace and make a better living, and this simple education was all that was necessary to prepare her to become the Maasai’s first solar engineer.

Masaai Woman Elder
Masaai Woman Elder

Barefoot College Bringing Light To The World

There’s no end to grand schemes to fix the world’s problems. From incredible devices to remove the plastic from the ocean, new forms of energy production, innovations in the automotive industry, or even the advancement of artificial intelligence, everything is changing at remarkable rates that leave even the most eager futurologists with their heads spinning.

But what does the world look like from those tribes that still lack access to basic electricity?

Barefoot College’s mission seems humble at first; bring solar energy to the most rural locations in the world. But their vision goes so much further than that. They believe that the rural poor, already have within their communities the capacity, wisdom, and skills to create better quality of life, vibrant economic opportunities, and stronger civil societies.

When Barefoot enters a village, they do not look for the youngest, fittest, or best educated of the tribe. They seek out the wisest of the village’s Mamas, or grandmothers, and offer her the opportunity to travel to a college in India to learn the skills necessary to install, operate, and maintain  solar home systems for their village.

Focus Group.
Focus Group.


Through this aim, they allow the tribe to adopt the technology on their own terms. Armed with the tenacity to merge their world with knowledge from the world so many of us have become accustomed to.

A Pattern of Effective Transformation

Lucy is neither the first, nor the last Solar Mama to be trained by Barefoot College. Mamas have been trained in over 73 countries to date, bringing autonomous, environmentally sustainable electricity to well over 500,000 people.

Though it may seem an odd effort to bring electricity to a hunter-gathering tribe, Barefoot College’s work has been shown to bring numerous benefits to each community that it partners with. The children are able to spend more time studying after dark, the communities are able to develop new skills and trades, and the cultural gap which separates them from their neighboring communities are shrunk by their increased understanding of the modern world.

masaai tribe children in kenya


Barefoot is committed to delivering light to one million people by 2018- one woman at a time. They believe in a world where women have the competence and confidence to fully participate in the development of their own communities and countries, irrespective of the barrier of literacy or formal education.

In Kenya Today

Lucy has recently returned home to the Maasai to begin installing their solar power after receiving her full training. You can hear more about her journey in her TEDx Talk below.




For more information on Barefoot College’s work, follow them at their Facebook Page.

This article was co-written and edited by Daniel Arsenault.

Photo credit to Lucie Argelies, Barefoot College


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