These incredible women harnessed solar energy to help their communities. Eana Maniebo travels to rural Tarlac to see the positive impact that they’ve made
The Solar Lolas are ready to light up homes, proving that anyone can bring change to their communities
Despite not knowing how to read, write, and even count, four Aeta grandmothers completed a six-month course in India to become certified solar engineers. Now fondly called Solar Lolas ( lola is Tagalog for grandmother), they came from underdeveloped sitios (small communities) that had little or no access to electricity: Cita Diaz and Magda Salvador from Sitio Gayaman Anupul in Bamban, Tarlac; Sharon Flores and Evelyn Clemente from Sitio Gala in Subic, Zambal es. But now, almost a total of 100 households in these two sitios are lit up by solar lanterns installed by these four amazing women in their 40s and 50s. “Naging proud kami sa aming mga sarili. Kahit hindi kami nakapagaral, makakatulong na kami sa aming kumunidad (We are proud of ourselves. Even though we didn’t go to school, we can help our communities),” says Clemente.
They studied solar technology at the Barefoot College in Tilonia, India. Founded by social entrepreneur Sanjit “Bunker” Roy in 1972, the institution educates illiterate and unskilled people on how
“It’s more than putting physical lights—it’s lighting something up inside the women and the communities”—Bunye
to use technology to help develop their respective communities.
Finding these women and sending them to India was not easy, but a joint effort of nongovernment organisations as well as the private sector made it possible. Lead NGO is the Diwata-Women in Resource Development Inc (Diwata). The project fit perfectly under its “Tanging Tanglaw” initiative which aims to create a positive impact on indigenous people (IP) by arming them with the skills needed to improve their communities and way of life through the use of solar energy. Sharing Diwata’s vision were the Philippine Mine Safety and Environment Association (PMSEA), and the Land Rover Club of the Philippines (LRCP). They all had the full support of the Indian government.
“Bunker Roy directly advised us to work with the Indian Embassy in Manila,” says Patricia Bunye, Diwata’s founding president. The timing was perfect. The Indian government was looking for individuals to train under their Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC), a development assistance programme. ITEC took care of the women’s’ airfare, their accommodations, plus a modest allowance during their six-month training.
Explains Bunye, “We tried to identify women who would qualify for the programme. We chose grandmothers because they’re no longer the primary caregiver of their families.” The LRCP found the first community, Gayaman Anupul, during one of their off-roading adventures. As they were preparing for the departure of Diaz and Salvador, they met Sister Eva Maamo, a nun who heads Barefoot Doctors, a foundation in Sitio Gala that trains indigenous women in simple medical procedures. They found Flores and Clemente there, and the gang was complete. The four left for India in September 2014.
The women experienced a difficult vetting process that includes the permission of almost their entire sitio. Flores recalls that before they could leave, they needed the approval of their town council, the chieftain, their families, and their entire clan. “We explained to our families that we really need electricity. Some houses here have electricity but it’s very expensive and they always experience blackouts especially during the rainy season,” Clemente says in the vernacular.
Before flying to India, the farthest place the Solar Lolas had been to were their respective town centres. To say that they were terrified over the prospect of a six-hour flight and navigating their way through a foreign country, without speaking a word of English or Hindi, was an understatement.
Barefoot College is in Tilonia, another sixhour drive from New Delhi. Upon arriving at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, the women got in the wrong car thinking it was their arranged ride only to be returned to the airport. Their actual escorts to the Barefoot College had to show their photos to them before they agreed to get in. “Hindi namin ininom yung kapeng binigay nila sa’min dahil takot kaming malason (We didn’t drink the coffee they offered because we were afraid
to get poisoned),” Salvador shares with a laugh, adding that everyone there was nice and welcoming once they got over their fear and paranoia.
They had about 40 classmates from different countries, all indigenous people and language was their biggest challenge. Instructions were relayed through elaborate hand and body sign language, and wires were marked with colours and numbers. Aside from creating, installing, and repairing solar lighting systems, they also learnt how to make candles, mosquito nets, and sanitary napkins.
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The first batch of solar panels was delivered last year and the Solar Lolas installed them in 40 houses in Gala and 40 in Gayaman Anupul. Each household in Gala contributes Php100 per month; Php1,000 goes to the lupon or solar fund used for repairs, while Flores and Clemente divide the remaining Php3,000 equally between them. The same system is in place in Gayaman Anupul, although a bit higher as each household gives Php200 every month. When fully charged, the solar system can sustain the solar lantern and basic household appliances.
All the materials needed to install are imported from India. Php 2.6 million per community of 100 households were needed to cover the basic set for each house, amounting to more than Php 5 million for both communities. Former politician Chavit Singson shouldered the first Php 2.6 million, and more organisations are approaching them to help. The project received more publicity when the lolas received one of the Women of Excellence Award at the 65th Miss Universe Charity Gala earlier this year. Diwata recently signed a memorandum of agreement with the Technological Institute of the Philippines to assist them in finding local sources of compatible solar systems.
The Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) donated rooms in one of their Clark facilities for storage and to be the site of formal solar classes. The Australian Embassy also donated a Rural Electrification Workshop (REW) building to the communities where solar system repairs are done. It will also hold educational and livelihood programmes for the residents.
“It’s not just a matter of giving the solar systems. It’s more than putting physical lights— it’s lighting up something inside the women and the communities,” says Bunye.
late bloomers Cita Diaz, Magda Salvador, Sharon Flores, and Evelyn Clemente are ready to get their hands dirty to light up their villages
A BRIGHTER FUTURE Australian Ambassador Amanda Gorely poses with the indigenous community in Tarlac. The Australian Embassy funded a workshop facility the IPs now call “Amanda’s Room”; (inset) The solar panels are brought to the indigenous communities
working together Diwata, its project partners, community representatives, Indian and Australian Embassy officials, and the Solar Lolas were all smiles at Sitio Gayaman Anupul, Tarlac