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

Philippine Tatler - - CONTENTS -

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.

Re­turn to Trans­form

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

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