Can Grandmothers Change The World?

Jan 17, 2014
Originally published on June 2, 2017 9:11 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Disruptive Leadership.

About Bunker Roy's TED Talk

Bunker Roy shares stories from a school in India that equips rural women for leadership by training them to become solar engineers, artisans, dentists and doctors.

About Bunker Roy

In 1972, Sanjit "Bunker" Roy founded the Barefoot College, in Rajasthan, India, with one mission: to provide basic services in rural communities to make them self-sufficient. These "barefoot solutions" include solar energy, water, education, health care, women's empowerment and wasteland development.

The Barefoot College teaches literacy and skills through learning-by-doing. Bunker's organization has also trained grandmothers from Africa and the Himalayan region to be solar engineers so they can bring electricity to their remote villages.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


So Bunker Roy has been cultivating leaders for decades. He's a social activist from India. And he says you can find amazing leaders - women leaders in the most remote corners of the world. And so what he does is he goes to these villages in Africa, in Central America, in the Middle East and he offers to help train women to become change agents. He invites them to leave their villages for six months and travel thousands of miles away to India.

BUNKER ROY: We are in the middle of a desert in Rajasthan, which is 500 miles southwest of Delhi. Sometimes it does not rain for five years.

RAZ: And it's there in this tiny village in India where Bunker Roy founded a place he calls the Barefoot College.


UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Nut, screw. Capacitor.

RAZ: Now the women you're hearing, most of them can't even read or write. But they're learning how to become engineers and how to light up their villages back home using solar energy. I mean, these women from around the world are flown to the middle of, I guess, nowhere, would be the easiest way to describe it. And it must be so disorienting for them when they arrive.

ROY: For the first month, it is disorienting. They miss their family. They miss their land. And the biggest bills are the mobile bills because they say what the hell am I doing here? But gradually, they adjust. That's why when people say why don't you send people to Africa instead of bringing the women from Africa to India, I say she has to come out of her environment. She has to come out in a situation where she is challenged. So we actually create an environment where people can find something within themselves, which they never thought they had. And then go back to the community they come from and show what they've learned. That is how leaders are born.

RAZ: Here's Bunker Roy talking about Barefoot College on the TED stage.


ROY: So it's the only college in India where if you should have a PhD or a Master's, you are disqualified to come.


ROY: And it's the only college - you don't get a certificate. You are certified by the community yourself. You don't need a paper to hang on the wall to show that you are an engineer. One lesson we learned in India was men are untrainable.


ROY: Men are restless, men are ambitious and they all want a certificate.


ROY: Why? Because they want to leave the village and go to a city looking for a job. So we came up with a great solution - train grandmothers.

RAZ: And when you say - I guess we should clarify 'cause when you say grandmother, we're not thinking of like...

ROY: Yeah.

RAZ: ...A white-haired old lady. I mean, these are women in their mid-30's, early 40's who are grandmothers simply because they had their first child when they were maybe 12 or 13 or 14.

ROY: Right. Grandmothers are the - I think the ideal change agents in any traditional society community that you want to change. They are considered that they should be sitting in their house, looking after the grandchildren and cooking food. And maybe, occasionally, going to the fields. They're also respected, natural born leaders and then they perform miracles.


ROY: I went to Gambia. I went to select a grandmother in Gambia. Called her husband, husband came, swaggering politician, mobile in his hand - not possible. Why not? The woman, look how beautiful she is. I said, yeah. She's very beautiful. What happens if she runs off with an Indian man? That was the biggest fear. I said she'll be happy. She'll ring you up on the mobile. She went like a grandmother and came back like a tiger. She walked out of the plane and spoke to the whole press as if she was a veteran. She handled the national press, and she was a star. And when I went back six months later, I said where is your husband? Oh, somewhere. It doesn't matter.


ROY: Success story.


RAZ: But, I mean, she needs - all these women need - they need people to follow them, right? I mean, they can't be leaders unless people are willing to follow them. So how do they do that? How do they find those people?

ROY: But she has already proved that she has a skill, which no one has in the village, including the men. She's a solar engineer. She's solar-electrified each house of the hundred houses in that village. And when we've gone back and spoken to some of these grandmothers, we found that they have actually trained someone in the process to take her place. So if you want to make a leader out of someone in a very poor community, give him or her a skill that is useful for that community. There you have it. There you have your leader.


ROY: So we went to Afghanistan for the first time, and we picked three women and said, we want to take them to India. They said, impossible. They don't even go out of the rooms, and you want to take them to India. In six months, they go back and solar-electrify their own village. This woman went back and solar-electrified the first village. The first village ever to be solar-electrified in Afghanistan.

RAZ: I mean, in every way, not only do they go back and lead, but they disrupt. I mean, they are upending their traditional roles in those communities where they came from. They're...

ROY: The man-woman relationship is changed forever. You know, when we - when this woman went back and solar-electrified the first village in Afghanistan, she went and sat with the men. And the men said, what do you think you're doing? You should be sitting three kilometers away with all of those women there. And she very quietly said, today, I'm not a woman. I'm an engineer, and I have solar-electrified this whole village for you. And for the first time it hit the men between eyes and said, my God, she is actually an engineer.

RAZ: Do you ever worry that the disruption is going to be so disruptive, right, that these grandmothers will return to these villages and feel so empowered that - I don't know, that things kind of fall apart, things just kind of start to break down when they get back?

ROY: I think all change comes out of conflict. We are engineering a conflict by training a grandmother to be a solar engineer. There's bound to be some hostility in the village, which is good because this is making people think. What is politics? Politics is about making people think differently. This is a political act also. Making them solar engineers is a political act. So, yes, we are disruptive. Yes, we are already factoring in the fact that there will be hostility and tension, but she is capable of handling that. I think that's the beauty of it all.


ROY: I think you don't have to look for solutions outside. Look for solutions within, and listen to people. They have the solutions in front of you. Listen to the people on the ground. They have all of the solutions in the world. I'll end with a quotation by Mahatma Gandhi. First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win. Thank you.


RAZ: Bunker Roy founded the Barefoot College in Rajasthan, India. You can hear his entire talk at I'm Guy Raz. More disruptive leadership coming up in a moment right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.