Education Before Literacy Reduces Poverty: Barefoot College

Tilonia Women Working as Solar Engineers Designing, Installing, Calibrating and Manufacturing Photovoltaic Systems - Photo Credit: Barefoot College

Education may not necessarily mean literacy. In fact the very definition of literacy shows it simply to be the ability to read and write, whereas education involves the gathering of knowledge that is focused in specific studies. Sanjit “Bunker” Roy (often referred to as “Bunker Roy”) understands this fact and it is one of the driving forces behind the continued development of his brainchild: the Barefoot College. The Barefoot College defines itself as a “non-government organization that has been providing basic services and solutions to problems in rural communities, with the objective of making them self-sufficient and sustainable.” This is quite a statement, and yet Barefoot College continues to illustrate the validity of it through their advancements.

Bunker Roy’s quest to educate people began from a personal desire to work in a village making a positive difference in the lives of the very poor, which started in his own country of India. His personal education is extensive, yet at an early age he observed that the measure of a man or woman is not by their credentials, but rather their knowledge in areas that directly enhance their lives and makes them self-sufficient.  He started Barefoot College in a remote village called Tilonia, which is completely off the grid from any public works in the rural of Rajasthan. Those who could afford to leave Tilonia left, and those who could not leave clung to the skeleton of what was once a community. Yet what he has created in just a few decades has reduced poverty faster than any government program founded in any country. He has done this by focusing on the education of women. He started by teaching mothers and grandmothers how to become solar, electrical and water engineers, dentists, computer programmers and teachers, along with other much needed professions. These women start out illiterate and, after they become proficient in their chosen areas of expertise, they then can find the time to acquire literacy. Literacy is indeed valued at Barefoot College, but its importance is secondary to education. Bunker Roy learned long ago that in order to combat poverty, Barefoot College must focus on educating the women first. It also became clear that by educating a woman, it would result in educating an entire family.  In this process, Bunker Roy also made the observation that women are far more compliant and receptive to learning as opposed to their male counterparts.

Children of Tilonia in Democratic Format Assembly Including Elected Prime Minister shown in Center Photo Credit: Barefoot College

Tilonia Man as Weaving Artisan, Women trained as Hydrology Engineers Teaching Other Women, Tilonia Women Trained in Dentistry- Photo Credit: Barefoot College

What is Bunker Roy’s secret to solving the problems that add to impoverished situations? The answer is to “Ask the poor what they need,” and there lies the difference between wealthy developed communities compared to the poor ones. The poor know what they need to become self-sufficient, in comparison those who live in developed countries tend to only be aware of what they want. Once the poor respond with what is needed, Barefoot College then makes it possible for people to get the education required to become the solutions and in turn, empower others to thrive within their communities.

The success in Tilonia has made it possible for Bunker Roy to take many of these proficient women out of the country to teach and share their knowledge and technology to other remote impoverished communities around the world. The women of Tilonia have taught and empowered women in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Bhutan, Gambia and  they are assisting with the creation other Barefoot College campuses around the globe.

The very thought of illiterate grandmothers applying Swiss-like precision to their photovoltaic plates would make any engineer marvel at their proficiency. One would also wonder why this type of education couldn’t be applied to developed countries such as Canada, The United States, Italy and the like? Perhaps this is due to government regulations or perhaps the unwillingness to change. Whatever the reason may be, Bunker Roy, the Barefoot College and the women of Tilonia shine as an example of what people can do together to reduce poverty.

Perhaps humanity as a whole may take note and amplify the efforts of the Barefoot College, but until then, Barefoot College will continue to educate before teaching literacy, because it has been proven to be a clear way to take an ample bite out of poverty.





  1. Michelle, Again, a fascinating, uplifting article concerning a subject I knew little about. Your writing is clear and impressive. Congratulations.

    • Michelle Quevedo says

      Thank so much Craig! It is the hope to write articles of subject matter that introduces innovations in all areas from around the world. I really appreciate your feedback. 🙂

  2. I am fascinated by the content of this article. There are far too many countries we do not know about and this just broadens the viewpoint and adds to the confusion that these countries still exist in a simple manner. Thanks to Bunker Roy for doing what he can and thanks to Michelle Quevedo for making it understandable. P. Rew/wordsmith

    • Michelle Quevedo says

      Thank you so much Peggy! I appreciate you adding to a dialogue that is much needed. One can only hope that more people in developed countries will show a little more appreciation for the what they have. Individuals from the countries mentioned above are just striving to meet the basic needs. Thank you so much for your feedback, it is gratefully received. 🙂

  3. This is a great story. Being a person that had a hard time learning to read but not a hard time learning to do things when shown how to, I find this method of education really wonderful.
    Both of your articles have been very informative! keep them coming

    • Michelle Quevedo says

      Thank you very for your comment JT! I really appreciate your candidness on this subject. Yes, there are so many intelligent people out their who may not be literate or are struggling to become literate, yet they are profoundly intelligent human beings. My favorite quote is from Albert Einstein which is “Everyone is a Genius. But if you judge a fish it’s ability to climb a tree, it will live it’s whole Life believing it is stupid.” May we all realize our true Genius.

  4. Janet Sue says

    Excellent information on an innovative concept. Necessity really is the mother of invention. Thank you Michelle for your thorough research in bringing these subjects to our attention.

    • Michelle Quevedo says

      Thank You so much Janet Sue! Yes, Bunker Roy and the Barefoot College is quite innovative and inspirational. I’m so glad you are enjoying the content so far. It is the hope to bring original content for readers. 🙂

  5. Kirsten Sorensen says

    Michelle, I love your articles, they are so informative and well written. And it is so important and interesting for all of us, to be able to see all the things that’s going on, outside our own borders.
    Thank you, amazing job!!!

    • Michelle Quevedo says

      Thank You so much Kirsten! Isn’t it amazing how our world has become smaller due to modern technology? What better way to connect with people then by bringing stories from around the world to remind us that we are all human. 🙂

  6. Jennifer Lunt says

    Fascinating! I had always correlated “education” with “literacy”, and this article put a whole new twist on this. It makes sense – thanks for the insight!

    • Michelle Quevedo says

      Thank You so much Jennifer! I actually thought the same thing until I saw Bunker Roy speak at Ted Talks in 2006. That’s when I understood his meaning of the difference between education and literacy. It was a lesson I never forgot.

  7. Thank you Michelle for bringing light to yet another interesting and thought provoking topic. Hats off to Bunker Roy! Look what can be accomplished when we focus on people’s strengths and not just what we think they should do/know. Michelle, I appreciate your continued research into areas that I probably wouldn’t have looked up on my own but love reading about. Keep ’em coming!

    • Michelle Quevedo says

      Thank You so much Lori! I really appreciate your insight about helping people with their strengths and not dictating what they should do/know. Very well said! It is the hope to continue bringing content like this to our readers. 🙂

  8. Cathy Fitzgerald says

    You hit another home run with your article – you have a gift as a writer. It reminds me of the village in Kenya where we trained 4 men and 4 women to drill water wells (first time women had been included in a training) and they outshined the men – they were stronger, harder working, and more motivated – and they’re still working in the village today.

    • Michelle Quevedo says

      Thank You so much Cathy! Wow, that is a really amazing and fascinating story about that village in Kenya. I can see how you can really relate to Bunker Roys experience. This concept of training women seems to be proven as an efficient way to improve the lives of impoverished villages. Quite and inspiration.

  9. Another fascinating article Michelle. I really appreciate that you take the time to research such educational topics and that we all get to benefit from your effort and caring. I was particularly struck by the sentence that the poor know what they need to become self-sufficient whereas in developed countries we only know what we want. Definitely something to ponder.

    • Michelle Quevedo says

      Thank You very much Karyn! I work hard to write about subjects that may be of interest to people eager to learn more about advancements and issues in our world today. That too was an interesting aspect about our developed countries, perhaps we will learn to reflect more on this issue.

  10. Maryanne Paganetti says

    I loved reading your articles. They put into perspective the things we take for granted in this country. I, too, thought of literacy and education as the same. You have given me a whole new way of thinking. I thank you for opening my mind to what is possible. You write beautifully. I look forward to reading more of your articles.

    • Michelle Quevedo says

      Thank you so much Maryanne for sharing your perspective and for your compliment. I will continue to strive to bring content that will continue this type of dialogue about humanity and perhaps helped to show that we really are the same, no matter where we lay our heads to sleep. 🙂

  11. Intriguing. Not exactly an education system any of our education professionals would approve of. The status quo is probably more to their liking. Probably why our current system is failing? I can’t imagine us having an education system where the students actually have practically experience at a profession when they leave school! What a stubbing block that would be. I admire this man immensely. What a beacon of light to all those around him. Thanks so much! Great article. Do some more.

    • Michelle Quevedo says

      Thanks Tim! It would be quite astounding if many countries adopt this form of education. Like you, I believe Bunker Roy to be a beacon of light. Maybe his legacy will prevent more ships from crashing upon the rocks of suffering.

  12. Mimi Shoop says

    I am encouraged when I hear about people making these kinds of changes in their communities, and then passing it forward. I hope our own country can adopt some of the principles of practical education!

    • Michelle Quevedo says

      What an insightful comment Mimi! Yes, It would really be nice if Bunker Roy’s work and Barefoot College made a positive ripple effect on developed countries. I with you, I really hope that will adopt some of these practices.


    I love this. This really is a great way to educate people. Its a self feeding loop. When you educate someone they become more passionate about learning and want to be able to read and write so they can learn more. Good Job M!

    • Michelle Quevedo says

      Thank You so much Debra! You framed this education practice beautifully. I sincerely hope this self feeding loop will continue and that generations of people will thrive on this life model.

  14. This is so inspiring. It gives me hope to know there are people like Bunker Roy in the world, helping people in such empowering ways. Thanks for another great article, Michelle.

    • Michelle Quevedo says

      Shannon, Thank You so much for your expression of gratitude to a gentleman who has really touched the lives of several people, and made real difference. I believe that the more we shed light on individuals who empower people, then we too are adding to these positive actions.

  15. Pat Frey says

    Great article!

  16. What an inspiration!! Thank you for pointing out that one person can truly change the world in such a positive manner. this does not get stressed enough. Keep up the good work!!

    • Michelle Quevedo says

      Thank You so much Debbie! Yes, I believe that it is very important to give as much exposure to the people and their efforts to positively change the lives of others. In this way, it will assist with perpetuating those efforts.

  17. Monica Myles says

    Makes me wonder why this concept is not more widespread in education. I love the comparison between the mindsets that exist in poor versus developed countries and how in this case that difference led to such innovation. Thank you for sharing.

    • Michelle Quevedo says

      Thank You very much for your contribution to this dialogue Monica! I too hope that this concept will take off in developed countries and spread like wildfire. Let’s hope we are not the only mindsets that are open to this kind of change. 🙂

  18. Thank you for educating me about this great man who is bringing to light a whole different way to educate people. By asking what they needed, wanted and how they wanted to be taught and not just telling them what he thought they needed, because he had the fancy paper degree, shows his understanding of human nature and his own level of intelligence. Education comes in many forms and it is a wonderful thing to see that something like Barefoot College exists. I feel it compares to our trade schools, I think perhaps here in the US we have almost begun to place so much importance on the paper degrees, that it isn’t enough to have just one from a 4 year college, but now we must go on to grad school, but also a trade school is no longer consider a viable option when our children are looking at career choices, in fact I don’t even know that they exist much any more. Occupations such as a plumber, locksmith, electrician, contractor, mechanic are all trades that are technical and require skill and training, but not the kind you receive at a 4 year institution, but just the kind you might at Barefoot College!

    • Michelle Quevedo says

      Wanda, your thoughts on this subject are so significant. Thank You so much for adding to this dialogue. Yes, I too see how The US educational system needs to start including more trade instruction. With so many routine based jobs such as accounting, data entry, customer fulfillment, several types of legal practice, and the alike along with the workforce downsized due to technology being outsourced, people of the US need to be exposed and trained in fields that cannot be outsourced like the ones you mentioned in your comment. It’s clear by your comment that you are highly educated, yet you see the importance of the national workforce getting the education needed to be self-sufficient and sustainable.

  19. Heather Matheus says

    Michelle you are an amazing woman! This article is very informative and inspirational. I look forward to reading your future articles as well. I think I need to apply this learning style to Madi.

    • Michelle Quevedo says

      Thank you so much Heather! Wouldn’t it be a dream if the educational system the United States changed the way it educates? We would have so many skilled individuals. One can only hope. 🙂

  20. Michael Connors says

    “women are far more compliant and receptive to learning as opposed to their male counterparts” – Michelle, this is true and goes a long way in explaining the problems we face globally. Male egos impede progress.

  21. Loved it michelle! And I love that there are things like this going on in the world! Makes me want to fly there and be apart of it all!

  22. Michelle Quevedo says

    Thanks for the shout out on Twitter Les! I appreciate the notice and your feedback. 🙂


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