Meagan Fallone - CEO of Barefoot College International

Meagan Fallone is the recent CEO and current board member of Barefoot College International, which received a Skoll foundation award for its pivotal work in helping to improve the livelihoods of rural communities across the globe. Barefoot College was founded in 1972 and now has an established presence in 93 countries across the world, with its decentralized energy applications producing 1.6 GW of renewable energy annually. In this conversation we explore Barefoot’s model and how it is able to scale to the world’s most diverse and impoverished regions. Hope you enjoy my conversation with Ms. Meagan Fallone!

Topics covered in this podcast:

1. ​[1:57] How has mountain climbing impacted Ms. Fallone's ability to navigate fear?
2.  [8:10] Ms. Fallone walks us through a typical day while travelling in a new international village
3.  [11:26] Barefoot contributes 1.6 gigawatts of sustainable energy annually via decentralized systems
4. [13:50] How is the Solar Mama model targeted towards the lower level of the pyramid?
5.  [16:19] How is technology incorporated in the solar mama training program?
6. [20:28] Women at the center of impact in developing communities
7. [21:50] How is the training system communicated to such diverse groups of people?
8. [25:05] Ms. Fallone gives insight into Barefoot College's end to end technology system
9. [28:00] Ms. Fallone offers her guidance to the younger generation


00:06 Karan Takhar
Hello everyone. This is Karan Takhar, and welcome to the Zenergy podcast. Over the past decade, India has done an impressive job of integrating renewable energy into its energy mix. For this Fulbright podcast series, I sought to investigate the enabling factors and potential of India's global leadership in renewable energy, with the focus on solar. This Fulbright series is broken down into Four Seasons. In this season, through conversations with ten leading social entrepreneurs and development experts, we will illustrate how renewable energy in India has taken off at the rural level. Not only will the series provide insight into their fascinating entrepreneurial journey but also how they've been able to overcome the financing, consumer awareness, and distribution challenges associated with rural solar energy deployment at a large scale. 
In this episode, I will be speaking with Meagan Fallone, the CEO of Barefoot College, which is a school foundation awardee in one of the Maverick companies in the rural energy access space Barefoot College was founded in 1972 and now has an established presence in 93 countries across the world in this conversation. We explore barefoot model and how it is able to scale to the world's most diverse and impoverished regions, and we also talk about Megan's own journey, which is very interesting. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I enjoyed speaking with Meagan.
Hi, Meagan Fallone. Thank you so much for joining us. I would like to start with something I'm personally curious hearing about. So, in one of your interviews, you mentioned that you love to mountain climb, and I have a lot of people in my family who love to mountain climb, and you specifically mentioned how it's been important for your personal development and especially how it helps you Orient yourself with here. Could you please tell us about a few of the places you have mountain climbs and also how mountain climbing has helped you learn how to deal with here or any other learnings from mountain climbing?

02:31 Meagan Fallone 
So yeah, I mean, of course, in any situation where we challenge ourselves and put ourselves in a situation that's beyond our known, it's clear that you are alone at that moment, with yourself, with nature, and you learn about yourself and about the way that you approach things that are uncertain, and things that are beyond your control for me being in nature is always the way I remember my own smallness, and also at the same time the incredible responsibility that we have to the planet as one of the many things that it hosts. I think for me, it's always been since I was a child, the place I go to I think terrific like to understand and to work through whatever ideas and questions I'm having. So you have to understand that to understand What would even lead me at 36 to start climbing Mountains, so I started, I guess, with Denali at 5000, and then I I kept moving up from that, and the highest thing I've ever climbed is Arma Dublin in the Everest reach which is just below 7000 meters 6800 and some means the mother's hat and it's it's facing a Val called Kundi, their peak called Tom Circuit and my uncle had climbed Tim Circle with Sir Edmund Hillary in the 60s and is the only group to have submitted Tom Circle and the village of Quindi that it faces is the village where my aunt and uncle built the first school and the first hospital in Nepal with Ed and his wife at the time, and so my family, as a very old Kiwi legacy that ended up in me, I feel very blessed they've done what I did.

04:29 Karan Takhar
That's amazing.

04:31 Meagan Fallone 
And then, in one moment, I had a son, eldest son Nicholas, who's now 27. On Easter Sunday in 2017, he was in an avalanche, and we were skiing as a family, myself and the boys, and place where never you find an avalanche on a glacier in Italy. We had an avalanche here which one, and Nicholas was in the Avalanche and was buried and I had about 8 minutes to find him before he would no longer have enough oxygen to keep going, and I was very blessed because I was strong and I had we were in a heli-skiing base, and so there was a helicopter and a crew of extraordinary Italian mountain clients who were able to come very quickly, and he was fine and walked out of the hospital that night.

05:25 Karan Takhar

05:25 Meagan Fallone 
But for me really, It was really a watershed moment, I guess. Because some, yeah, I think we all get a few miracles in our lifetime. And for me, that wasn't the case. I didn't need to go again and push myself. In the same way, there were new places to push myself, and Nicholas, to his credit, got back on skis a month later and went back up. I don't know. You know, I think look the best thing about, aside from how much I love being in nature. I think the thing about putting yourself in those kinds of situations is that it's so healthy. That it really does let you redefine risk and really understand the instinctual nature with which we take as entrepreneurs calculated risk with this sort of unbelievable mixture of, well, I'm going to get to the top total optimism, but I better be prepared with Plan B, plan C, and plan D in case something happens. And this is what the mountains prepare you for, continually working the chess board. In your head, with every minute you're on the mountain, you know? OK, I'm going here, but if this happens, I might have to go here. Where's my escape route? How am I gonna cope with that? So, I think this duality of thought and the ability to hold multiple ideas in tension at the same time actually happens to be. We'd never have thought that beforehand, but now after 11 years as a social entrepreneur, I definitely would say this is one of the best skills in the moment when many people will say, oh so scary, oh my gosh, I will say, why not? Let's go there, and you know, we go there, and you may crash and burn, but you'll probably figure it out along the way.

07:03 Karan Takhar
You open Lafayette.

07:11 Meagan Fallone 
And I think that what deterred so many people are that in the very moment they need to run to the fire, they turn around and.

07:18 Karan Takhar
They run away.

07:19 Meagan Fallone 
They run.

07:20 Karan Takhar
That's very interesting.

07:20 Meagan Fallone 
And so that's it.

07:23 Karan Takhar
Yeah, so I got like a passion for exploring. I read online that you've been a few presents in 106 countries. I see. Barefoot international. Yeah. So yeah, that's it. One, I feel like very few people have gotten that exposure to just so much diversity. So, can you walk us through like a typical day on these travels when you're traveling to, say, a new village in a new country, like, what does that look like?

07:52 Meagan Fallone 
It can look like many things. It can look like a woman named Sister Rosalva from Timor Leste Catholic. None who had spent her life working in a series of communities in the hills above. Daily 3 and 1/2-hour drive from the main town in two more or less, and she wrote us an e-mail and she said my villages don't have access to energy and they can't progress. Could you help us? We got on a plane, and we went there. She had no money. There was no donor funding that project. We took some little bit of money, got on a plane, made that journey which was epic in the day that we made it and met her for the first time the next morning got in a car with a bunch of people we didn't know, drove to the villages. Had this extraordinary experience meeting and seeing these villages and watching the love and affection that those communities had for her because of her personal dedication, and so got inspired, selected some women, brought them back to taloni a process for their paperwork, trained them as solar engineers and then we were able to, with the help of UNDP, apply for some money and get them very quickly. So that's one end of the story, right? Another extreme on the other end would be fellow Skull awardee who was doing other programs on female genital mutilation. Toss down wonderful ground partners who we partnered with to look at their commute these as ways to further motivate communities and incentivize them to adopt other deep social and behavioral changes themselves. So, in that case, if the community stood up and declared themselves as stopping the practice of female genital mutilation, then barefoot College. Would come in and bring Solarlite, but of course, there's not their specialty to know communities, to understand the communities, to understand what communities need and feel in those kinds of negotiation. So, we did a strategic project together to identify those communities, build community support, address the needs in the communities with the help of resources from NL, and then to help them follow through and being able to contribute to building Mexico's renewable energy landscape. So, I think it kind of runs the gamut, you know, how do you end up in?

10:20 Meagan Fallone 
His class as it was just to say yes.

10:23 Karan Takhar
And in one of your talks, a statistic that blew my mind was that the solar Mamas which barefoot has trained helped contribute 1.6 gigawatts of renewable energy annually from like a decentralized level that's incomparable to like the biggest developers in India who do these huge projects and that just shows so much potential.

10:47 Meagan Fallone 
Yeah, I mean, you know, we are there are some problems, you know, in the access to energy space, and one of those is that the poorest of the poor cannot be seen as a business model. Their consumption of energy is still like you or I, oh, we'll add a refrigerator. We'll add an air conditioner. We'll add an electric stove. You know, this is the difference between their being able to be economically viable to have a healthy and safe place in which to live to work and to earn, and to learn because one of the biggest killers in the developing world is the inhalation of black smoke that comes from poor quality kerosene in small lamps, and so it's a human right, access to clean energy in a basic sense, a human right. So why should it be that only the richest people in a community who doesn't have access to energy can afford a basic home lighting system? I don't think that's right, and I don't think that's equal, and I don't think it's fair, and you know, I think that we have to really revise our ideas of how to level the playing field in intelligent ways. So, for instance, we use predictive data. Now we're using algorithms and data collation to really understand what people can afford based on what they're currently spending on their energy and charging needs and other things that happen in rural communities. OK, fine, they can contribute that. But let's put that data in a cloud, and let's put that in a blockchain, and let's understand that data. And we can use and predict then how much subsidy is actually needed so that we're not giving away what we don't have to, but we are subsidizing what we should.

12:38 Karan Takhar
I see. So, for the lower level of the pyramid, is this solar Mama model in graph targeted very quickly? I'm going to zoom out. And for those listeners who are unfamiliar with Barefoot College in their solar Mama model, I'm just going to give some insights into that. Essentially, what barefoot College does is they are internationally focused and are present in over 100 countries. Where they go to villages and fly out two solar grandmothers between the age of 30 and 50 from those villages back to Tonia, which is where Barefoots based, to then train them in a five-month program to help them learn how to build a solar panel and how to essentially electrify their village and fix any problems that occur. Say, for example, if solar panel malfunctions. The solar members are trained to fix these types of occurrences. So this is their general model, and we will go back to listen to Megan, who will get more into the details of how the training works and many other aspects which have allowed Barefoot College to become one of the most successful social entrepreneurship focus companies globally. Let's listen to what Megan and Miss Fallone have to say.

14:09 Meagan Fallone 
That is 100% targeted to the entry-level. OK, we don't train solar Mamas in urban areas. We train solar sakis in those places who are able to sell solar and renewable other kinds of products, smaller devices, even home systems and fans, and DCTV things like this because we feel there's a need on both ends of the spectrum, right? There's access to energy conversation that's indisputable. But there's also a conversion in transition to renewables that we have to work towards, and so that helps us do that with quality products. Part of the problem is that most of the products in the developing world have been cheap, disposable, throw-away things that can't be repaired and maintained, and that is not a sustainable way to approach production and splicing anymore, I think.

15:04 Karan Takhar
And one thing that has always fascinated me about barefoot is its diversity in reach. Specifically in terms of how grandmothers or solar Mamas are flowing over to the touring your campus from all across the world, and then they come to campus and go through this five-month training program, so I'm curious about how these women, who in many cases have never left their villages, how were they able to communicate and learn its technology a key component of this training.

15:45 Meagan Fallone 
Technology is a key component now because we understand its power to reinforce and support his technology the way that that magic happens. No, that magic happens, I think, by creating an environment of respect where nobody is marginalized, irrespective of what background they have or what skill set they have, where women find this magical way to have empathy across language, culture, across religion, across many barriers. I think they are far more practically oriented from the standpoint that they understand they have a universal experience in many ways, even though it might differ in extreme ways, culturally, and so they're just extraordinary mechanisms and empathy and compassion that happen when these women live and work together you know how it is when you are together in a group facing something none of you know you're on a level playing field and you're learning it from. Very simple people who are very clever, just like you. And so you're never made to feel inferior or inadequate. You're made to feel brave and courageous and wonderful and accomplished, and so that becomes contagious. And the most magical thing is when you'll have a Colombian woman sitting at the table building a system, and you've got a Myanmar woman next to her, talking to her, telling her what to do, and she understands completely, then you have their Indian master trainer over them correcting them and I think let's have Hindi, and you're stupid looking at it, like how is this possible? But of course, it works, and it works because it's not perfect and it's not technologically savvy, and it's about human beings, how they persevere and are resilient and are determined, and for these women, they know they will be bringing the thing to their communities that will most transform everybody they love and care about. I don't think we even have a clue how determined women are when that's what's at stake, and I think right now, one of the things that we're seeing in this COVID period is the massive resiliency of women leaders at every level, family, community, country, region. And that's not a mystery because women will do and can do extraordinary things when they feel that what they care about is at stake, and right now, that's the situation, and so, I think we're getting a real-time dose of just how important it is to understand the power of that female collective. I guess that's a bit intimidating and also inspiring at the same time.

18:51 Karan Takhar
When I saw her interesting statistic around mostly stated that $0.80 of every dollar that a woman earns in the developing world, they returned to the family, whereas men only returned 40.

19:06 Meagan Fallone 
No. So women in the developing world, they don't work for their ego in the same way, right? They work to provide the things that will enable again the people they love and care about. So they spend money on better health, better education, supporting those things. They spend money on better food when they can, and so they invest actually in the well-being of their family, and so that's what that statistic shows is that they also don't have the mobility in many places in the global S, but none have, and so, you know, men have other options for what they can do with their money in many cases, and sometimes that goes beyond the family and the investment in the family.

19:52 Karan Takhar
Yeah, So I was really interested too, and it makes sense now that I'm like reading statistics about how women contribute back to the community they won't leave to an urban area. Well, concepts like these and just really quickly going back to the training just to get into like some more of the detailed understanding around the training. So, is it done through colors?

20:14 Meagan Fallone 
Colors, yeah. So, it's done. It's done visually. It's done visually and practically. So, they start by learning different values for all of the components, and those values are associated with color and color banding. That's kind of a universal link rich, so they learn all the combinations on the resistors and capacitors, and we color code those we produce those specially with color coding, and then we have a completely visual manual that looks like a Lego set every piece on the circuit board 192 pieces. I believe 196 pieces are all numbered, and the I mean, build 35 sets to be fully trained on how to do that. So, if you build 35 of the same Lego set, you'll be able to do it with your eyes closed, and they can't hear you or me or reading letters. They're taking pictures over and over and over again, so the retaining of visual information extremely superior in illiterate and semi-literate populations, and so we haven't, we've had this weird education system that kind of said you're only educated, or you're only smart if you do it this way and I think what this program shows in practical sense is what happens when you get rid of that definition. Allow people to just be smart in the way they're smart, and to have the skills and capacities that they naturally have developed, and to really then build on that and make that much more a source of confidence and competence for them instead of a way to marginalize them and say they're not trained, you know, setting our definitions of education and of learning and skill development needs to change. I also need to say that the women do not just learn the hard skills, they are also having a Co-curriculum called in rich, which teaches digital skills, financial literacy, financial inclusion, environmental stewardship, rights and citizenship, and responsibilities, women's menstrual and reproductive health and nutrition, microenterprise skills, and even a whole module on developing their own self-agency so this is really holistic?

22:22 Karan Takhar
Thank you.

22:22 Meagan Fallone 
Approach to how to teach women critical thinking skills, learning skills. A broad base of knowledge and competencies around their body, their environment, and their capacity is what is transformational for women, for anybody, actually, because we take that for granted, you know, we get that. When we go to school. But if you happen to be someone who's never had access to formal education, you have missed that boat. And so how do we Fast forward populations at scale to gain that competency, that broad-based competency, because just teaching them to drill a hole or build a wall is not going to give them that skill training cannot just be about the skill itself, it has to be about an investment in a human being more comprehensively at sea.

23:08 Karan Takhar
You know. Yeah, so I've been talking to a few members of the barefoot team, and in terms of the product design component, I learned that barefoot usually brings 1000 women from the state to help design the products, which they think will help them with this. Can you talk a little bit about this end-to-end design system?

23:36 Meagan Fallone 
I'm I'm a designer by my education, and so I personally think with the design thought process, and strangely enough, barefoot also had that. That's something that really resonated with me when I went there. There were definitely the principles of human-centric design actually mirrored there already by virtue of their commitment to responsiveness to community voice. I was already there, and so I guess what we've done in 10 years is just put a structure around that so that it's not so accidental that it has a trajectory that everybody understands and owns different parts of and that we hold ourselves to a pretty high standard of Co-creation, with communities both on product and on programs, 
and that means letting them tell you what will work and what won't work and peering out with them what the features are I mean you know the women designed the Bindi Lantern. I don't know if you saw the Bindi Lantern yet, but their complaint was that most of the devices that they got hold of couldn't be held in hand. They didn't fit her hand, and actually, when we did some hardcore research on that, we read that mobile phones are dropped more than 70% more by women because in the design of them when you hold them, they are generally designed for the hand size of a man.

25:06 Karan Takhar
Michelle Spain.

25:06 Meagan Fallone 
And deeper, interesting statistic, and so we started thinking about that, you know, and so the bindi is actually shaped like a woman now. She has a narrower middle that is easily grasped by a woman; his hand has features and buttons that were all dictated by her. How many different light settings? And did he did she want to hook, or did she want a, you know, a circular sort of thing? So, I think those are the ways that you end up with a much more tailored solution that actually has real value. What has value to me may not be the same thing that has value to a woman. You know it's a woman in a rural community. So, we have to just remain sort of at their disposal and have the systems in place to be able to respond to those design feedbacks.

25:56 Karan Takhar
Finally, if you were to say one thing to younger people who have just graduated from their bachelor's and are figuring out what to do, or maybe a few words to your younger self who just finished College, what would you say?

26:10 Meagan Fallone 
Go to the place you're most uncomfortable to go take the door that you are most afraid to take and see what and who you really are and what you're capable of because there's no other time in your life when you can do that with just yourself to worry about, and there is no failure. There's only learning on the other side of that. And what you will learn is what will make you successful much later in your life. If you know who you are, and you know what your compass is and what really your passions are, no one can stop you. That's how to operate from your authentic self. And nothing creates better leaders than people and human beings who can speak from their authentic selves and share that with other people.

27:01 Karan Takhar
Thank you, really appreciate this. I hope you enjoyed that episode and do check out the show notes For more information on my guest. See you next time.

Also Listen to Our Other Podcast

Related Podcasts

Ben Vannier | Partner, Boston Consulting Group (BCG)

Read More

Sean Murphy | CEO of Pingthings

Read More

Doug Arent | Executive Director of the National Renewable Energy Labratory

Read More

Barbara Humpton | CEO of Siemens | Creating the Energy Future

Read More