A nonprofit in Africa harnesses the power of solar energy to help disadvantaged women.
It’s been 10 years since Dr. Laura Stachel was in northern Nigeria studying maternal health and found limited access to electricity often led to poor outcomes. Women and babies were lost to the dark during childbirth, so she told her husband – Hal Aronson, a solar energy educator – about it.
He designed a solar power system for the hospital where Stachel was working, but while she and her colleagues were waiting for the full installation they relied on a small suitcase-sized prototype. With it they charged communications devices and surgical headlamps to keep up with delivering babies.
That’s how the nonprofit “We Care Solar” was born too.
Ten years on, another 30 solar suitcases were just delivered to Kaduna state in Nigeria. The Ministry of Health in Uganda is a new partner on the NGO’s “Light Every Birth” initiative, launched there in November, and another 350 Ugandan health centers will be getting solar suitcases this year. They join Liberia and more than two dozen countries where the mobile power stations are used in education and relief work as well as health care.
The project has been so well-received that the latest 3.0 version of the simple suitcase was unveiled last week by Brent Moellenberg, the company’s director of engineering.
The bright yellow suitcase can be carried around like any other, but it’s adapted for standing clinic installations. In that case, the solar panels go on the roof and the case is mounted on the wall – opening sideways, much like the door of a power circuit panel or a medicine cabinet. Inside the basic kit are LED lights for medical use, a universal cell phone charger, another charger for AA and AAA batteries used in devices, and outlets for plugging in 12-volt powered equipment. The kit comes with either 40 or 80 watts of solar panels, a solar-power storage battery, and an expansion option to add capacity.
When the solar suitcases are used for their original purpose – mothers and babies – the kit comes with a fetal monitor. Health care remains the primary mission, and more than 1.8 million mothers have given birth under the solar lights. They’re found across sub-Saharan Africa but also Asia and Latin America.
The We Care Solar program partners with 45 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and United Nations agencies such as United Nations Development Program (UNDP). In Tanzania, for example, these partnerships meant a 40 percent drop in maternal mortality and a 46 percent drop in neonatal deaths, when the solar suitcases were used at emergency health clinics supported by partner agencies.
Yet it seemed obvious that if the solar suitcases worked for health care, they could make a difference in other development priorities. Education is atop that list, and the We Share Solar arm takes the suitcase to schools where units are used to light up classrooms, dormitories and offices. Students aren’t just lighting up their lessons with solar light, though, because they also learn how to build and maintain them. More than 1,000 solar suitcases have been built by students as part of their STEM studies. The suitcases also are deployed to support humanitarian aid and relief workers.