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Portable solar suitcase provides life-saving electricity for mothers in Malawi and around the world

Page history last edited by Rosemary 9 years, 2 months ago

Malawi President Joyce Banda received a We Care Solar Suitcase on July 19, 2012, the first of more than a dozen portable solar electric systems headed to Malawi clinics that will provide lighting and communications for doctors and midwives who otherwise have to perform emergency deliveries and obstetric procedures by candlelight or in the dark.  Mrs. Banda, the country’s first female president, has made women’s health a focus through a Presidential Initiative for Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood.

Malawi has one of the world’s highest rates of maternal mortality (460 mothers die for every 100,000 live births) and a low rate of reliable electricity at health clinics. Some health clinics have no electricity at all and pregnant women are routinely required to bring their own candles when entering a clinic to give birth. Expanding electricity to hospitals and clinics is one of a number of items on the agenda of the Presidential Initiative, which also will focus on increasing salaries and improving working conditions for nurses and midwives, increasing the number of nurses, and building additional waiting shelters for expectant mothers. Ten village chiefs will work with the initiative through a Chiefs Committee on Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood.

President Banda has personal knowledge of how important adequate medical care is for mothers. She too could have been one of those 460, had she not received a blood transfusion for postpartum hemorrhaging in time to save her life, as she explained at an Aspen Institute roundtable discussion in June 2012. President Banda told of one clinic visit where a woman described how she lost her child delivering at night because there was no electricity, and it was too dark to see that the umbilical cord was wrapped around her newborn’s neck.


Posted to YouTube by the Tech Awards 2011


The Malawi clinics are among more than 200,000 clinics in developing countries which lack reliable electricity, crippling their ability to provide emergency care to mothers and newborns, to respond to epidemics, and to provide other critical services. The portable, cost-effective solar suitcases designed and delivered by WE CARE (Women’s Emergency Communication and Reliable Electricity) Solar power critical lighting, mobile communication devices and medical devices in such low resource areas without reliable electricity. By equipping off-grid medical clinics with solar power for medical and surgical lighting, walkie-talkies and essential medical devices, WE CARE Solar facilitates timely and appropriate emergency care, reducing maternal and infant morbidity and mortality and improving the quality of care in Africa, Haiti and other regions.

By November 2011, 120 suitcases were in the field in 15 countries around the world and the goal for 2012 was to deploy 1000 suitcases, helped in part by prize money from the 2011 Tech Award that the organization won in October 2011. 

The Malawi suitcases provide a complete electrical system designed for medical use that includes lightweight solar panels, high-efficiency medical lights, fetal monitors, and cell phone charging stations. Each installation will include staff training programs and follow-up. “We are honored to provide these Solar Suitcases to the President of the Republic of Malawi and to the people of Malawi,” wrote obstetrician and We Care Solar co-founder Dr. Laura Stachel. “We are delighted to provide sustainable energy to health clinics to support President Banda’s work in reducing maternal mortality.”


A story that began in Nigeria

The story of WE CARE Solar began when Dr. Stachel went to northern Nigeria in 2008 to study ways to lower maternal mortality in state hospitals. She was shocked to see how sporadic electricity impaired maternity and surgical care in state hospitals. Without a reliable source of electricity, night-time deliveries were attended in near darkness, caesarian sections were cancelled or conducted by flashlight, and critically ill patients waited hours or days for life-saving procedures. The outcomes were often tragic.

In response, Laura's husband, Hal Aronson, a solar energy educator in California, designed an off-grid solar electric system for the hospital Laura was studying, targeting the maternity ward, labour room, laboratory, and operating theatre. He created a suitcase-sized prototype of the hospital solar electric system so Laura could show Nigerian hospital workers the LED lights, headlamps and walkie-talkies planned for deployment. When Laura returned to Nigeria toting the 'solar suitcase', her Nigerian colleagues immediately grasped its significance and began using this kit to charge headlamps and walkie-talkies while they awaited the larger solar installation. In addition, hospital employees introduced Laura to clinicians in outlying health clinics who begged her to bring solar lighting to their own clinics as well.

And as word of the innovative power solution spread, requests came in from clinics and health workers around the world, including medical relief teams in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. While Hal and Laura initially assembled the suitcases using students and volunteers, they soon realized the need to find new approaches to scale up production to meet the demand. They found support from the Blum Center for Developing Economies and The MacArthur Foundation. The World Health Organization invited them to partner with the Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research in bringing 20 solar suitcases to primary health care clinics in Liberia.

The innovative solution has received much recognition and support. In 2011, WE CARE Solar won a prestigious Tech Award, the Nokia Health Award, which the organization will use to expand delivery of the suitcases. In 2012, it was part of a partnership with AMREF (Uganda) and the White Ribbon Alliance that won a grant in the Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development contest sponsored by USAID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada, the Government of Norway, and the UK's Department for International Development. The partnership will bring solar suitcases to 200 health centres in southwestern Uganda, providing a hub to power light for night-time medical care, a fetal Doppler, phone charging, and a computer for data management and continuing education.


This story was compiled from a variety of sources, including 'Malawi- Moving from Candelight to Electricity, July 26, 2012; JB engages chiefs in safe motherhood, Jacob Nankhonya, the Daily Times, May 18, 2012;  WE CARE Solar wins humanitarian technology award for Solar Suitcase, Chris Meehan, Oct. 28, 2011; Meet the Winners of This Year's Tech Humanitarian Awards, Harry McCracken, Oct. 21, 2011; Who is Joyce Banda?, Smart Global Health; International laureates to be honored at The Tech Awards Sept. 15, 2011;  Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development website; and the WE CARE Solar website.



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