To mark World Humanitarian Day, the Zayed Sustainability Prize sheds lights on the solar suitcase, the 2019 winning project that tackled a major life-threatening issue at health centres in developing countries
We Care Solar has provided solar suitcases to maternity wards in hospitals that are cut off from the national electricity grid in developing countries.
Since winning the prize in 2019, the company has been able to expand its mission from Uganda to other nations such as Zimbabwe and Nepal.
The solar suitcases work by providing medical-grade lighting and power for mobile communication and small medical devices.
“Solar suitcases have transformed the quality of care for millions of mothers and newborns by addressing a global health problem that was largely overlooked: a lack of reliable electricity in health facilities,” said Laura Stachel, the obstetrician who founded We Care Solar.
“Midwives used to struggle using candlelight or kerosene lanterns, hospitals had to postpone or cancel C-sections and other critical procedures.”
The solar suitcase have become an essential tool for midwives providing maternal and newborn care, Dr Stachel said.
Before the introduction of the solar suitcases, many women in developing countries were fearful of seeking medical aid during birth, as the number of fatalities were high due to a lack of lighting, especially in Uganda.
Newborn fatalities have long been an issue in developing countries, where health facilities lack sufficient access to electricity, meaning that midwives had to conduct night-time deliveries in the dark.
Hundreds of women die every year in developing countries from preventable issues related to pregnancy and childbirth. In Uganda in 2017, maternal mortality rates reached 336 for every 100,000 births, the World Health Organisation reported.
The Zayed Sustainability Prize has helped We Care Solar to distribute more of the solar suitcases to remote health facilities in a number of African countries.
Rossette Uwayezu is one of many midwives whose job became more manageable after the introduction of the solar suitcase.
For years, the ambitious young Ugandan dreamt of becoming a midwife at a hospital and to help bring new life into the world.
She acquired a certificate in midwifery to achieve her dream, but to her disappointment, she was assigned to a small rural facility that lacked both electric power and running water in the Rubanda district.
The facility, known as Green Valley HC II, was staffed by a nurse-in-charge, a lab technician and Ms Uwayezu. It served more than 3,000 people across 10 villages.
“I wondered how a small, understaffed facility with no electricity and running water was serving 10 villages,” the midwife said.
Two years ago, when she started working there, she had to rely on her phone and a torch during night-time deliveries.
“In most cases I had to improvise, putting the phone in my mouth or trying to hang the torch over the IV stand,” she said.
She recalled a time when she had to leave a mother in the middle of a delivery to search for something to use as a light source after her phone battery ran out.
“I was terrified,” she said.
“Imagine what was going through the mother’s head when this happened? Being left in the dark in the midst of a delivery.”
Eventually, Ms Uwayezu was able to borrow somebody else’s torch to complete the delivery.
“Even though the delivery was successful, the situation was quite risky. It was an experience that I would never want to relive,” she said.
Matters started to improve for Ms Uwayezu and her colleagues when they were provided solar suitcases.
The US non-profit organisation has been distributing the solar electric systems to health centres since 2010, as part of their Light Every Birth programme.
“This new technology has significantly improved the facility’s performance and credibility,” said Ms Uwayezu, who added that the solar suitcase has made midwifery significantly easier.
“I cannot imagine working without the solar suitcase now that I have experienced its benefits. I have grown to love my job even more, seeing the joy my work brings to mothers and the community.”
Jane, a Ugandan mother who gave birth to her first child at a remote facility, explained how it felt to give birth in the dark.
The clinic lost power while she was in labour, so her midwife left the room to find kerosene for a lantern.
“Lying down in the darkness, I worried and wondered whether the midwife will be able to find adequate care and if she would come back in time,” she said.
“I prayed to God to bring my baby in good health and to save me from the hardship of labour.”
After a long night of fear and struggle, Jane finally delivered her baby under the light of a lantern.
When she became pregnant with her second child, she did not want to relive the traumatic experience, so when she heard of a nearby centre that had started using solar lighting, she decided to go there for the delivery.
“My second child was born in the middle of the night but this time under the bright light of a solar suitcase. I named him Miracle,” she said.
Expanding the reach
Each distributed solar suitcase brought power to a health facility conducting an average of 200 births a year and providing health services to a population of between 6,000 to 15,000.
“The prize allowed us to expand our programmes to 162 health facilities, directly serving more than 64,000 mothers and newborn babies each year,” said Dr Stachel.
“In addition, we used the Zayed Prize to leverage additional funding from other foundations, positively contributing to our efforts to Light Every Birth in multiple countries.
“We are well on the way to reach every eligible public health facility in Uganda and Zimbabwe, and most recently, we launched Light Every Birth in Sierra Leone.”
Furthermore, the Zayed Sustainability Prize was able to shine a spotlight on the issue of electricity in health facilities, she added.
“The prize has been passionately calling out for the use of clean, sustainable electricity in global health care, a message that has echoed in the platforms of the sustainable energy community,” she said.
“The prize has allowed us to showcase our technology to relevant world leaders and energy officials.”