Working to make sure no mother gives birth in darkness…

Twelve years ago, reading his wife’s letters about the Nigerian hospital where she was observing maternity care, Hal Aronson began sketching the outline of a stand-alone solar power system that would ensure the maternity ward had electricity 24 hours a day instead of only 12 hours.

He taught solar power at a California university; his wife, Laura Stachel, was an obstetrician-gynecologist who had been forced to give up her medical career as a result of a severe back injury. After her recovery, she began studying public health, which is how she wound up in Nigeria, trying to understand why it had such a high maternal mortality rates.

It wasn’t because the health care staff lacked skills, she saw – it was because the state hospital where she was observing could count on only 12 hours of electricity a day, or less, which affected almost every aspect of care. For Dr. Aronson, hearing the stories,  it seemed clear that solar could be a good solution, given Nigeria’s many days of sunlight.

Health worker in Uganda with Solar Suitcase. Photo courtesy of We Care Solar

In order to help her explain to the medical staff in Nigeria what the solar power could do for them, he put together a demonstration unit small enough that it could fit into one of her suitcases. Small as it was, it was an immediate success, and the medical staff began to use it immediately, even as Drs. Aronson and Stachel were seeking funds to install the stand alone system. Once that was installed, the maternal death rate dropped dramatically, and they thought their work was done.

Little did they know that actually, that work was about to expand dramatically, thanks to that small demonstration suitcase. Local clinics in Nigeria who heard about the ‘solar’ doctor asked for help in equipping their clinics. Dr. Stachel transplanted the demonstration suitcase, and Dr. Aronson began making more of them at home in the backyard with the help of neighbours and volunteers.

Then in 2009, after Nick Kristof of the New York Times wrote about their project, requests began to come in from all over the world.

It set them both on a whole new direction – one that uniquely combined their skills to help health workers in energy-poor communities around the world deliver the kind of care that can only happen when you have reliable light, whenever you need it. They got generous funding from a range of sources, and work in partnership with a range of agencies to deliver the suitcases. Last year, they celebrated 10 years of operating, with a series of deep dive videos on specific aspects of We Care Solar’s work, and launched a Light Every Birth international initiative to end energy poverty maternal health care.

Tanzanian midwife using cell phone light and fetoscope. Photo courtesy We Care Solar

Now, through its work with some 75 partners, 6,304 health centres in 50 countries are equipped with its bright yellow Solar Suitcases; 26,309 health workers have been trained in how to work with them; 8,430,890 mothers and newborns have been served in health centres equipped with the suitcases; 187,749,138 hours of medical light have been provided; and 66,440 estimated tons of CO2 have been averted. Women have been trained to install solar suitcases, and there is a We Share Solar program that works with teachers and students to deliver project-based solar education.

It is hard to convey how much it means to have light, where once there was darkness lit only by candles brought in by patients, or a kerosene lantern. In her TEDx Talk, and on the website, Dr. Stachel has pictures of what it looks like in a hospital when there is no light at night, or no electricity at all in a rural clinic.

There have been many awards along the way. In 2015, We Care Solar won the first “Powering the Future We Want – Recognizing Innovative Practices in Energy for Sustainable Development” award from the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs, receiving a $1 million grant to support its work. It was selected from 200 applicants, and was one of 12 organizations invited to the UN to share sustainable energy practices.

In accepting the award, Dr. Stachel said that there should no longer be silos between global health goals and sustainable energy goals. “The time has come to collectively work together to give every health care worker the power they need to save lives.” Globally, as many as 300,000 health centers lack reliable power today.

The Solar Suitcase, chosen by Time Magazine in 2019 as a Best Invention of 2019, went through many iterations to arrive at its current form. It began with the prototypes designed in 2009 by Dr. Aronson and piloted in Nigeria. In 2011, Brent Moellenberg, director of engineering, focused on design for manufacture. Continuing field observation and feedback, part of the process from the beginning, eventually led to the Version 3 Solar Suitcase launched in 2019.

Their program grew just as organically over its first decade. Since 2012, when they invited 14 African women to California for a workshop, its Women’s Solar Ambassadors have been helping to change norms about gender roles in Africa.  “Women are the natural choice to enter labor rooms, install our equipment, and teach health workers to use our technology,” says We Care Solar. “We believe in women as changemakers – and promote female leadership at every level of our organization.

One example is Youngor Flomo, who has installed 250 Solar Suitcases in Liberia. She had wanted to become a nurse but without support for such training, joined a Liberian renewable energy organization called EnDev/GIZ. After taking part in a training session We Care Solar led for UN Women in Monrovia, she participated in health facility installations, surprising midwives who were not used to seeing women climbing roofs and using cordless drills. 

She obtained technical training in electrical engineering, and before long, was leading her team on hundreds of installations. Then she created her own organization, Women in Renewable Energy (WIRE), whose 15 staff educate people about renewable energy, help shape policies, and install solar suitcases, “helping our fellow women give birth”.

This blend of solar engineering and health care expertise is part of what makes We Care Solar such a unique organization. 

As Dr. Stachel said to UNDESA in 2015, small things can indeed lead to much larger things.

And as Dr. Aronson says of We Share Solar, ‘We inspire the next generation by sharing our knowledge of solar power, the energy source that brought the Earth to life billions of years ago and the source that will continue to power life on Earth for billions of years to come.”