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Global Ideas

A solar suitcase reduces maternal mortality rates

In an age where hundreds of women still die every day in childbirth, light can provide a genuine lifeline. A pioneering solar project is delivering hope to doctors, midwives and mothers-to-be all over the world.

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To hear Laura Stachel speak is to be immersed in a story as powerful as the energy that fuels it. Hers is tale of darkness and light, of death and birth, of determination and an ingenious idea that just keeps on saving lives.

An obstetrician by training and profession, in 2008 Stachel suffered a back injury that left her unable to continue delivering babies. Having long held an interest in public health, she went back to school in California to learn more about it.

"They had a program where they were studying maternal mortality in Nigeria," she said, citing the above average number of women dying there in childbirth. "Eleven percent of worldwide deaths were happening in that one country."

She went to a hospital which she had been horrified to learn was among those known to turn women in need away. After spending up to 14 hours a day observing how care was delivered, she quickly came to understand the problem.

Tansania Sengerema Solar Suitcase

The solar suitcase has brought light and happiness to many people around the world

"It struck me that the hospital was without electricity for 12 hours a day, and without it they couldn't power the blood bank refrigerator for transfusions, the operating theater 24 hours a day, and didn't have enough light to start intraveneous lines or do any emergency care."

As a result, cesarean sections had either to be conducted by flashlight, or cancelled altogether, and patients with life-threatening complications couldn't be guaranteed the medical assistance they needed.

"The women coming to that hospital were gravely ill," she said. "In my first two weeks in Nigeria, I saw more complications than I had seen in my entire career."

doctor delivering a baby by C section

Without light, it is impossible to deliver a baby by cesarean section. And the procedure saves countless lives

When she recounted all this to her husband Hal Aronson, a solar educator, back home in California, he presented her with a way to help women turning up to the hospital in the thick of night.

It was a solar suitcase, which as the name suggests is compact and transportable, yet strong enough to power the operating theater, delivery room, maternity ward and a blood bank refrigerator.

Stachel took the kit, which includes walkie-talkies to allow nurses to locate doctors quickly, back to the same Nigerian hospital. To great effect.

"A year later there was a 70 percent drop in maternal deaths." She christened her organization We Care Solar, which stands for Women's emergency communication and reliable electricity, because she says, people do care. She and her husband certainly do.

News of their life-saving suitcase spread, and requests for help began to flood in from all over the world.

"We realised we needed a solution that could be brought to scale, so we developed the solar suitcase to make it very robust."

It now includes almost indestructible waterproof lights, headlamps operated by rechargeable batteries and a fetal monitor, and has been delivered to 1,300 health facilities in more than 27 countries - mostly in Africa.
And their engagement doesn't stop there. We Care Solar, which was recently awarded a one million dollar grant as the first recipient of the UN's “Powering the Future We Want" award, has also trained dozens of health providers and communities to install and maintain the solar systems themselves.

"This means we are not reliant on experts to come in, but actually build capacity with people locally."
Laura Stachel teaching in Nigeria

One of the objects is to make sure the health centers can maintain the solar systems themself

They have also launched We Share Solar, which trains young people to "link science and technology with international philanthropy" by making solar suitcases themselves. Once completed, they are taken to schools and orphanages in areas lacking in power.


What else they will come up remains to be seen, but Laura Stachel is adamant she won't stop until woman all over the world have the chance to deliver their babies in safety.

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