As an obstetrician and a mother, I believe that no woman should die giving life. While conducting research in 2008, I was very concerned to learn that 300,000 women and one million newborns die from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications every year. Most of these deaths are happening in Africa and Asia. They are preventable and could be managed if health care providers had the tools they need to save lives.
So, I went to Northern Nigeria to see what people were facing firsthand and study ways to lower maternal mortality in hospitals. In the hospital I was working in, I watched as midwives struggled to conduct deliveries by candlelight and kerosene lantern. Surgical procedures were cancelled at night because they couldn’t use the surgical ward when the power was down. Critically ill patients waited hours or days for life-saving procedures. The outcomes were often tragic.
This was in a hospital in a city serving 1.5 million people, and I subsequently learned that a further 300,000 clinics and hospitals do not have any form of reliable electricity. Health workers are often forced to provide care in near darkness. Infection prevention and control become impossible. Mistakes are unavoidable, and lives are lost.
With these insights, my husband, Hal Aronson, a solar energy educator and innovator, designed a small off-grid solar-electric kit that I could carry with me in the aeroplane on my next trip. This compact version was originally intended as a prototype for a larger system for the hospital, but my Nigerian colleagues immediately put it to use and asked to keep it when I left.
The maternal deaths in that hospital went down by 70% over the next year. Soon we got requests from many other health centres asking for a portable solar-electric solution that would augment the power of health providers who were trying to save lives. And that’s how the idea of the Solar Suitcase was born.
Together, Hal and I co-founded We Care Solar to improve energy access to last-mile health centres worldwide. In 2010, Brent Moellenberg joined us and modified the concept to a manufacturer’s design in order to meet growing demand. The result is a compact, rugged, elegant solar-electric system.
The Solar Suitcase provides bright, efficient medical lighting for procedure safety and efficiency, mobile phone charging for immediate referrals and consultations, foetal heart rate monitoring to improve newborn survival, and infrared thermometers to safely screen patients for infection.
We then decided that, as we’re treating women in healthcare, why not have a group of Women Solar Ambassadors? We brought women together from around the World and trained them on maternal healthcare and solar electricity.
These women lead “Train the Trainer” programs in Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. In addition, we now partner with agencies like UNICEF, UNFPA, Jhpiego, One Heart Worldwide, Pathfinder International and national Ministries of Health so that local health technicians learn how to do installations, teach health workers, and repair equipment.
Together with these partners, we’ve equipped over 5,200 health facilities in more than 20 countries with solar suitcases, trained 20,000 health workers to install and operate our technology, and provided safer care for more than 5 million mothers and babies. Our Solar Suitcases replace candles, kerosene lanterns, and diesel generators, reducing the risk of fire and averting CO2 emissions.
We Care Solar has won numerous awards, the latest being the 2019 Zayed Sustainability Prize under the ‘Health’ category, with an award of $600,000. With the Prize’s support, we’re making significant progress towards our global Light Every Birth initiative. In Liberia, we successfully reached every government maternal health centre in need in 2019.
In the same year, we manufactured more than 1,000 solar suitcases, which went on to serve more than 400,000 mothers and newborns in their first year of operation alone. In Uganda, we’ve created our first regional centre, hired new staff, and created training opportunities in multiple countries.
In Nepal, we’re equipping last-mile health centres despite the difficult journey of reaching remote communities. Clinic by clinic, step by step, we’re helping women who would otherwise be delivered in darkness.
With Covid-19, the need for reliable electricity has become even more paramount. The We Care Solar Covid Safe Childcare program enables health workers to detect, triage and monitor patients with Covid-19, prevent transmission by supporting the enforcement of handwashing, mask use, and social distancing, and enhance the continuation of around-the-clock maternal healthcare.
I am very proud of what we have achieved, but maternal and newborn mortality rates in Africa and Asia are still unacceptably high. Support for maternal and infant health, both through funding and policymaking, is key to reducing these numbers.
As UN Women Regional Director Oulimata Sarr said in the recent Djembe Insights report Building a Resilient Innovative Africa, “Governments must therefore first seek to implement gender-responsive budgeting so that they can keep track of the spend on women and ensure that funds are being channelled towards gender gap priorities including health, education, and economic empowerment.
“We envision a world where all women survive childbirth, obtain lifesaving care without unnecessary delays, and give birth with dignity in well-lit health facilities. But we need all stakeholders on board to help us achieve that.
The Zayed Sustainability Prize is now open to innovators across Africa, spanning small to medium enterprises (SMEs), non-profit organisations, and high schools, with sustainable solutions across Health, Food, Energy and Water. Enter today by visiting www.zayedsustainabilityprize.com–deadline 6th May 2021.
SME’sand non-profits must enter an existing sustainability solution in one of the Health, Food, Energy, or Water categories. The Global High Schools category invites student-led projects or proposals, based on one or more of the four aforementioned sustainability sectors.

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