We Care Solar was thrilled when TIME magazine selected our newest Solar Suitcase as a Best Invention of 2019. For many people, the word “invention” conjures visions of a lone inventor having a singular “Aha!” moment with an iconic cartoon “lightbulb” overhead.
The reality is something quite different. Multiple people and agencies joined with We Care Solar to bring the Solar Suitcase on the path to completion and there were many “Aha!” moments along the way. We want to give you an idea of the assiduous and collective efforts involved to keep our overhead lights brightly blazing.
Early prototype Solar Suitcases were conceived in 2009 by We Care Solar co-founder Hal Aronson and piloted in Nigeria. Solar Suitcases were later designed for manufacturability by Director of Engineering Brent Moellenberg in 2011. Over time, we were eager to improve the design and interface to respond to growing demand and expand our impact. After years of field testing, design modifications, and technology improvements, we officially launched our Version 3 Solar Suitcase in 2019.
Initially, Brent teamed up with Zebulon Solutions (Colorado) to upgrade the electronics of the Solar Suitcase, developing printed circuit boards for the charging and control circuits. This resulted in lower production costs and streamlined manufacturability. David Miller worked with Brent to create satellite boxes that allow us to light more rooms; Rick Angell provided assistance with our circuit boards. SWIM Design in San Francisco helped us develop an improved user interface, providing a more intuitive LCD screen for health workers to use.
In 2016, we equipped 50 health centers in Ghana with our prototype Version 3, working with the Kumasi Institute of Technology, Energy and Environment to monitor the performance of our improved technology. The demonstration project was embraced by the Ghana Health Service and proved that our new electronics functioned well in African health centers.
Arrow Electronics in Colorado began working with us in 2017 and contributed to enhancements in the design of our medical lights, manufacturability of the Solar Suitcase, and reliability of our supply chain. We next brought in local designers to review the packaging and “total user experience.” The Institute for Creative Integration (ICI), a design firm based in Oakland, CA specializing in human-centered and innovative design, helped improve the Solar Suitcase packaging, storage, and training materials. These inputs facilitate the initial set-up, longevity, and efficacy of the Solar Suitcase. Beautiful new training manuals and videos allow us to reach more health facilities in need, strengthen our education program, and reach areas of the world where in-person trainings are not offered.
In May 2018, we field-tested our upgraded design choices with health workers and installers in Uganda. Health workers were observed unpacking and setting up the Solar Suitcase, using its components, and conducting installations. Learnings from this trip were incorporated into the final design.
We Care Solar Suitcase Version 3 improves upon previous models in a number of ways:
- -A user-friendly interface and LCD screen makes use more intuitive for those with little or no technical expertise.
- -LED Lights customized for medical procedures, with adjustable settings that allow health workers to select the right amount of light needed.
- -A larger internal battery allows more lights to run for longer periods of time.
- -Integrated USB charging sockets enable faster charging of appliances.
- -Rugged connectors, cabling, and electronics improve system durability and reduce maintenance requirements.
- -Remote data logging capacity enables the collection of data on system performance and usage.
In the last few months, hundreds of Version 3 Solar Suitcases have been shipped to partners in Nepal (One Heart Worldwide and SunFarmer), Zimbabwe (ZimEnergy EcoFoundation), Uganda (Ministry of Health, ABSI) and Ethiopia (Pathfinder International). As solar teams and health workers unpack and use these compact power units, they are expressing their appreciation for the improved ease of installation, additional lights, clear user interface, and new storage pockets. With our new Version 3, we can truly Light Every Birth.
Note: We are grateful to the generous contributions of UBS Optimus Foundation, UNDESA, and the MacFarlane Family Foundation for underwriting much of our research and design.