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Birthday Reflections

It’s my birthday – a chance for reflection.

Three years ago at the same time of year, I faced a major challenge – how to install a solar electric system in a state hospital in Nigeria. My hospital research the year prior had alerted me to the fact that sporadic and unreliable electricity was a major impediment to the delivery of safe obstetric care. I had watched helplessly as critically ill mothers were turned away from the hospital when the labor room was without lights, the operating room was powerless, and when the laboratory had no refrigerated blood products for emergency transfusions.  My husband, Hal Aronson, had come up with a solution –four large stand-alone solar electric systems targeting maternal health care in the hospital. But translating design into action from the other side of the world was a formidable challenge. We surveyed the hospital power needs, researched and interviewed solar installers in Africa, created a portable solar electric demonstration kit to our Nigerian colleagues, and picked out most of the electrical supplies we wanted to install. However, we struggled to raise sufficient funds for the task.  We were at an impasse.

My birthday was approaching….and it occurred to me that I could use the occasion to put on a WE CARE Solar fundraiser. With the help of a talented UC Berkeley medical student who assembled musicians and dancers, we put on a wonderful event. We showed slides of Nigeria, danced to African music, and raised funds and excitement about the hospital solar project.  Soon we were back on track – and a month later the state hospital had solar lights, power, and a new blood bank refrigerator.

Three years have ensued, and I never could have imagined how events would unfold. Our first solar installation resulted in a marked drop in maternal deaths at the hospital, sparking requests for solar electricity from surrounding health facilities. Hal refined his design of a suitcase-sized solar electric system, and assembly of these portable solar kits became a popular activity for engineering students from around the country. With scores of volunteer support, our Solar Suitcases made their way to clinics in Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, Haiti, Burma, and other nations. Brent Moellenberg, a wonderful engineer, joined Hal to design a Solar Suitcase that could be manufactured at scale. By the end of 2011, the Solar Suitcase had been placed in health facilities in 17 countries.

And now, a new chapter emerges. We are engaging with NGOs and Ministries of Health to map out ways to deploy Solar Suitcases to maternal health facilities on a regional scale.  Our recent experiences in Sierra Leone and Uganda reinforced how important the provision of electricity is to rural maternal health care systems. We continue to see how crucial it is for maternal and child health workers to work with reliable light and to have mobile communication for emergency back-up care and hospital referrals.

So..…three years later…another birthday wish. As the UN has launched “The Sustainable Energy for All” initiative, we will continue to advocate for renewable energy solutions for maternal health care facilities throughout the developing world. Our commitment? Through collaborations with Ministries of Health and NGOs, we aim to significantly scale our efforts to bring light and power to frontline midwives and health workers for essential medical and obstetric care, improving health outcomes for mothers, their babies, and their families.



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