How solar-powered suitcases are helping babies in Nepal

By Matthew Wheeler
Innovators, Nepal

media captionThe solar suitcase was the brainchild of obstetrician Dr Laura Stachel and husband Hal Aronson, co-founders of We Care Solar

Hari Sunar is a 24 year-old mum whose second child is due in a few days.

She walked from her home in the remote Nepalese village Pandavkhani for her final antenatal check up at her local birthing centre through shuddering thunder, a drenching rainstorm and one of the village's frequent power cuts.

These power cuts can last up to two weeks and used to cause the birthing centre significant problems.

But now it has its own power solution.

The light in the birthing centre stays on and she smiles.

"I am really happy," the young mum says. "Because we have a solar light at the birthing centre."

That light is powered by a bright yellow suitcase bolted to the delivery room wall.

This is a solar suitcase.

image captionHari Sunar's final antenatal check at Pandavkhani health post in Nepal

Connected to a solar panel on the roof, the device is a miniature power station that provides light, heat and battery charging and a baby monitor.

Life saving

For local midwife, Hima Shirish, the solar suitcase has been a lifesaver.

She was determined find a solar solution for her health centre's energy problems.

A charity called One-Heart Worldwide sourced the solar suitcase and installed it in Pandavkhani in 2014. Since then there have been no maternal or baby deaths here.

"Pregnant mothers used to be afraid of the dark when they came to give birth at the health post," Hima says.

image captionMidwife Hima Shirish switches on the solar suitcase to power life-saving medical equipment

"They feared losing their babies. But now the fear is gone and they are relieved that they are going to have a baby using the solar light."

Off-grid solution

The solar suitcase is the brainchild of California-based obstetrician-gynaecologist Dr Laura Stachel of We Care Solar.

While in Nigeria in 2008, she witnessed complications and even deaths when babies were delivered at night without reliable light or power.

Dr Stachel devised a suitcase-sized, off-grid, solar electric system with her husband, solar engineer, Hal Aronson.

The prototype was so successful in Nigeria, they decided to bring the innovation to clinics and health stations in other countries with high rates of maternal and new-born baby mortality.

Earthquake challenge

In Nepal, the 2015 earthquake destroyed many of its hospitals and left most of the remaining facilities without reliable power.

Weighing just 16kg (35lbs) solar suitcases were ideal for deployment over tough terrain.

They provided life-saving power to makeshift medical and birthing tents in the immediate aftermath of the quake.

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But, even without such natural disasters, Nepal is a long way from being able to generate the electricity its people need.

"There are a lot of maternity or small clinics in rural areas where they have no electricity at all." Up to a third of rural areas have no reliable power, says Raj Kumar Thapa, managing director of Solar Solutions Private Limited.

Government schemes to increase small-scale power generation using solar, wind or hydro have had limited success, he says, because it is difficult for private companies to install and maintain systems in remote areas while still making a profit.

"So as long as the users are provided with proper training on the operation of the system I think there is a bigger role to play for solar energy especially on a charitable basis in Nepal."

Before the birthing centre was built in Pandavkhani in 2013, most babies were delivered at home, sometimes by torchlight or in total darkness.

image copyrightWe Care Solar
image captionThe 16kg solar suitcase was light enough to be deployed to remote earthquake zones in Nepal

In difficult cases, mothers in labour would be taken on a 65km (40-mile) mountainous trek over mud and rocks to the hospital in the nearest town, Baglung.

"Some babies were in the wrong position and we did not have the equipment to help them," Hima recalls. "Mothers used to die from haemorrhaging."

Now Hima and her staff are also able to charge their mobile phones, another vital piece of kit in this remote part of the world.

"Sometimes the power cuts can last for 15 days," Hima explains. "We used to be completely out of contact because we could not charge our mobile phones."

Mrs Sunar is just one of 175 mothers who have already given birth at the centre at least once.

As she waits to deliver her second child, she is reassured by her experience during the birth of her daughter.

"When I was in labour with my first child… I arrived at the health post and the light had just been cut. But the health worker said they had a solar suitcase so I didn't need to worry."

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