Portable Solar Panels Bring Light, Save Lives in Developing World

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By Andrew Stelzer

Dr. Juliette Alyek, a pediatrician from Uganda, learns to install a solar panel with We Care Solar, a Berkeley nonprofit. (Photo: Andrew Stelzer)
Dr. Juliette Alyek, a pediatrician from Uganda, learns to install a solar panel with We Care Solar, a Berkeley nonprofit. (Photo: Andrew Stelzer)

Juliette Alyek came here all the way from Uganda to learn how to drill holes in a corrugated tin roof.

Over the sound of drilling, I hear laughter, mixed with frustration. "Let's try it again," Alyek says, then "Got it, bingo. Just right!"

Alyek is a pediatrician, who -- along with 13 other women from around the world -- has travelled to Berkeley for a week-long training to become a special kind of ambassador. Back in Uganda, her home city is big enough to have consistent electricity. But she says only about five percent of Ugandans are connected to the grid. That’s a big problem if a woman is giving birth at night.

“These facilities are using kerosene lamps, or they’re using torches, or they don’t have anything at all," she says.


Berkeley obstetrician Laura Stachel saw the same problem when she traveled to Nigeria four years ago to study ways to reduce maternal mortality in state hospitals. At the time, Nigeria had one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Tens of thousands of women died during childbirth every year.

At the hospital Stachel visited on that trip, she saw first-hand a major contributing factor -- sporadic electricity. She saw a Cesarean section conducted by flashlight, critically ill patients waiting until dawn, or later, for urgent surgical procedures.

“And because they haven’t had that experience of 24-hour electricity," Stachel says, "they don’t expect 24-hour electricity.”

Together, Stachel and her husband, Hal Aronson, hatched an idea -- create a small kit with everything needed to bring enough power and light for doctors and health workers to safely deliver babies. Aronson is a solar energy educator, and he designed the prototype, now called a solar suitcase.

Together the couple then created a nonprofit organization, We Care Solar. Over the last four years, they have installed more than 200 of solar suitcases in 11 countries. But the first hospital to get one was the NIgerian hospital Stachel had visited in 2008. At that hospital, maternal mortality has dropped 70 percent.

At a cost of only $1,500 dollars, there’s been interest from all types of groups, including the United Nations and the World Health Organization. The solar suitcase charges cellular phones and walkie-talkies, used for in-facility communication in many places.

We Care Solar hopes to deploy as many as 10,000 solar suitcases in the next five years.

Aronson created a mock-clinic in his backyard, so the 14 women here this week from India, Africa and Mexico could be trained to install the solar suitcase's panel. In addition, the women will take classes in maternal health and solar energy.

Once they go home, these women will be the newest "We Care Solar Ambassadors," helping in the organization's solar programs around the world.

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Watch 'Solar Suitcase' Sheds Light on Darkened Delivery Rooms on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.