UN Sustainable Development Goals: Saving lives through solar innovation - Interview with Dr Laura Stachel M.D, M.P.H

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Laura Stachel - Solar SuitcaseOn September 25th 2015, the United Nations (UN) agreed that all its 193 member countries adopt 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). The key agenda was to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all. Each goal was assigned targets and key performance indicators, to be achieved over the next 15 years. In our next series of articles, we’ll be exploring these goals and talking to those whose research work is contributing to their success directly.

For our first article, we caught up with We Care Solar’s inspirational co-founder, Dr. Laura Stachel. Since its first deployment in 2009, the company’s unique product has provided economical and portable solar power to off-grid medical clinics worldwide, for urgent medical care. Its innovation is helping meet UN SDGs 3, 5 and 7, for global health, gender equality and affordable clean energy, respectively.

Dr. Laura Stachel is the co-founder and Executive Director of We Care Solar. This non-profit social enterprise is originally a spin-out from U.C Berkeley. The organization’s mission is to reduce maternal mortality by improving energy access in off-grid health facilities. We Care Solar was created after Laura witnessed appalling conditions in a rural Nigerian hospital. While conducting public health research in 2008, she observed that a lack of reliable power contributed directly to the loss of life during childbirth. She described hospital conditions to her partner back in Berkeley—Dr. Hal Aronson, a solar energy educator. Hal immediately realized that solar energy could help and designed a solar electric system to power lights and critical equipment in the hospital. Obstetric care in the hospital was transformed and more mothers survived childbirth. Surrounding clinics began requesting solar power and Laura and Hal needed a portable solution that could scale. The “Solar Suitcase” was born. Through years of field work it has evolved into a compact, rugged, portable solar electric device that has reached more than 2,200 health centres.

Today’s We Care Solar Suitcase®, is a power unit containing two solar panels, a 14 amp-hour lithium ferrous phosphate battery, up to four medical LED lights, two rechargeable headlamps, a phone charger, a fetal Doppler, and a battery charger. The fully portable device can become a permanent installation by mounting the suitcase to the wall and securing the solar panels on the roof. It is being used in maternal health centres in more than 20 countries, and has also been used after natural disasters to provide critical electricity during humanitarian relief efforts.

We interviewed Dr. Stachel about her work, her career path, and how We Care Solar is contributing to the UN’s sustainable development goals.

You've had a diverse and successful medical and research career. Can you briefly describe your career path to date?

I trained as a medical doctor and went on to specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology. I was running a busy practice as an obstetrician-gynecologist in Berkeley, California. In 2002, I experienced persistent back pain that eventually radiated down my arms. During one particularly arduous delivery, a searing pain tore down my back, and I knew something was wrong. An MRI revealed the cause – severe degenerating disc disease in my cervical spine, compressing the nerves to my right arm. I was told I had to stop doing deliveries, and later, to stop practicing clinical medicine altogether.

After a year of physical therapy and rehabilitation, I returned to school to pursue a long-held interest in public health. I became a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley and completed an M.P.H. in Maternal and Child Health. Four years later, I travelled to Nigeria to consult on a research project on maternal mortality. I spent 10 – 14 hours a day observing maternity care in a state hospital conducting 150 deliveries a month. Despite the need to care for a steady flow of patients, the hospital was without electricity 12 hours a day. I watched as midwives struggled by kerosene lantern and candlelight, patients failed to get timely diagnostic tests, and as physicians cancelled c/sections due to the lack of power. Lives were needlessly lost. Seeing the devastating effects of energy poverty on maternal health outcomes changed my life. I couldn’t turn my back on a problem that was largely overlooked by the global health community.

 

"My husband and I developed the Solar Suitcase to address the unmet need for reliable electricity in rural health centres...

 

My husband and I developed the Solar Suitcase to address the unmet need for reliable electricity in rural health centres, and we went on to co-found We Care Solar.

Can you recount the journey that you made, from the point you thought of We Care Solar’s original product innovation to actually putting together a working prototype suitcase together?

As an obstetrician, I was trained to solve problems. I analyse what I see and chart a course of action. The problems I confronted on my first trip to Africa – the erratic electricity, surgical delays because of poor lighting and lack of mobile communication, the scarcity of medical instruments, the inadequate staffing and limited training– were symptoms of a systemic failure. Maternal care was in dire straits for reasons far beyond any medical techniques I could offer; poverty, lack of infrastructure, gender inequity, illiteracy and politics all conspired against the health and survival of pregnant women. Within the hospital, lack of reliable electricity stood out as a major obstacle to providing effective maternal care.

 

"I never expected to be a social innovator in the developing world, but as I witnessed women struggling to survive childbirth in the dark, I was compelled to do something."

 

I never expected to be a social innovator in the developing world, but as I witnessed women struggling to survive childbirth in the dark, I was compelled to do something.

The Solar Suitcase was originally developed as a demonstration kit for the hospital as we waited for a much larger solar installation. Upon my return to Nigeria, I wanted to show my colleagues the benefits of solar electricity. I needed a solar electric system small enough to fit inside my suitcase and easy enough for a non-technician to use. When health workers in Nigeria asked to keep the demonstration kit, I began to understand the significance that a small solar electric system could have on healthcare. “This could help us save lives right now,” I was told. Soon I received requests for solar electricity from surrounding primary health centres. Hal and other volunteers began making small “Solar Suitcases” by hand. Our backyard in Berkeley turned into a Solar Suitcase assembly line. Each time I would return to Nigeria, I would visit the health centres with Solar Suitcases, taking note of what was working and what had failed. We would fix any problems we discovered and think of ways to improve the next prototype. This iterative design process enabled the Solar Suitcase to become more rugged and better tailored to maternal health workers.

In 2010, we got a request from the World Health Organization to install 20 Solar Suitcases in Liberian health centres. We needed a device that could scale. A grant from the MacArthur Foundation gave us the resources to hire a mechanical engineer who improved upon our original prototypes to create a design that could be manufactured.

What major roadblocks did you encounter on the way, and how did you resolve them?

I have faced challenges during every step of our journey.

As a non-profit, we constantly need to raise funds to support our work. At the onset, we entered a number of competitions to get our vision off the ground. Our first competition was at UC Berkeley—a challenge to create a technology for social good. Our impassioned application yielded an honorable mention, carrying a $1,000 award, but wasn’t enough to fund my dream.

I came home from the competition, dejected, and called the hospital administrator in Nigeria to apologise. He reassured me, “You planted a seed, and from this a great tree will grow."

I subsequently received a call from a campus official, who had been at the competition. “You should have won,” he told me. Through his direct help we found funding from The Blum Center for Developing Economies.

A number of successful deployments of the We Care Solar suitcase followed. I travelled back and forth to Nigeria, continuing to conduct field work. We entered a more competitions and were lucky enough to receive a total of 10 awards! We obtained excellent mentorship through many of the competitions, and received scholarships to attend in-depth programs for social entrepreneurs. I learned business models, communication strategies, and assembled a wonderful team.

We obtained funding to expand our program to more countries, and formally established ourselves as a nonprofit organization. By now we have more than 2,400 suitcases in over 25 countries. We create training programs to build local capacity in usage, installation and maintenance of our technology. We have partnered with more than 39 agencies and trained hundreds of local technicians to install our Solar Suitcases. We try to strengthen local supply chains. We established a Women Solar Ambassador program to enable women to lead our training workshops. Our programs have served more than 1 million mothers and their newborns in health facilities with catchment populations totalling 35 million people.

 

"As our organization has grown, so too have our challenges. Our current programs require deployment of more than 100 Solar Suitcases at a time."

 

As our organization has grown, so too have our challenges. Our current programs require deployment of more than 100 Solar Suitcases at a time. Regulatory challenges can make importation costly and time-consuming. We partner with governments, NGOs and UN agencies such as Pathfinder International, Jhpiego, AMREF, UNFPA and UNICEF to implement our programmes. One of the biggest challenges is in designing sustainable programmes to deliver and service our technology in regions with poor physical and political infrastructure. We don’t want our Solar Suitcases to enter the technology device graveyard so common in the developing world.

Sometimes the pressure feels overwhelming – we have limited staff and we are tackling an enormous problem. As we approach our breaking point, we always seem to receive an inspiring story of how the Solar Suitcase is helping a health provider, or a clinic, or saving a life. So we take a breath, solve one problem at a time, and remind ourselves of why this work is so vitally important.

Summary

  1. We Care Solar’s innovation truly lies at the juxtaposition of three Sustainable Development Goals: global health (SDG3), gender equality (SDG5) and access to clean and renewable energy for all (SDG7). The We Care Solar Suitcase directly supports targets outlined in Sustainable Development Goal 3 for reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health: specifically those aiming to reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births, and the neonatal mortality rate to 12 per 1,000 live births by 2030. The unique innovation also promotes renewable energy and the use of energy efficient devices (SDG7).
  2. We Care Solar is also addresses gender equity (SDG5) as an organization, through its Women’s Solar Ambassador Program to support women as solar installation trainers around the world.
  3. In 2015, We Care Solar received the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA) ‘Powering the Future We Want’ award, and was selected for their contribution to innovative practices in energy for sustainable development. The grant prize, for the amount of one million US dollars, has helped fund a regional training program, the development of a remote monitor for the newest Solar Suitcase version, and on-the-ground programming in Africa and Asia. To date, 2400+ health centres worldwide are equipped with the Solar Suitcase, and more than 10,000 health workers have been trained on this technology.
  4. We Care Solar helped catalyze a global movement on the use of sustainable energy for maternal health care. Dr. Stachel advocated for inclusion of healthcare within the UN Sustainable Energy for All (SE4A) initiative and co-chaired the UN Foundation's Practitioner's Working Group on Energy for Health. She became a vocal proponent of clean energy solutions for safe childbirth, and has spoken about this topic at the World Health Organization, the United Nations, the World Bank and international forums. We Care Solar worked in partnership with UN Foundation and WHO to help the United Nations launch its "High Impact Opportunity" on Energy for Healthcare for Women.

 

When asked about future aspirations, Dr Stachel described We Care Solar’s newest initiative, called Light Every Birth. Light Every Birth spotlights the importance of sustainable energy for safe childbirth—linking global goals for energy, gender equity, and health—and advocates for renewable energy to be included in comprehensive approaches to maternal and child healthcare. We Care Solar is launching this program by partnering with Ministries of Health in Liberia and Uganda, ensuring that every maternal health centre in these two countries are equipped with essential electricity and reliable lighting. Dr. Stachel reflects, “We look forward to the day when all health workers have the power they need to save lives, and women no longer die in childbirth.”

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Useful Links

References

SDG Resource Centre: https://sdgresources.relx.com/

UN Sustainable Development Goals: 17 goals to transform our world:

http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

UN Sustainable Development Goal 3 - “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages": https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg3

UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 - “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/gender-equality/

UN Sustainable Development Goal 7 - "Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.": https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg7

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