“Health care providers are working more safely, effectively, and without fear. And pregnant women are more confident in the care they’ll receive — in some places even seeking care at higher rates.”

Imagine you’re a midwife trying to attend to a woman giving birth in the middle of the night, in a hospital without a reliable source of electricity. You have to rely on kerosene or candles, a flashlight or a cell phone — if it’s charged. If you do have light it may only be enough to see a fraction of the room or your patient’s body. You may not see a new mother hemorrhaging, you may lose the mother or baby because one hand is holding the light source and you only have one hand left to work.

“If the baby is born at night and has trouble breathing, you need to be able to see how its chest goes up and down, see if its nostrils are taking in air and how they’re breathing. You can’t do that in the darkness,” explains Laura Stachel, an obstetrician-gynecologist and the executive director and co-founder of We Care Solar, a 2017 Lipman Family Prize honoree. “I’ve heard stories of midwives whose mothers’ babies died because they couldn’t see appropriately; the resuscitation equipment requires you to have your hands on the equipment and on the baby to try to position the baby correctly. You can’t do that and hold light.”


In 2008, Stachel was in Nigeria, observing childbirth and maternal health care in a state hospital. “I was appalled to see that doctors and nurses didn’t have something as basic as lighting,” Stachel recalls. It turns out that there are at least 200,000 health centers around the world that don’t have a reliable form of electricity — some of which are “last-mile health centers” in very remote areas, while others are larger state hospitals like the one Stachel visited in Nigeria. Some health centers have no electricity at all, while others have an unreliable or woefully insufficient energy source; a diffuse overhead light, for instance, that doesn’t allow a health care provider to direct light where she needs it, or electricity that can’t be trusted to stay on through the night to illuminate a birth or power essential equipment.

After hearing story upon story of health care providers working in similar conditions, it was clear to Stachel that reliable, affordable electricity would improve maternal and child health not just in Nigeria, but throughout the Global South. Around the world, over 300,000 women die from complications of pregnancy ever year; 99 percent of those deaths take place in developing countries.

So Stachel moved quickly to come up with a solution. She worked with her husband and We Care Solar co-founder, Hal Aronson, to make a portable renewable power source that would meet health care workers’ needs.

Aronson, a self-taught solar engineer with a PhD in environmental sociology, who now serves as We Care Solar’s director of technology and education, created a compact, efficient, and durable solar electric kit the size of a carry-on suitcase. The kit is equipped with medical quality-lighting, the capacity to charge cell phones and small devices, a fetal heart rate monitor, and a headlamp; it can be used anywhere that has access to sunlight for several hours a day. In addition to providing solar electric kits, We Care Solar trains their country partners to become solar installers, maintain the equipment, and train health care workers in how to use it.

“We were instantly impressed by the innovative, creative solution We Care Solar came up with to address the devastating problem of unreliable electricity for maternal and newborn health,” says Umi Howard, director of the Lipman Family Prize at the University of Pennsylvania. “As soon as you hear about their solar suitcase and its purpose, you want to help it reach health workers throughout the world.”

Since 2010, when We Care Solar began formally working in Nigeria, they’ve reached more than 2400 health facilities in countries around world, primarily in Africa, as well as Nepal and the Philippines. In 2017, they launched their first countrywide effort in Liberia, a partnership with the Liberian government called “Light Every Birth.” In the next few years, they’d like to be working similarly in three to four additional countries.

“There is no doubt that We Care Solar’s program is a game-changer for maternal and child health,” says Barry Lipman, founder of the Lipman Family Prize. “We are deeply inspired by their innovative approach and look forward to connecting them with students and faculty at the University of Pennsylvania to help extend and accelerate their ideas.”

The impact of We Care Solar is clear: “Health care providers are working more safely, effectively, and without fear,” shares Stachel. “And pregnant women are more confident in the care they’ll receive — in some places even seeking care at higher rates.”

“We’re so excited, thanks to the Lipman Family Prize, to partner with UPenn to spread the word about and expand support for our approach,” says Stachel. “With their help, we can really try to light up countries one by one, and make this a problem of the past.”

“The more we can partner with change-makers to shed light — literally and figuratively — on solutions that work,” agrees Barry Lipman, “the more effective we’ll be at creating a better, healthier world. We Care Solar is a perfect case in point.”

Posted: April 28, 2017

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