Innovation ‘inside the box’

A clinic in Liberia uses the Solar Suitcase. Photo by: Laura Stachel / WE CARE

Most rural villages in developing countries are lucky to have their own health care centers, however sparsely equipped. But these health centers and their staff often face one particularly crippling challenge: a lack of reliable sources of light and electricity.

Laura Stachel, a U.S.-based doctor, witnessed this problem during a trip to Nigeria. There, she saw how, come nighttime, surgeries are being delayed or conducted in poor lighting, and emergencies are ill-attended to. Case in point: Rhoda Zinom, a midwife who’s delivered babies naturally and through caesarean section by the dim light of a kerosene lamp.

After her trip, Stachel decided she wanted to bring light – literally – to these rural health centers and save lives, especially of infants and their mothers, along the way. She worked with her husband, a solar energy expert, to develop an innovative and portable solar energy kit they dubbed the WE CARE Solar Suitcase.

The product is aptly named: It is a suitcase that comes with solar panels, LED headlamps with their own rechargeable batteries, a universal cell phone charger that can also be used for two-way radios, outlets for 12 volt DC devices, and a battery charger for AAA or AA batteries. It also features a 12 amp-hour sealed lead-acid battery that can be charged and stored separately.

The first of the WE CARE Solar Suitcases were deployed in June 2009 to health centers in rural villages in northern Nigeria. The kits have since been introduced to at least fourteen countries, including in Haiti, where they were used by medical teams that joined the international response in the aftermath of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.

With growing recognition and demand for the Solar Suitcase, Stachel and her husband, Hal Aronson, expanded their team to include more designers and volunteers. They have also earned the support of research institutions and foundations like the Blum Center for Developing Economies and The MacArthur Foundation.

It wasn’t also long before the World Health Organization took notice. WE CARE was tapped by WHO for a project to study the effects of electricity on maternal health outcomes in Liberia.

The WE CARE team – like many others creating innovative solar energy products – continues to improve on its product, based on continued case studies and conversations with actual users. How far these social entrepreneurs can scale their products and how much impact they will have remains to be seen. But thinking “inside the box” can hold promise, that much is sure.

About the author

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    Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.