Can a Solar Power System in a Suitcase Save Mothers' Lives?

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The solar solution that could improve maternity care anywhere reliable electricity isn't available

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A lot of technologies come to be because somebody out in the world has a cool idea about some new thing they could do in the world. Not so for the WE CARE Solar Suitcase, which grew out of the acute need co-founder Dr. Laura Stachel saw for lighting to aid doctors trying to save women's lives during childbirth in Nigeria.

"The lack of reliable electricity and lighting completely imapirs the ability to deliver skilled emergency obstetric care. Midwives are trying to deliver babies by kerosene lantern or by candlelight," Stachel told me when I ran into her at the Aspen Ideas Festival. "I was in a situation in a large state hospital where the lights went out during a C-section and had to be completed in flashlight. I've even heard of people using the lights from their cell phones to try and finish surgeries."

The Ideas Report

When Stachel returned from Nigeria, she talked with her husband, Hal Aronson, an environmental sociologist and long-time solar tinkerer about building a solar solution for maternity clinics. What they came up with in 2009 -- and have improved over the last several years -- is the solar suitcase. It's now been deployed in nine countries with more clinics calling or emailing every day.

Designed for maximum simplicity, the self-contained system can be set up in minutes. (I tried it and that's no exaggeration.) The panel charges a long life-span battery and comes with high-efficiency lights that are designed to last for 50,000 hours as well as a fetal doppler baby monitor. Of course, it can also be used to charge cell phones or walkie talkies. "It's an expandable, but immediately operational unit," Stachel said.

In the past, humanitarian designers and other people making stuff for the third world have criticized solar installations because if they break down, they can be difficult to fix.

Nowadays, solar panels have gotten more rugged and designers have learned their lessons from previous generations of failed products. The other components of the suitcase -- like the battery -- can be replaced with local products. I would also add that an installation at a hospital, where doctors and midwives have a vested interest in maintaining the system, is much different from a general village system or something created without a target group in mind.

"We provide capacity building trainings in these countries so people understand how to troubleshoot if people know what to do if something goes wrong, and we're working on developing supply chains, so if people need spare parts, they'll be available," Stachel said.

For WE CARE, the great thing is that they get to ride solar energy's leaps in efficiency, miniaturization and ruggedization. The Solar Suitcase wasn't possible a few years ago, let alone in the 1980s, when Aronson installed his first solar system in Santa Cruz County. The system is designed to be solar panel agnostic, actually, so what you see above is the newest iteration, complete with a new type of more rugged panel.

The organization's fiscal sponsor is Inveneo, a non-profit organization that's trying to bring IT and communications tech to the developing world. Stachel was also a PopTech fellow, like Atlantic Tech friends Heather Fleming of Catapult Design and Leila Chirayath Janah of Samasource.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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