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The solar suitcase


Laura Stachel 
The real seed for the idea came about from field research I was doing for my graduate studies. I went as an intern for the Bixby Center for Population Health and Sustainability to Northern Nigeria to work on a project to reduce maternal mortality. By training I'm an obstetrician/gynecologist and I was there to study conditions inside the hospital. And what I saw was that there wasn't a reliable source of electricity in the hospital that the public utility was only active between two and 12 hours a day and for the rest of the day there would be no electricity or there would be short bursts of energy from a generator that could be used for up to three hours a day.

Because of this, they were not able to do cesarean sections around the clock.  They were not able to use equipment such as an ultrasound machine to do diagnostics.  They couldn't power a blood bank refrigerator so there was no system for a rapid transfusion for women who were hemorrhaging.  And I wrote letters to my husband while I was in African.  He's a solar energy educator.  And he said that perhaps we could use a solar electric system installed in the hospital to try and provide a reliable source of lighting and electricity.

And so we put together a suitcase sized system to be able to demonstrate to the hospital staff how we could use solar electricity to power walkie-talkies, to power lights and to power batteries for head lamps that they could use during care.  Well the staff liked this so much they asked if they could use the suitcase for the next six months. And it worked very well.  And at that point we realized that you could get quite a lot of bang out of a small solar suitcase.

So when opening up the suitcase the first thing you'll see is a solar panel.  This is a flexible module that can go on top any surface.  The system is designed to be plug n play so that it can be used by people that don't have any technical expertise.  And you can only plug in the solar panels one way.  This light only uses three watts of electricity and the solar suite case can power this light for 30 hours.  This is replacing things like candles and kerosene lanterns in the clinics which these are being used and it has completely help to improve obstetric care.  The nurses told me they were able to provide suturing for patients, they said they could identify complications and not only did it provide better care for patients but it lowered the injury rate for nurses and doctors because they could see what they were doing more easily. 

So, right now the most solar suitcases are being used in Northern Nigeria and they're also being used in Haiti. what I've been really happy about is that it's brought the issue of maternal mortality and safety in healthcare to the attention of many, many people who I think would otherwise not be involved.  And we now have supporters literally from all over the country.