Safe Delivery: Solar Suitcases that Save Mothers and Infants

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Safe Delivery: Solar Suitcases that Save Mothers and Infants

Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$50,000 - $100,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

WE CARE Solar brings portable solar electric kits to clinics and small hospitals to power lighting, mobile communication and essential medical equipment for emergency obstetric care. Our ‘solar suitcases’ are low-cost, easy-to-use, robust and reliable, enabling health care workers in low-resource areas to provide safe and prompt obstetric care.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Our project addresses the problems resulting from unreliable electricity and lack of mobile communication in maternity centers around the world. Without reliable electricity and phones, night time lighting cannot be assured, midwives cannot locate doctors, and essential medical equipment lies dormant. Midwives conduct deliveries and repair lacerations by the dim glow of a candle or kerosene lantern. Nurses wait hours for messengers to try and locate physicians to provide emergency procedures. Doctors have inadequate lighting for surgical procedures, and sometimes do their job by candlelight. And the patients they care for are the ones to suffer. Women labor in darkness, waiting for skilled care that may never come. Critically ill women face tragic delays in care, or are asked to find another facility that may or may not have better services. All too often, they receive suboptimal care. All too often, the life of a baby or a mother is lost.
About You
WE CARE Solar (Women's Emergency Communication And Reliable Electricity)
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Section 1: About You
First Name


Last Name





United States, CA

Are you an individual between the ages of 18 and 35 who would like to apply for a nine month Young Champions Program mentored by an Ashoka Fellow?


Section 2: About Your Organization
Organization Name

WE CARE Solar (Women's Emergency Communication And Reliable Electricity)

Organization Phone

(510) 219-7044

Organization Address

3009 HIllegass Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94705

Organization Country

United States, CA

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Your idea
Country your work focuses on

Nigeria, KD

What makes your idea unique?

The solar suitcase provides a simple solution to one aspect of maternity care that is all too often overlooked – lack of reliable electricity. This technological innovation came out of months of field work in Nigeria, and was developed by an interdisciplinary American team in concert with Nigerian midwives, doctors and surgical technicians. It combines off-the-shelf solar electric technology with a few plug-and-play enhancements to create a user friendly technology that is robust, easy-to-understand, and easy-to-maintain. Despite its simplicity, it allows health care workers ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD to have surgical quality light, power for mobile communication, and power for medical devices. It is modular and expandable. The entry level suitcase provides light, battery charging for headlamps, and power for mobile communication. The suitcase can be easily augmented to power computers and fans. It is being used for electronic medical records in Africa, and by medical relief workers in Haiti. With additional solar panels and batteries, it will power a blood bank refrigerator.

The suitcase was purposely designed to be easy to replicate. Our goal is to eventually train a cadre of solar technicians to first repair and eventually make these suitcases in their own country. We think that by training people to make these we are empowering them to use the suitcases for health care, education, and entrepreneurial activities. By increasing the livelihood of community members, we help take people out of poverty, and improve the health of the whole community.

Do you have a patent for this idea?

What impact have you had?

We studied the effects of our solar powered intervention in two state hospitals and two primary health care clinics in Nigeria. In the first hospital, we brought in solar powered lighting, walkie-talkies and a blood bank refrigerator. In the other, we simply supplied overhead and portable LED lighting for the maternity ward and operating theatre.
In both hospitals, the maternal mortality rates decreased substantially (more than 50% drop in institutional maternal deaths) while the hospitals showed an increased capacity to see obstetric patients. In the first hospital, health care workers reported feeling less stress at work, and greater ease in performing procedures. Patients were no longer turned away due to lack of lighting and failure to find doctors. Blood transfusions were easier to perform. Midwives told us that they no longer fear night duty. In the second hospital, the medical director told us they can perform c/sections at night for the first time, and no longer send patients needing surgery to look for other hospitals at night. He reported that mortality rates dropped by 60%, and said that the maternity staff is more confident and motivated with the enhanced lighting.
In the primary health clinics, midwives told us that with the solar suitcase LED lights they can identify complications sooner and can do procedures that were almost impossible when they relied on candlelight or kerosene lanterns. They are certain that lives are being saved, but we have not yet conducted formal studies.

In future research, in addition to following maternal mortality in hospitals and clinics, we will assess the impact of the solar suitcase on infant mortality, infant morbidity and maternal morbidity.


• We are developing a second-generation solar suitcase that is lower-cost and more user-friendly than our 1st-generation suitcase. We will be field-testing these in Nigeria Uganda, and Haiti and utilizing user-feedback to shape our final design.
• We are developing educational materials and live curriculum to enhance capacity to use, maintain, and assemble our suitcases.
• We have applied for research funds to conduct rigorous studies the impact of the solar suitcase.
• We are applying for non-profit status and are refining our social business plan. We are applying for funds to develop our organizational capacity.
• We are trying to scale up to meet demand! Right now, we are meeting with manufacturers to assess how we can produce and distribute solar suitcases in the short term. In the long-term we aim to build local capacity and assemble solar suitcases around the world.


• We expect to have a robust, low cost, user-friendly, efficient solar suitcase by the end of this year.
• We will have instruction manuals in several languages, trouble shooting guides, and repair guides. We have been teaching American students and other volunteers to assemble suitcases for our international work. We will have adapted this curriculum for use in Africa.
• Our field research will enable us to demonstrate the impact of our intervention on maternal and infant mortality and morbidity, We also will assess the impact on health care workers.
• We will be a non-profit enterprise with a clear business plan and strategy for moving forward.
• We will have established relationships with manufacturers who share our vision, and will engage distribution partners in country. We have already begun partnerships with UNICEF, The Nigerian State Government of Kaduna, and other NGOs.

What will it take for your project to be successful over the next three years? Please address each year separately, if possible.

Year 1: Get Power to Clinics. Our initial priority is to finalize the prototype of the solar suitcase, and put the final prototype through robust field testing in 2-3 countries under difficult remote clinic conditions. We will conduct field research to gauge the impact of improved lighting and communication on patient outcomes, patient turnover, and staff acceptance. We seek to establish distribution partners in 4-5 countries, and solicit large local government and NGO contracts for the purchase, delivery and installation of dozens of modular WE CARE solar systems to begin to achieve scale and build a social enterprise. Additional philanthropic investment will be necessary to move beyond an all-volunteer manufacturing and administrative capacity, and to take first steps at establishing a scalable, nonprofit social enterprise.

Year 2 – Improve maternity care: Our second priority is to further improve maternity care by using the solar suitcase as a platform for powering (1) portable ultrasound machines, (2) fetal monitors, (3) computers and (4) educational videos/DVDs to teach health care workers life-saving techniques. To ensure success, technical staff must be hired to vet and adapt current technologies to function under the moderate supply of electricity supplied by the solar suitcase. Partnerships with device manufacturers are essential, and resources to buy, adapt and field test systems will be necessary.

Year 3 – Build local capacity for solar system manufacturing. Our eventual objective is to enhance the capacity of communities to assemble their own solar suitcases. We will develop training programs in low-resource countries, facilitate mechanisms for distribution and maintenance of the solar suitcase, and commit to keeping our solar suitcase technology and design transparent to facilitate knowledge transfer.

What would prevent your project from being a success?

1. Insufficient financial resources to move beyond all-volunteer administrative, research and manufacturing operation. Outsourcing some design, manufacturing and assembly of solar suitcases is essential in the short-term, as demand has already exceeded current volunteer capacity.
2. A sub-optimal solar suitcase prototype that doesn’t live up to expectations of usability, safety, reliability, and affordability in remote clinics. We must have a model that exceeds the expectations of clinic staff, and far outlasts typical medical technologies introduced into low-resource settings.
3. Inability to identify institutional customers willing to purchase modular solar suitcases at reasonable scale (>20 systems) so that WE CARE Solar can achieve some manufacturing economies of scale.
4. Lack of basic local technical capacity for long-term maintenance of solar systems in settings where they are introduced. A local supply chain of essential replacement parts (LED lights, batteries) is necessary as well.

How many people will your project serve annually?

More than 10,000

What is the average monthly household income in your target community, in US Dollars?

Less than $50

Does your project seek to have an impact on public policy?


What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Is your initiative connected to an established organization?

If yes, provide organization name.
How long has this organization been operating?

Please select

Does your organization have a Board of Directors or an Advisory Board?


Does your organization have a non-monetary partnerships with NGOs?


Does your organization have a non-monetary partnerships with businesses?


Does your organization have a non-monetary partnerships with government?


Please tell us more about how these partnerships are critical to the success of your innovation.

Partnerships with NGOs that have an established field presence and supply chains that reach into remote health clinics, and have the capacity to purchase small-scale energy systems are a primary market for the sale and distribution of solar suitcases.
Partnerships with businesses, especially businesses in the solar energy, medical device, and outsourced manufacturing spheres, are essential – as such organizations provide technical advice, discount on components, product development expertise and are the path through which WE CARE Solar will scale manufacturing.
Partnerships with government, especially those governments with large rural health care infrastructure, are essential – as they are seen as another primary market for large scale purchase, distribution and maintenance of WE CARE Solar solar electric systems.

What are the three most important actions needed to grow your initiative or organization?

1. Establish formal nonprofit organizational infrastructure
2. Raise operational funding to hire research and product development team to complete product field testing and scale up manufacturing.
3. Build distribution channel partnerships for the sale and delivery of modular solar systems in rural health clinics.

The Story
What was the defining moment that you led to this innovation?

38. What was the defining moment that you led to this innovation? (300 words or less)
When I was in Nigeria, I was helping a medical team conduct an emergency cesarean section Nigerian state hospital. All the lights in the operating room went out, and the doctors needed to finish the surgery by the beam of our flashlight. I realized that all my years of clinical experience were useless in a situation where there was no light to perform a delivery or surgery, and no phone system to call a skilled doctor. During the next week, I saw time and time again how a lack of basic infrastructure impaired the delivery of safe and timely care. I watched women literally bleeding to death in a state hospital that had no blood bank and no way to reach a surgeon. I saw women with uterine rupture (from days of labor at home) turned away from the hospital because there was no light to perform emergency surgery. I watched newborn babies die when lack of lighting and suction (no electricity) made effective resuscitation impossible.
I knew that these tragic scenes did not have to happen. Skilled workers were available or on-call to provide emergency care. The thing preventing the delivery of skilled emergency care was the lack of lighting, the lack of a reliable mobile communication system, and the lack of electricity for blood banks and essential equipment.

This realization affected me deeply, and left me with a determination to find a sustainable solution to the problem of unreliable electricity in maternity care facilities.

Tell us about the social innovator behind this idea.

Laura Stachel M.D., M.P.H., the founder of WE CARE Solar, as is a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist with fourteen years of clinical experience, holding an MD from University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and an MPH in Maternal and Child Health from University of California, Berkeley (UCB). As a DrPH candidate a The School of Public Health (UCB), her dissertation centers on emergency obstetric care in Nigeria. Laura is the Associate Director of Emergency Obstetric Research for the Bixby Center for Population Health and Sustainability. Laura is a consultant for the Population Reproductive Health Partnership, and is one of the principal investigators for a collaborative Population Council study aiming to improving the standard of maternity care in Nigerian state hospitals. Laura serves on the Editorial Board for the Berkeley Wellness Letter and is a lecturer at the UCB School of Public Health.

In 2007, Laura was invited to lead an investigation of emergency obstetric care in Northern Nigeria. Her research alerted her to the challenges facing state hospitals: inadequate staffing, scarce supplies, and deficient hospital infrastructure, including sporadic electricity. She found that the most critical factors contributing to life-threatening delays in obstetric care were (1) a lack of reliable lighting, (2) the failure to locate doctors in a timely manner, and (3) the inability to utilize critical medical devices that rely on electricity.

Determined to improve hospital conditions. Laura returned to the United States and assembled an interdisciplinary team to improve lighting, electricity, and mobile communication in the state hospital. Laura’s partner, solar technology trainer Hal Aronson, PhD, designed a portable solar electric system to allow Laura to demonstrate high efficiency LED lighting and walkie-talkies to health care workers in anticipation of a much larger, permanent installation. Nigerian health providers used the suitcase-size system over the next six months and reported improved obstetric outcomes. Soon health care workers from many hospitals and clinics in Northern Nigeria were asking for their own sun-powered electricity and lighting kit. The ‘solar suitcase’ was born.

How did you first hear about Changemakers?

Personal contact at Changemakers

If through another, please provide the name of the organization or company