Childbirth can present risks anywhere in the world. However, in developing countries, giving birth can often be lethal for both mother and child. The most common causes of infant mortality include infections, premature birth, or birth asphyxia, while maternal deaths are usually the result of severe bleeding or high blood pressure during pregnancy. Effective care before, during, and after childbirth is necessary to treat such complications, but many areas lack the basic resources to provide such care.

In 2008, Dr. Laura Satchel traveled to Nigeria to research possible methods of lowering the country’s maternal death rate, which currently stands at 630 deaths per 100,000 births. Nigeria also has the 10th highest infant mortality rate in the world, with 74.09 deaths per 1,000 births. While working in state hospitals, Satchel realized that many of these deaths were not simply due to illness, but unreliable electricity interfering with the doctors’ ability to treat their patients. Nighttime deliveries were often illuminated only by candlelight, cesarean sections were frequently cancelled or conducted by flashlight, and patients were forced to wait days for life-saving procedures that could not be performed without electricity. This resulted in many deaths from treatable conditions.

Satchel’s goal was to come up with an affordable solution. She contacted her husband, Hal Aronson, a solar energy educator in Berkeley, California. Aronson began designing an off-grid solar electric system, specifically intended for use in maternity wards and labor rooms. This resulted in the development of the Solar Suitcase.

The Solar Suitcase is a bright yellow pack containing high efficiency LED medical lighting, a universal cell phone charger, a battery charger, and outlets for 12V DC devices. The maternity kit also includes a fetal Doppler. The suitcase is designed to last between 10 and 20 years, only requiring a battery change every two years. When Nigerian health clinics began receiving the suitcases, doctors were immediately able to charge headlamps and walkie-talkies while they waited for larger solar installations at their facilities.

In 2009, Satchel and Aronson founded the non-profit organization We Care Solar, aiming to improve the design of the Solar Suitcase and distribute them to more clinics in need. In 2014 alone, the suitcases are estimated to have served 256,800 mothers. As of November 2014, approximately 900 suitcases had been distributed to 25 countries worldwide, from Sierra Leone to Malawi.

Although the suitcases are primarily used in maternal health clinics, they have also saved lives in the wake of natural disasters. We Care Solar sent the device to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake at the request of medical relief teams.

Currently, the organization is in the process of sending 100 suitcases to Nepal, where thousands of pregnant women are in need of medical care following the recent string of earthquakes. In the coming months, We Care Solar plans on expanding its programs in Ethiopia, Tanzania and the Philippines. In a world where mothers and newborns die each day from preventable causes, devices like the Solar Suitcase provide doctors with the tools they need to give women and their children a chance at life.

– Jane Harkness

Sources: CIA 1, CIA 2, Huffington Post, Issuu, We Care Solar, WHO 1, WHO 2
Photo: Flickr