Healthcare in GhanaFor Ghanaian students enjoying Empower Playgrounds, Inc.’s (EPI) merry-go-rounds, scrapes, cuts and bruises are shrugged off with a laugh. However, treating medical emergencies like malaria infection, especially in rural areas, is no laughing matter.

EPI, A nonprofit organization based in Ghana, operates in remote locations where electricity is almost nonexistent, and medical centers are extremely scarce. By building playgrounds that generate electricity, EPI prioritizes children’s entertainment as much as their health and education.

The Borgen Project had the opportunity to speak with Ben Markham, the founder of EPI, about healthcare in Ghana. According to Markham, when a student falls extremely ill at school, a teacher will accompany the student to the nearest trained nurse, if one exists. The student and teacher will often travel by foot out of town, and if the medical emergency is severe, the teacher will leave the student at the facility and walk back to the community to inform the child’s parents.

Fortunately, healthcare in Ghana is transitioning to include more technology and communication channels. With substantial telehealth investment injected into rural Ghanaian towns, these communities stand a chance to receive basic health supplies and on-demand medical attention through telehealth methods.

Telemedicine is More Accessible Than In-Person Visits

In response to COVID-19, Ghana’s Ministry of Health proposed to open 94 new hospitals across the country between 2020 to 2021. In a statement addressed to the nation, Ghanaian president Akufo-Addo said that the pandemic exposed “the deficiencies of the healthcare system,” casting blame towards under-investment. So how will the addition of more hospitals benefit areas outside of the country’s municipalities?

Lack of basic healthcare in Ghana stands as a serious issue in the non-urban areas of the country. Nearly half (49 percent) of Ghanaians live in rural communities, and many communities lack a central facility and have a shortage of medical professionals. The Ghana Health Service (GHS) has partnered with various entities to solve this problem on the ground.

For example, Community-Based Health Planning and Services (CHPS) trains volunteers to provide health services in rural communities. Additionally, GHS has partnered with Novatoris Foundation to develop teleconsultant centers. These centers allow community nurses, who usually lack equipment and staff, to speak with urban nurses over the phone when medical urgencies arise, such as childbirth.

Within the last ten years, healthcare in Ghana has seen emerging interest and attention directed toward telehealth. When the first teleconsultant centers opened in 2011, 60 percent of calls were maternity-related, mainly due to the fact that the majority of maternal mortality occurred in rural areas. In effect, telemedicine became an avenue of investment to bridge spatial and temporal gaps for remote Ghanaians.

Vodafone Proves to be a Major Player in Ghanaian Health

Among technologies and assets helping Ghanaians stay informed about their health, the cellular company Vodafone stands out.

The company has partnered with Ghana’s healthcare industry through its philanthropic arm, Vodafone Ghana Foundation. In 2019, the foundation cleared the medical debts of 180 Ghanaian patients who had been discharged yet detained due to outstanding hospital bills. Upon settlement, all 180 former patients were released from detention. In 2018, the company partnered with the central government to monitor epidemics, specifically targeting the Ebola virus, by aggregating heat maps from customers’ GPS movements. They are doing the same with coronavirus today.

In the spring of 2020, as the novel coronavirus moved into Ghana, Vodafone stepped in to dispel misinformation. The Vodafone Healthline Medical Centers, call centers equipped with medical experts, expanded services to include representatives who communicate in a variety of local languages including Ga, Twi, Fante, Ewe and Hausa.

Managing Expectations

Markham and his staffers know of telemedicine services, but they remain skeptical. Cellular signal breaks up where cell towers are not present, and towers can often be 32 kilometers outside of a remote community. In addition, many Ghanaians turn their cell phones off to save battery, since many of them are still powered with AA batteries rather than chargers. Cell phone credits are also considered precious, leading to many people turning their devices off to save unused credits. All these factors could inhibit the ability of telemedicine to improve healthcare in Ghana.

However, Markham feels optimistic about the role that technology can play in providing health services to rural-based Ghanaians. He believes grassroots efforts, such as the Community-Based Health Planning and Services, should continue to expand at the same rate as telehealth and tech-based health initiatives.

– Victoria Colbert
Photo: Empower Playgrounds, Inc.

With the tagline­, “Lighting the world with recess,” U.S.-based nonprofit Empower Playgrounds has developed electricity-generating playground equipment that channels the unbridled liveliness of children in rural communities. So far, their merry-go-round and accompanying science kits have been brought to sixteen schools in Ghana.

Empower Playgrounds was founded in 2007 by ExxonMobil Research and Engineering’s former Vice President of Engineering, Ben Markham, and developed in partnership by Brigham Young University’s (BYU) engineering department. The team at BYU worked to design Empower Playgrounds’ merry-go-round so that the equipment captures the kinetic energy of the kids playing on it. This energy is then stored in a car battery that recharges several dozen portable LED lanterns. These lanterns were originally camping-grade models, but in 2009 Energizer became a sponsor of Empower Playgrounds and provided the organization with specifically designed LED lights. These new lights have a shelf life of five years and provide the equivalent of a 25-watt light bulb that lasts for over 40 hours.

Now, what is the big deal about these lights? Why is this technology so valuable?

Ghana’s location just above the equator does well to explain this need. Its location causes the country to experience around 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness each day. This means that Ghanaians are forced to spend around half their lives in the darkness. This affects the country’s young people in particular, because they are usually part of the daily agricultural work force while also trying to attend school. With a limited amount of daylight, young people are often forced to sacrifice their studies to help on the family farm.

Empower Playgrounds is providing these young people with the light they need to carry out their schoolwork after the day turns dark. The children at each school are divided by neighborhood into “lantern groups,” where they can study at night around the same lantern.

In addition to providing a valuable source of light, Empower Playgrounds’ equipment serves as a practical science lab, through which teachers can demonstrate concepts in mechanics, physics, and energy transfer. In collaboration with science equipment manufacturer Loose in the Lab, Empower Playgrounds has developed a science kit and lesson plans to teach these concepts using demonstrations on the merry-go-round.

Through these practical lessons and the provision of high-quality lanterns, children in Ghana have become more excited about going to school and helping to solve the electricity shortages in many rural areas of Ghana.

– Tara Young

Sources: Empower Playgrounds, Fast Company, Clean Technica, Revolve Magazine
Photo: Treehugger