Like all modern medical centers, the five rural health clinics in eastern Rwanda operated by Partners In Health (PIH) need reliable power 24/7. But unlike other offgrid facilities, each of these centers is powered by a hefty 4.4-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system designed and installed by the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF). The solar systems have been up and running since February 2007.
The five clinics represent a number of “firsts.” For PIH — a Boston, Massachusetts-based nonprofit healthcare organization dedicated to bringing modern medical care to those most in need — the project was its first foray into Africa and its first use of solar power. Also, this is the first time SELF has extended the solar technology envelope to supply such large amounts of electricity to rural health centers. This PIH project is supported by the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative, among other donors and NGOs.
At the five clinics — located in Mulindi, Rusumo, Rukira, Nyarabuye and Kirehe — solar power systems supply electricity for state-of-the-art laboratories, refrigeration, computer record-keeping and communication, including satellite dishes to transmit data. In the laboratories, solar electricity powers microscopes, blood analysis machines, centrifuges, portable X-ray machines and sterilization devices. The systems also provide extensive lighting, as these are 24-hour facilities with patient wards.
Solar vs. Diesel
This PIH/SELF partnership might never have happened if SELF had not persuaded the PIH staff to question the time-honored proverb, never look a gift horse in the mouth. Partners In Health had planned initially to use diesel generators that had been donated by The Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. However, SELF staff assessed the Rwanda sites to determine the energy needed and the feasibility of solar — and they persuaded PIH that solar would be a better long-term solution to meet the electric power needs of its rural health centers. Solar does not emit carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases, and while upfront capital costs are higher, solar is ultimately less expensive over time, and more reliable and sustainable.
“The generators might be ‘free,’ but diesel fuel costs would be a constant burden, assuming fuel is available,” explained SELF Executive Director Bob Freling. “Currently, in fact, there is a national shortage of diesel in Rwanda,” he said. “Further, diesel is a petroleum derived product, so even if obtainable, its cost will rise with the price of oil, which will always be unpredictable, subject to the whims of the market, availability of supply, and geopolitical constraints.”
But solar power cannot be disrupted in this way. As long as the system is properly installed and maintained — and as long as the sun emits energy — solar is the most reliable source of power for rural communities not connected to a national utility grid.
The reliability argument won PIH to solar. In a hospital setting, where procedures are conducted all the time, reliable power is paramount. SELF designed hybrid systems that rely on solar energy to meet ninety percent or more of the clinics’ needs, with generators providing back-up power during prolonged periods of rain or extra heavy electricity usage.
A key feature of SELF projects is that they must be locally sustainable. For the five clinics, SELF trained local staff to look after the solar systems. In addition, SELF has been working with the Rwandan Ministry of Health and the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology to develop a national training program for installing and maintaining solar electric systems.
The Power of Partnership
“This is a great example of the power of partnership,” Freling said. “Two nonprofit organizations with different but overlapping agendas — healthcare for the poor and sustainable energy for the developing world — came together; SELF provided a service that enables PIH to fulfill its mission in an economical, sustainable, nonpolluting, carbon-free way.”
SELF raised eighty percent of the funds for the solar power project. Although this amount was a small fraction of the millions of dollars PIH and donors have invested in the Rwanda health centers, it was nonetheless critical. “None of what PIH is hoping to accomplish can be done without a reliable source of electric power,” said Jeff Lahl, SELF’s Project Director.
More broadly, SELF’s aim is to act as a catalyst to help PIH and other international organizations rethink their power strategy when they plan for community improvements in rural areas, from healthcare to education to economic development.
“Choosing solar electrification over diesel-powered generators represents a paradigm shift in the thinking of those in the international development sector,” Lahl said.
“SELF’s success with these projects will help create results-oriented, nonpolluting, sustainable solutions that are replicable on a large scale.”
Dr. Michael Rich, Country Director for PIH-Rwanda, commented: “SELF is raising the bar when it comes to what services a health center can and should provide. It does this through putting in place reliable solar energy systems designed to run for years and years. This allows the health center to maintain the cold chain in vaccinations, perform life-saving diagnostic laboratory tests, improves communications using cell phones and the internet, and increases the overall capacity of nurses to work at night. The difference in morale and function is remarkable.”
Anita Blumenthal is a freelance writer based in Maryland.
Partners In Health (PIH), founded by Dr. Paul Farmer, is active in the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, Russia and the United States. Through service, training, advocacy, and research, and by establishing long-term relationships with sister organizations, PIH strives to achieve two overarching goals: to bring the benefits of modern medical science to those most in need of them and to serve as an antidote to despair. For more information, visit www.pih.org
The Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) helps rural communities in the developing world power a brighter future for their people and the planet through innovative uses of solar energy. SELF’s projects address vital needs including household lighting, water pumping and purification, vaccine refrigeration, microenterprise, and modern communications. In every action, SELF seeks to honor the integrity of indigenous cultures and to respect the delicate balance of the local and global ecosystem. SELF is working with PIH on additional projects. To learn more about SELF or to make a donation in support of one or all of these projects, visit the website at www.self.org.