by James Temple
Sunday, October 16, 2011
In March 2008, Dr. Laura Stachel arrived in the obstetrics ward of a state hospital in Zaria, Nigeria, determined to find out why so many women were dying in childbirth.
The poverty-stricken country on the coast of West Africa accounts for 2 percent of the world’s population but 10 percent of maternal deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Stachel, an obstetrician-gynecologist then pursuing a doctorate of public health at UC Berkeley, expected to provide clinical advice on ways to improve procedures.
But she learned something far more basic was going wrong: The hospitals and health clinics simply didn’t have electricity for large and unpredictable parts of the day.
Stachel saw midwives delivering babies by kerosene lantern. She observed a cesarean section during which the lights went out, forcing the surgeons to finish using her flashlight. She watched as a woman who arrived with a uterine rupture and barely a pulse was told to find a clinic with power.
“I was seeing the sickest patients I’d ever seen in rooms not as well equipped as an American garage,” she said. “I would be there at night and think, ‘I’m just here to watch these women die.’ ”
Without reliable electricity and standard tools, “(hospital workers) couldn’t do the job they were trained to do,” she said.
So instead of giving medical advice, she decided to get them more reliable power. As it happened, she knew whom to ask. Her husband, Hal Aronson, has spent more than a decade teaching about renewable energy systems throughout California.
When Stachel returned from Nigeria, they set to work designing a solar system for the hospital. The project would eventually lead them to form WE CARE Solar (wecaresolar.org), a Berkeley nonprofit that’s now delivered 80 compact solar systems to health clinics around the world, including Burma, Liberia and Haiti. Dozens more will soon be en route to Uganda, Nigeria and India.
On Thursday, the organization will be recognized as one of 15 laureates at the Tech Awards in San Jose, an annual event celebrating individuals and organizations around the globe that leverage technology to benefit humanity.
Stachel never intended for any of this to happen.
She spent 14 years as an obstetrician-gynecologist, building up a Berkeley practice that she loved, helping thousands of women deliver healthy babies. But a degenerative back condition made it harder and harder to do the job, eventually forcing her to give up all deliveries and surgical procedures in 2002.
“I had this injury where I couldn’t do what I was trained to do,” she said, echoing the words she used for those doctors in Nigeria. “I was robbed of that.”
She decided to study public health, which was what brought her to Nigeria as a consultant. The Zaria solar project eventually became the subject of her dissertation. But even that was supposed to be a one-off – until things took an unexpected turn.
Using a grant from the Blum Center for Developing Economies and funds from UC Berkeley, Stachel and Aronson went to work on a more than $20,000 project to provide a blood bank, communications system and nearly 1-kilowatt solar system at the hospital. It would be enough to keep the lights, suction machines and other critical infrastructure humming when the power flickered out.
To test their design, Aronson and Stachel created a miniature prototype that fit into a suitcase, in part to minimize customs issues. That small system, however, had a big, immediate impact at the hospital.
The local doctors pleaded with Stachel to leave the suitcase while the full system was under development. Smaller health clinics in outlying regions that got word of the hospital’s solar system would later petition for one as well.
The couple realized they’d inadvertently struck upon what could be a scalable solution for health clinics throughout Nigeria and other impoverished regions. The prototype “solar suitcase” contained less than $1,000 of gear. How could they say no?
In the year after the large solar system was installed in the Zaria hospital, the maternal mortality rate dropped by about 70 percent.
Stachel deflects credit for the success rate, saying the role that light and communications played required further study. Aronson, though, points out that the local doctors couldn’t cite any variables other than the power supply.
Finally, Stachel allows this much: “It’s been a driving force for us doing this now for three years. This experience really changed our lives completely.”
Getting to scale
That’s evident with a stroll through the backyard of the couple’s Berkeley home. The roof of the rear workshop is lined with solar panels. Wires, LED lights, electrical components and half-built suitcases clutter the walls and work spaces.
Giving a quick tour, Aronson explains that he assembles the 40- to 80-watt suitcases by hand, a process that takes about three hours each.
They’re designed to be simple to use and difficult to break. The basic components include a folding solar panel, a battery that can be replaced locally, a charge controller that regulates the flow of energy and an array of sockets. The newest suitcases, which cost around $1,500 to produce, also arrive packed with headlamps, rechargeable solar lanterns, walkie-talkies and other goodies.
So far, the operation has been funded through personal savings, donations and grants, including from the Blum Center and the UBS Optimus Foundation. Stachel turned her 50th birthday party into a fundraiser that covered the cost of two suitcases.
The organization is now in the midst of significant change, as Stachel and Aronson attempt to transform it from a scrappy group with a perpetual handout to a self-sufficient nonprofit. They’ve added three full-time staff positions this year, and a MacArthur Foundation grant last year was designated to crank up production from a unit at a time to full manufacturing scale.
The hope is they can push down costs through greater economies of scale and partner with larger nongovernment organizations and other third parties to cover the overhead for the suitcases delivered to specific regions.
Eyeing the workshop, Stachel jokes that the photographer scheduled to come the following week might finally get Aronson to tidy up. She admits that it sometimes feels like WE CARE Solar has taken over their lives.
But when every donation you collect and suitcase you construct represents saved lives, it’s hard to justify a vacation. For that matter, it’s hard to take time to go out to dinner.
There’s also the fact that Stachel already lost the physical ability to help mothers and children. She seemed determined not to give up another tool to save lives.
“To think that you have to wonder whether you’re going to die every time you get pregnant in some countries is such an injustice,” she said. “Once we saw what was going on, it was impossible to turn our back on it.”