By: GeorgeMike Luberenga of Solar Health Uganda
Energy powers health. Today, the COVID-19 pandemic is shining a light on the importance of electricity to power critical infrastructures like hospitals, ventilators, and testing labs. But, for close to 600 million people in Africa, living without access to safe energy is an ongoing struggle not only today but every day at home, at work, and most critically during the pandemic in their frontline clinics.
Delivering quality healthcare in remote, off-grid communities takes ingenuity and grit. Many frontline clinics in Africa, for instance, operate without refrigeration for vaccines, sterilization equipment, or transportation options for patients such as an ambulance. Clinics without electricity still provide care, but without electricity, interventions are limited, and outcomes are compromised. Powering care requires reliable power.
Imagine, if you can, arriving at an off-grid clinic as night falls, as you prepare to give birth or care for a sick child or tend to a feverish elderly parent. Imagine further during a pandemic seeking care and entering your health facility in the dark. A nurse turns on the flashlight on her mobile phone and grips it between her teeth. She bends over to examine your child. Without electricity, it is extremely complicated and often not safe for her to try to provide treatment.
The Kyoomya Health Center in Uganda is a solar-powered frontline health clinic. It serves a broad patient base and is staffed by a midwife, nurse and two assistants. It offers a range of preventive, outpatient, outreach, and emergency care. Situated 95 kilometers from Kampala, Kyoomya HC is one of 8 clinics in the district and 39 in Uganda that have been solar-electrified over the past 5 years by Let There Be Light International and their implementation partner, Solar Health Uganda (SHU).
As the global pandemic hit, the facility experienced an influx of new patients, as more and more people left urban areas for the villages. At the same time, patients who might have traveled to other clinics in town via public transportation were no longer able to do so, as all public transportation was shut down.
The staff, already stressed by an increasing caseload and new COVID-19 protocols, rely more and more heavily on the solar energy systems to keep the lights on and to power their cell phones, which are vital for communication. Charged cell phones are a lifeline to community outreach workers affiliated with the clinic as they monitor the health of people in remote rural communities. Sometimes, medical staff can travel to patients needing urgent care and other times they provide medical consultations via the outreach workers to patients unable to access the clinic on foot. Thanks to reliable electricity in the clinic, the staff is able to receive reports on suspected COVID-19 cases and send the information to the central hospitals and the Ministry of Health administrators.
Energy Powers Health Care and Communication
The staff at Kyoomya Health Center are also able to power a television with their solar panels in order to watch and then convey critical updates about COVID-19 from the Ugandan health ministry. The community now relies on the staff and outreach workers to disseminate information from the President and Public Health Officials including directives to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and measures to keep the residents safe. A co-benefit of the electricity is staff retention and satisfaction, as the medical workers feel safe at work, especially at night, and are pleased that they can easily remain in touch with their loved ones off-site.
“Access to electricity has enhanced the health staff’s sense of togetherness in dealing with the prevailing crisis as their working conditions have been improved and, consequently, their morale boosted,” said workers at the solar-powered health clinic. “With better working conditions we are willing and able to help mitigate this and future crises. Furthermore, by saving monies previously spent on candles and kerosene, the facility is able to support more village outreach workers, as they raise awareness about COVID-19 and social distancing measures.”
Solar Health Uganda (SHU) is a Ugandan-based nonprofit organization working with local and international organizations to address entrenched energy poverty and climate change. Funding for solar programming is provided by partners and grantors including Let There Be Light International, a nonprofit organization focused on energy access, gender equity and climate change. Founded in 2017, SHU is an independent non-profit organization and a subsidiary of the Kyosiga Community Christian Association for Development (KACCAD).
(Header image: Installing solar panels on the Kyoomya Health Center, Photo Courtesy of Let There be Light International)