Electrifying Health Care in Rwanda

05/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, gasoline cost about 35 cents a gallon and a barrel of crude oil cost less than you'd pay for a grande latte today. Even then, people had figured out that burning fossil fuels wasn't a healthy or sustainable way to power our lives. Nearly four decades later, even after a scary petroleum price spike in 2008, few Americans get any of their power from one of the most abundant sources of renewable energy on earth: The sun. But in sub-Saharan Africa, where the electricity grid has never even reached many rural areas, solar energy is bringing light to remote health clinics and boosting heath care for poor people. This Earth Day, one of the poorest countries on Earth is showing us that power and health can go hand in hand.

With the downturn in global oil prices, you might think that the slowing momentum for solar advances in the US would have reached the shores of Africa. The technology for solar power has been in place for decades, and even with new advances that make it cheaper and easier to install, solar power has so far had modest acceptance in the states. However, in Rwanda, where nearly 50% of health centers have either no electricity, or electricity only part of the time, solar power still presents a veritable panacea. Facilities that may have waited decades for the arrival of the electricity grid can quickly meet their power needs and upgrade their quality of care.

With the addition of efficient solar power, a clinic offering first aid and basic services can be transformed into a self-contained facility that offers better care, round the clock, without the aid of potentially dangerous candles or kerosene lamps. Solar outfitted health centers can operate refrigeration and sterilization equipment, and also have real access to medical databases and records via the internet.

2009-04-17-images-KanabuyaHC2_condensed.JPG Hahelilimana Assoumpta, chief nurse at Kamabuye Health Center, has seen her work and her clinic's effectiveness totally changed by solar installation. She told a colleague that "without power, we have to deliver babies, insert IVs, sterilize equipment and perform other procedures with the aid of candles, or entirely in the dark. We don't know if the equipment is properly sterilized. We can't see if the baby is in distress. We can't take precautions to protect ourselves from infections if the patient is bleeding."

The advantages are obvious and transformative, and solar power is a relative bargain; while it would have cost $150,000 to run power lines out to Kamabuye and approximately $60 per month (more than six times an average Rwandan's monthly salary) to keep the lights turned on, solar installation costs $45,500. Now that solar is operational, there are no operating fees and maintenance costs are low.

Simply put, solar power needs to be integrated into public health approaches across Africa going forward, just as AIDS drugs have been during the past several years. To accelerate expansion, we need programs that will help with the purchase of the solar cells, transportation, and installation. That's beginning now in Rwanda in partnership with the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), a not-for-profit that designs and implements sustainable energy solutions in the developing world.

Just this month, we have been able to install solar at four sites, including Kamabuye. With two health centers to go, soon all health centers in Bugesera--a district of 300,000--will either be on the grid or have solar power on demand. The rewards for staff and clients are already being felt in the communities. Births and emergencies are no longer limited to daylight hours. Solar energy puts light where it needs to be, on the patients.