How solar power improves health services in off-grid rural areas

Seven years ago, villagers at Oltukai village in Monduli District, Arusha Region had to travel far distances for health services.

The village had no health facility and some healthcare services were considered luxury because of difficulties in getting them.

To save their lives, the villagers there relied on traditional medications and pregnant women gave birth in their homes. In serious complications, some who were not able to hire a car or motorcycles, had to walk many kilometers to get essential healthcare services from the district health centre.

The villagers were relieved from the hardship when the government decided to construct a dispensary in the village.

However, the dispensary by the time did not solve all the problems in healthcare. Oltukai dispensary did not have electricity to serve patients at night or provide services which depend on electricity.

Midwives had to use paraffin lamps or torches when assisting women in childbirth at the health facility.

“Since I arrived here in 2018 until 2020, we have had poor working conditions due to lack of electricity at the facility. It was a challenge for us to provide services, especially at night because we couldn’t see and this was endangering even our health,” says Yasinta Basil, a midwife at Oltukai Dispensary.

Mobile phones flashlights and oil lamps were also never enough to help them see and provide the quality health services to their patients.

While kerosene was the most used source of lighting energy, Raphael Lomnyaki, an Oltukai Village Executive Officer, says the fuel oil was scarce which compounded problems at the healthy facility when they received patients at night.

“There was no difference between giving birth at home and in the dispensary because it was dark everywhere,” says Lomnyaki who heads a predominantly pastoral and agricultural village.

The problem was facing many villages in the district. In other parts of the district, residents of Eluwai were facing the same problems in accessing quality healthcare. The Eluwai dispensary also did not have electricity since its inception in 2018.

The villagers in EluwaI were also traveling over 20 kilometres to access medical services. Like in Oltukai dispensary, getting service at night was a nightmare because the health facility did not have electricity.

Five years later the situation changed, thanks to solar power that was installed by a local non-governmental organization, Elico Foundation, to provide electricity in the facility.

Now there is light from morning to midnight and various machines at Oltukai dispensary for storing medicines and medical equipment have been operating all hours since 2022 when a solar system was installed.

According to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and Sustainable Energy for All (SEforAll), approximately 12 per cent and 15 per cent of health-care facilities, respectively, from low- and lower-middle-income countries of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa have no access to electricity.

The report shows that at least 25,000 health-care facilities in sub-Saharan Africa have no electricity access and 68,350 health-care facilities only have access to unreliable electricity.  Only half of hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa have access to reliable electricity, the report shows.

The availability of electricity in any health facility has dozens of benefits including saving lives.

Lupembe Lwasenga dispensary in Iringa Region, Southern highland of Tanzania started using a small solar panel to solve the electricity crisis. The solar was not solving all electricity needs but provided lights that helped nurses and midwives to work at night.

However, the administration in this facility says, during the rainy season the solar panel was not efficient, pushing them back to darkness.

Pregnant women had to use their cellphones flashlights, kerosine lamps, or candles to enable nurses to see the same as in two villages in Arusha.

Health effects from inhaling contaminated air from candle smokes and kerosine lamps fumes did not leave the babies and their mother’s safe.

“Many patients were coming to the dispensary and we could not handle all of them on time due to the lack of electricity,” says Eveline Kadege, a midwife at Lupembe Lwasenga Dispensary.

In 2020 the electricity system was upgraded by installing large solar power panels which enabled the facility to have full access to lights, operating the refrigerator that stores medicines and vaccines and other things.

“Since then, until now we are okay and provide health services to our patients at any time without worries,” Eveline says happily.

The dispensary Eveline is working is serving other neighboring villages of Itwaga, Msuluti and Lyamgungwe village.

The installation of the solar power system has brought positive results to the people of those areas, as there is an assurance of accessing quality health care.

The results have been seen in the campaign to vaccinate children who missed vaccines. The campaign was first initiated by educating the community on the importance of the vaccines. In these four days of campaign, where vaccines were stored in refrigerators at Lupembe dispensary, 210 children were vaccinated.

Felister Pangalasi, Lupembe Lwasenga villager, said they are happy now to see their dispensary is connected to reliable electricity and they are getting quality healthcare.

She said the electricity has reduced the high cost that was bothering her and fellow villagers.

Before the installation of the electricity in the dispensary, she said, they used to access vaccines from Mgama Village and sometimes their children missed them.

“By now, our children are vaccinated here, pregnant women give birth here and even in the future I believe God will help us and our clinic will become bigger so all the operations will be done here too,” said Ms Pangalasi, adding that before the installation of the electricity in the dispensary, they used to access children vaccination services from the neighboring village, Mgama.

“Sometimes we would miss vaccines for our children,” she said.

With the support of Shine Campaign, Elico Foundation managed to install and commission two solar microgrids in Oltukai and Eluwai villages to power lab equipment, refrigerators and lighting for the entire health facilities 24 hours a day.

While these few dispensaries have access to electricity, in some localities locals still suffer for not having reliable or no electricity at all.

Tanzania’s government and clean energy stakeholders have been investing heavily in electrifying rural areas including service facilities such as health centres through the Rural Electrification Energy initiatives but not all villages have been connected due to financial constraints.

Clean energy experts and investors said investing in solar power will reduce burden to people living in remote areas by providing reliable electricity.

Sisty Basil, an Executive Director at Elico Foundation, whose organization has installed solar systems in dozens of villages in Tanzania, said there is high demand for solar-powered systems in health facilities located outside the national grid in Tanzania.

So far, he said, the organization in partnership with the government and other stakeholders has managed to install large solar power systems that will act as a great backup or main source of power in health facilities of Lupembe Lwasenga, Oltukai and Eluwai.

The system can also run an ultra-sound machine and provide sufficient power to run a fridge for storage of vaccines and other lifesaving medicines.

“So far, we have served in five health centres in the three regions of Iringa, Dodoma and Arusha. The health centres of Dodoma (Leganga and Ngutoto) have been linked to the Solar Minigrid project,” said Basil, adding still more villages need the service.

“We decided to invest our resources in this area because there are other economic projects that run on solar power…we want to ensure that the community we serve gets the best health services so that it can participate in these development projects.”

The solution to these challenges, he said, is solar energy as it is cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and can be installed quickly.

“Solar energy has a potential to power health appliances and thus improve people’s lives and enhance efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s),” he said.

Through the Rural Energy Agency (REA), the government has continued to ensure that all villages and neighborhoods have access to electricity, especially in hospitals, schools and households in general.

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