26 September 2015, New York – Africa is a continent with abundant sunlight but has poor electricity grid coverage. Yet access to electricity is essential to run medical facilities and secure access to health care, especially in remote areas.
According to a World Health Organization study covering over 4,000 clinics and hospitals, about one in four health facilities in 11 countries in sub-Saharan Africa had no access to electricity in 2013, and most facilities with access had an unreliable supply. Diesel generators have traditionally powered off-grid facilities and also served as back-up power sources in grid-connected health facilities. But these struggle with both high fuel costs and unreliable fuel delivery.
Without power, health facilities cannot run equipment such as vaccine refrigerators or use many of the most basic, life-saving medical devices. They cannot pump or heat water. They cannot even put on the lights.
“Africa still makes little use of solar power in the health sector. This is a missed opportunity to safely store drugs. By investing in renewable energy, we could improve the quality of health care and reduce the large operating costs. We could also minimize the health care-related carbon footprint” said Blaise Karibushi, Global Fund project manager at UNDP Zambia.
Since 2010, UNDP has, on behalf of the Zambian Ministry of Health and with support from the Global Fund, mobilized over $ 352 million to implement programmes aimed at contributing to the national response toward universal access to prevention, care and treatment of HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Establishing a reliable and affordable energy supply was a priority in securing access to public health services.
UNDP, with Norwegian NOREPS emergency preparedness funding, decided to set up Solar Photo-Voltaic power systems in three primary health care clinics offering antiretroviral treatment in Mpepo, Mulekatembo and Kazembe in Eastern Province of Zambia. The idea was to test whether those could provide valid alternatives to classical power systems or fuel-based generators. The Ministry of Health prioritized health facilities that were isolated for six months of the year during the rainy season as the roads become inaccessible and where urgent health care services were impossible in the absence of electrical power.
Thanks to having a reliable power source, the three clinics are capable of more and better services. The energy generated is used to maintain the quality of medicines and laboratory reagents. Equipment sterilization has improved and cold-chain for vaccine storage is safely maintained. Solar panels also enable water pumping and facilitates water purification – a pivotal achievement in a country in which water-borne diseases are the major killers of children. Finally, electricity opens the option of a wider range of diagnostic equipment required for malaria, tuberculosis and HIV patient monitoring.
“The use of off-grid solar power is a cost-efficient solution for the energy supply in rural areas that are not connected to the national grid, and that are not likely going to be connected in foreseeable the future,” Blaise Karibushi said. “The pilot project is a success and proved that Solar Photo-Voltaic power generation systems can be an effective and cost-efficient climate change mitigation alternative.”
The next step will be scaling up the pilot project to extend electricity access to over 1,000 health facilities in Zambia and improve access to health care to half of the population.
*United Nations Development Programme