How Solar Power is Reducing Maternal Mortality in Africa

Author: Aneesh Mazumder December 31, 2021

In sub-Saharan Africa, 1 in 36 women will die from maternal conditions.

Maternal deaths have declined worldwide over the past two decades and are down by more than a third due to affordable, quality healthcare services. However, not all countries have benefited from advancements in technology and health care. Nearly 300,000 women die from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth every year, and almost all maternal deaths (99%) occur in developing countries. For instance, approximately 85% of maternal deaths in 2017 were seen in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, especially in regions with low numbers of skilled healthcare workers and a lack of proper facilities. Sub-Saharan Africa alone accounts for roughly two-thirds of maternal deaths in the world.

Reliable electricity and lighting are a cornerstone of a well-equipped health system. Yet, most primary maternity care facilities in sub-Saharan Africa are either not connected to the electrical grid or suffer frequent blackouts. Healthcare facilities in this region often rely on kerosene lamps to address their lighting needs, which are unreliable, dangerous, and do not provide the focused, bright light that is essential for maternity care. To better understand interventions that could address these obstacles, researchers have been evaluating the impact of a solar electricity system designed to provide consistent light in maternity care facilities.

The chart above compares the percentage of health facilities without electricity and the percentage of maternal deaths per women in childbearing years in specific countries. As the percentage of health facilities without electricity peaks, the percentage of maternal deaths also increases. This indicates a clear connection between a lack of energy sources in healthcare settings and the life risk expecting mothers.

Maternal morbidity and mortality are persistent challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa, despite the increase in deliveries within healthcare facilities over the last decade. Improving infrastructure in healthcare facilities through access to reliable electricity may enable medical professionals to provide higher-quality obstetric and newborn care, particularly in low-resource contexts. Although, significant investments in infrastructure are likely to be unsustainable in these settings, solar energy may offer the essential lighting needed to deliver quality care.

The Solar Suitcase is a complete solar-powered electricity system that provides critical lighting and energy to charge phones and small medical devices. Researchers evaluated the impact of the Solar Suitcase in terms of the reliability of light, quality of care, and health care worker satisfaction in many Sub-Saharan African maternity care facilities. The clinics have seen increased worker productivity and lower maternal mortality rates since the introduction of solar energy.

In many Sub-Saharan African countries, high maternal mortality can be partially explained by the low proportion of women delivering in health facilities and the absence of care by skilled birth attendants. Beaded bracelets with solar-powered GPS devices are now being used to enable health workers to monitor pregnant women. The bracelet relays a pregnant woman’s position to health workers via a web or android-based application, enabling doctors to track the patient, whether she is within cellular network coverage or not. An initial pilot of this technology was a huge success, indicating that maternal and child death were reduced by approximately 40%.

Sub-Saharan Africa has immense potential for renewable energy initiatives. Fortunately, the cost of utility-scale solar has dropped by over 90% since 2009. However, to meet the demand for energy in healthcare facilities, broader mobilization of institutions and resources is required to have a meaningful impact. The financial investment for the electrification of health centers in sub-Saharan Africa leveraging solar energy will contribute to enhanced maternal care, leading to a substantial reduction in maternal mortality.