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Saving Lives in Childbirth by Making Solar Power Simple and Accessible

Sustainable energy for remote health centers empowers health workers, improves the environment, saves lives, and strengthens communities.

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*Please Upload User Experience Map (as attachment) and any additional Beneficiary Feedback in this field

We Care Solar held a feedback session with beneficiaries unfamiliar with the Solar Suitcase and solicited health worker experience from several programs. We learned our packaging is confusing and it is challenging to read the user manual, set up the suitcase, and use accessories. We aim to simplify the installation, usage, and maintenance of our suitcases and its contents, develop an Ikea-style assembly process, and provide materials understandable across cultures, languages and literacy levels.

Explain your project idea in two sentences.

We want to simplify the experience of setting up, installing, using, and maintaining the Solar Suitcase. Reducing the need for hands-on training will expand access to our life-saving technology.

What is your organization name? Explain your organization in one sentence.

We Care Solar saves lives in childbirth by making solar power simple and accessible to clinicians.

Is this project idea new for you or your organization? If no, how much have you already executed on?

We have distributed over 2,000 Suitcases to health workers in over 10 countries, providing in-person trainings in installations, use and servicing. As we scale our programs, we need to simplify the out-of-box experience so we can reach heath workers from different cultures and with varying literacy.

What is the problem you aim to solve with this idea? How would you define this problem as urgent and a priority in your target community?

Health workers struggle to save lives in childbirth facilities without reliable lighting or electricity. Our solar kits enable lifesaving care, but need in-person training, limiting distribution. Simple, remote training materials would allow us to reach more health centers, serving more communities.

What is the timeline for your project idea? What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years?

Key steps: 2017- Design Review of Solar Suitcase, incorporating user feedback. 2017- Prepare and test new instruction materials (guides, videos, self-tests) for version 3; improve packaging, simplify set-up, add storage compartments. 2018 - Pilot Version 3; assess efficacy of the new design and training materials; monitor performance. 2018/19 - Incorporate learnings into V3 Solar Suitcase deployment with improved user manuals, packaging, training, quality control into 100s of health centers

Describe the individual or team that will implement this idea (if a partnership, please explain breakdown of responsibility).

Laura Stachel, Medical Director Hal Aronson, Director of Technology & Education Brent Moellenberg, Director of Engineering Christina Briegleb, Director of Programs Partner agencies in Africa and Nepal (such as Pathfinder, Jhpiego, One Heart Worldwide) will help with Solar Suitcase deployments.

What do you need the most support with in this project idea?

  • Program/Product/Service Design

What is your primary goal over the next 6 weeks of Refinement?

  • Iterate or improve on my product/service

How do you currently measure (or plan to measure) results for this project?

We measure results using a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods. To assess whether new Solar Suitcase users can learn to properly set-up, use and maintain the Solar Suitcase without extensive in-person training, we will: -Observe end-users as they unpack, set up, and use our Solar Suitcases, -Interview health workers who pilot our new materials, -Survey self-trained users to assess skill and comprehension, and -Conduct remote monitoring to track Solar Suitcase performance.

How has your project proposal changed due to your user research during the Beneficiary Feedback Phase?

The project objective is the same –to simplify the user experience of our technology. Our research suggests we should (1) consider ways to improve the way we package and label accessories and hardware in the Solar Suitcase, (2) provide storage for accessories, (3) simplify our user manual and reduce the literacy level, & (3) provide visual instructions and self-tests via smart phones or tablets.

(Optional) What are some of your still unanswered questions or concerns about this idea?

Will the assembly, use and performance of Solar Suitcases with the new materials be as effective as we see with in-person trainings? Can trainees independently learn to safely and effectively install solar panels? How can our Solar Suitcase design and training materials be adapted for emergency responders? How can remote monitoring augment our ongoing efforts to troubleshoot and measure long-term performance of the Suitcase? How can we improve long-term maintenance and sourcing of spare parts?

During this Improve Phase, please use the space below to add any additional information to your proposal.

Feasibility and Quality Control: We anticipate that improving our Solar Suitcase design, simplifying educational materials, and facilitating remote training will reduce our need to conduct resource-intensive training programs in each country that requests our programs. This will reduce our front-end labor, time and costs and make it easier to scale our programs. Ideally, it will allow us to respond to the demand for Solar Suitcases in communities beyond our current geographies. We want to ensure that our training materials are well understood and that Solar Suitcase installations meet certain quality standards. We have been testing ways to provide remote technical support, especially important for trainees planning to do many Solar Suitcase installations. We created videos for version 2.0 of the Solar Suitcase that demonstrate how to install the Solar Suitcase, how to use it properly and how to use the electronic appliances that come with the Solar Suitcase, such as the fetal Doppler. (Two of our training videos are included here. The full series can be accessed on our website at We aim to make training videos for our Version 3.0 Solar Suitcase in several languages. We want to devise a series of tests for trainees to verify comprehension. We would invite trainees to take the tests after watching the videos and reviewing the educational materials to identify whether there are weaknesses in comprehension. We would provide feedback on the actual test questions and review key concepts in a remote technical support session by Skype. We piloted this concept in Ethiopia with a group at the Hamlin College of Midwives. They watched our current Version 2 videos, reviewed our written materials, and completed a written test. We were able to see where individuals had gaps in knowledge and where we needed to provide greater clarity. Our lead solar trainer (who is based in Uganda) provided technical support to the Ethiopian team via Skype and was able to reinforce key concepts before the installations began. The installers were very positive about this experience. We would like to refine and simplify our protocol for ensuring user comprehension, perhaps incorporating smart-phone based testing. This would provide immediate feedback to our trainees, and would be another way to strengthen understanding of our materials. Another idea that we have used for quality assurance of Solar Suitcase installations is where we provide feedback to new installers based upon photographs they take of their own work. We request photos of specific elements of the Solar Suitcase installations to assess quality workmanship (for example, how the solar panels are attached to the roof, how the lighting wires are tethered to the wall) and provide constructive feedback based on these photos. In some cases, we have provided real-time feedback for trainees who share photos or videos via WhatsAp. By incorporating some or all of these techniques into our standard protocols, we can support beneficiaries in new geographies and ensure that our quality standards are met. We aim to simplify the set-up of the Solar Suitcase, which might include changes to the physical design. We would like to emulate Ikea. Not only do they make pictorial instruction guides to enable non-technicians to make their furniture, they are also finding ways to make their furniture easier to assemble with a minimum of parts. They recently announced furniture that snaps together, without needing screws. They are modeling the type of user-centered design that will help our product to be more accessible. Product Lifecycle: The Solar Suitcase is designed to be a durable rugged solar electric system, functional for years with routine battery replacement. We originally used sealed lead acid (SLA) batteries for our systems. These required replacement every two years, and while it is possible to recycle SLA batteries, the countries in which we work rarely have facilities to do so. In the last two years, we’ve moved to lithium batteries. Lithium batteries are non-toxic and safer for the environment. They have a longer service life, and will last at least five years. This means the Solar Suitcase will continue working for year with a simple battery replacement every five years. The batteries we use are quite small and are safe for disposal, but recycling is not available yet in Africa. if recycling becomes an option in our geographies, we will incorporate this into our programs. We are also lowering our environmental footprint through the development of remote monitoring of the Solar Suitcase performance. If our pilot testing of this technology is successful, it will both allow us to ensure that our products are being used appropriately, and will reduce the need for human travel to routinely check suitcases in remote locations.

We Care Solar envisions a world where all mothers have access to prompt, appropriate obstetric care provided in well-equipped health centers. 300,000 women and more than 1 million newborns die every year from complications of childbirth. In hundreds of thousands of health centers lacking reliable electricity, midwives and doctors work struggle to provide life-saving care in near-darkness. Health workers are unable detect life-threatening conditions or provide essential services. Life-saving medical procedures, including cesarean sections are postponed or cancelled. Critically ill patients are turned away from hospitals lacking electricity. The consequences are tragic.

Since 2010, we have designed technology and developed programs to bring our compact rugged solar electric systems – Solar Suitcases - to under-resourced health centers. Our Solar Suitcases replace candles and kerosene lanterns with bright, efficient LED lights, provide electronic fetal monitoring during labor, and enable timely medical care and emergency referrals. With the Solar Suitcase, health care workers can conduct deliveries safely and promptly diagnose and treat obstetric and newborn complications. This solar powered solution uses sustainable energy to replace polluting fossil fuel sources of light and power.

The Solar Suitcase was designed to be safe, rugged, simple-to-use, and able to be installed more easily than traditional solar electric systems. Our “Train-the-trainer” programs ensure that our technology is installed, used properly and easily maintained by local health staff.

This year, we are launching our "Light Every Birth" campaign, calling upon governments, UN agencies and international NGOs to partner with us to ensure every delivery room has the "power to save lives."  As our programs grow and we expand to more countries, the need for training materials that are easily understood by beneficiaries with different cultural backgrounds, languages, and literacy levels is essential. 

No women should die giving life. We imagine a future where all babies are born safely in clinics with skilled providers using clean, reliable power, where all health centers and hospitals have around-the-clock medical lighting, and where health care workers no longer fear nighttime duty. With the Solar Suitcase, it is feasible for every woman to give birth safely in a skilled health facility with essential power and light.

Explain your idea

We have spent years designing an innovative solar electric system specialized for health workers in remote health facilities. Our Solar Suitcases are rugged, cost-effective, complete systems; they include all the materials necessary for installation and usage. However, technology alone is not enough. Health workers must be trained to effectively use and install our Solar Suitcase and its appliances (headlamps, phone chargers and fetal monitors). Currently, we provide in-depth workshops to train end-users in proper installation techniques, and optimal use of the lights, fetal doppler and other appliances. We deploy Solar Suitcases to health workers in many countries. We are seeking ways to improve the experience of end-users from the moment they receive the Solar Suitcase. We aim to design user-friendly materials that make the set-up, usage and installation of our technology more accessible to health workers around the world. This will enhance roll out of our newest model of the Solar Suitcase, currently being tested in Ghana. These new materials should enable recipients of the Solar Suitcase – even those with limited English or literacy - to unpack its contents, use its accessories, securely mount the suitcase to the wall and install the solar panel on the roof. Better packaging of the Solar Suitcase, which arrives with accessories and spare parts, would also help in its initial set-up, longevity and efficacy. Improvements in training materials and packaging will allow us to reach more health facilities in need, and serve areas of the world where we can't offer in-person training.

Who Benefits?

Beneficiaries include: 1. Impoverished mothers giving birth in regions with unreliable electricity, and their newborns. 2. Health workers in remote, underserved health centers. 3. Communities in need of better medical services, clean air and sustainable energy resources. When a clinic is lit, it transforms communities. Mothers are more likely to seek skilled care (and less likely to attempt delivery alone at home) from a health facility that has essential power. With reliable electricity, midwives are more likely to stay at their job throughout the night; their safety and morale are improved, and they know they will be able to see and treat patients. The Solar Suitcase enables health workers to save lives. When a mother survives childbirth, her newborn is more likely to survive infancy, her children are more likely to attend school and receive adequate nourishment, and her family is more able to contribute to their community.

How is your idea unique?

While many organizations – nonprofit and for-profit -- are targeting solar for the bottom of the pyramid/household use, we are unique in designing a solution for institutional healthcare. Household solar is not adequate for industrial use (e.g. the quality and duration of light are insufficient). We worked with health workers in Africa and Asia to develop a sustainable technology to meet their needs. We partner with international NGOs, UN agencies, and governments to identify last-mile health centers lacking reliable electricity. We offer effective train-the-trainer workshops that include interactive exercises, photo-rich curriculum and videos. However, these programs are resource intensive and limit our ability to scale. By improving the end-user experience, we will boost the capacity of health workers to install Solar Suitcases and use our equipment effectively. This will enable us to reach more health centers, more communities, and improve health outcomes for more families.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Full-scale roll-out: I have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the users I am trying to reach with my idea. I am ready to expand the pilot significantly.

Tell us more about you

We Care Solar is a 501(c)3 based in Berkeley. We are the creators of the We Care Solar Suitcase. Since 2010, we have been providing the first 100 watts of power to health centers in regions with high maternal mortality, and low access to reliable electricity. Our team combines expertise in engineering, program implementation, education and medicine. We have been incorporating user-experience into our design since inception. We are deeply dedicated to creating the most rugged, effective, complete, simple, solar electric solution for remote health centers, and are excited to be piloting version 3.0 in the coming year.

Expertise in sector

  • 5-7 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.
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Attachments (4)

Guidelines for Installation Photos v2.docx

This is an example of the guidelines we give to partners to allow us to review the quality of their solar installations. We ask our partners to take photos of specific parts of the installation and we provide constructive feedback as needed. We have also had opportunities to provide real-time feedback to partners doing installations using WhatsAp.


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Is there someone who can discuss some specific questions about the budget with us? I tried to ask by email and haven't heard back in six days. Please write to laura@wecaresolar_dot_org. Thank you.

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