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John Magrath

Electrifying health care - saving lives in Zimbabwe

Because clinics lack electricity and therefore light, expectant mothers about to give birth are told they must bring their own candles to light the maternity ward. But as Primary Care Needs worker Merjury Shoko, of Mataruse Health Centre, explains: "Two candles cost a dollar, which is the same as paying for a visit to the grinding mill to grind maize meal for your children's dinner. That is a real dilemma for some women who cannot afford to pay. Do I go to the clinic now, or do I feed my children? It's obvious they prefer to go to the mill".

As a result many women leave it until the last possible moment before buying the candles and travelling to the clinic. If they live far away, they are often too late and have to give birth by the roadside.

Staff in health centres in Gutu district in eastern Zimbabwe relate horrific tales of having to carry out emergency first aid procedures in the dark, trying to find veins or sew up wounds with only a candle or a mobile phone torch to guide them.

Now an Oxfam solar power programme known as RuSED - Rural Sustainable Energy Development Project - has transformed women's health and working life for staff in five clinics. Each clinic has been equipped with a varying mixture of solar panels for lighting the wards, solar water pumping to provide clean water close at hand and solar refrigeration for vaccines. The scheme is part of a larger renewable energy initiative funded by the EC and Oxfam that has been running for four years.

Now women know that there will be light at the clinics and they do not have to provide candles, they are happy to come to the clinics early. The clinics report increases - of up to 50% - in the numbers of women giving birth there instead of at home, or on their way to the clinic. 

Furthermore, staff can see to practice their skills effectively. Anastasia Mabhura, Head Nurse at Denhere clinic, explains: "For the first time I'm actually able to perform my duties well! It was very difficult when you have all the knowledge and information as a nurse, but you can't perform your duties fully for lack of light".

She describes what a boon the solar vaccine fridge has been in particular. In the past, when gas canisters ran out, she had to get a bus 56 kms to the district centre. On the way back she often had to carry the heavy gas cylinder on her head for the last two kilometres. Now the solar fridge is in place the cold chain is completely reliable and the clinic has a 100% vaccination rate.

Furthermore, the solar water pumps can also service nearby schools and local communities. At the schools access to safe water means better hygiene and sanitation - and the clinics all say incidences of diarrhoea have reduced considerably. Use of solar lanterns instead of stinking, dangerous kerosene cuts out fumes inside the house, and enables people to work late in their fields with less risk from snakes, wild dogs or stumbling.

The most innovative part of the Oxfam RuSED programme is the attention paid to how to enable communities to keep it running once Oxfam has phased out. Oxfam introduced solar equipment suppliers to the communities through a series of exhibitions, so that suppliers could see there was a demand in the rural areas and so communities could test what was on offer and choose what suited them best. In order to pump prime the market Oxfam supplied the first batches of lanterns which were then sold, and the money re-invested into Community Energy Funds.

In each community a solar-powered 'Energy Kiosk' serves as a battery recharging centre for lanterns and mobile phones. These funds in turn are being used to finance the expansion of solar power and also future operation and maintenance costs. Mazuru clinic, for example, has solar water pumping but no lighting so the community decided to buy a 'solar suitcase' for $2,800. This contains solar lights, a blood pressure gauge, a foetal scope and cell phone charging sockets and enables staff to carry out basic medical procedures at night.

Acting Nurse in Charge Judith Mandava told me: "It is nearly always midnight when women give birth and before when you were delivering the light would go out and you would be shouting at the mother 'stop! Stop! Which was embarrassing! But the community saw the problem and they bought it for us in July 2013. Since then three-quarters of the women who give birth here [in this district] have given birth with solar".

Oxfam's aim is to create a 'solar system' in the district that will be self-sustaining via a virtuous circle of better health, increased production and increased demand for solar products and capacity to pay for them.


John Magrath is a programme researcher at Oxfam GB.