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Dr. Laura Stachel was originally trained as an obstetrician -- work which sent her and her husband to work in Nigeria. While there, she was horrified by the conditions.
"Around the world, more than 530,000 women die every year of pregnancy-related causes. That is the same as one woman dying every minute of every day of the year. For every woman who dies, another 20 suffer long-term and often permanent complications. It's a very serious problem worldwide -- 99 percent of these deaths occur in developing countries, and there is huge disparities. For example, in Nigeria, which has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world, the chance of dying in childbirth is 100-300 times higher than it would be in an industrialized country.
"I watched C-sections where the lights would go out, and doctors were forced to finish them using flashlights. I saw midwives trying to get hold of doctors, but the only system they had in place was a series of messengers to physically look for the doctor, even when the doctor wasn't far away from the actual ward where he was needed. (I) realized that things like mobile communication and adequate lighting would be very essential for care."
Dr. Statchel saw that electricity was a significant stumbling block. Given Nigeria's abundant equatorial solar energy, and her husband's background in the solar industry, a solar energy solution seemed like a perfect fit. They started work on a system that contained several things that would improve operating conditions. The system needed to be both portable and rugged.
Each solar suitcase consists of a couple of solar panels, a charge controller/regulator, battery, overhead lights, lamps, headlamps for staff, and walkie-talkies. These things were all available separately before, but hadn't yet been combined into a single resource.
The inital tests on the system were conducted in Nigeria, and still continue today. "It's very important to me that things are field tested. Nigeria has fairly harsh field conditions between the sunlight, the heat, and the dust. We want to make sure that our system is robust."
The outifts truly are the size of a suitcase. Portability will be a part of what is needed to make them a success. The cost for each is about $1,000, including the walkie-talkies. The costs may come down as the project is scaled up, as is often the case.
Dr. Stachel and her husband, along with some other students at the Univerity of California at Berkeley, started an organization called WE CARE (Women's Emergency Communication and Reliable Electricity) to raise awareness and inform others of the need for these systems.
"We intially applied for some funding. There was a competition at our school, and we were able to win enough money to buy our first amount of equipment to get the project rolling. Since then, we have done private fundraising and have recieved a lot of support from individuals wanting to get involved in the project."
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