Solar-Powered Health Clinic Offers Life-Saving Services to Community in Kilifi County, Kenya

Access to energy improves core facility operations in clinics, allowing them to expand operating hours, power lifesaving appliances such as fetal heart rate monitors, and manage patient records and referrals through digital systems

By Lauren Boucher, CLASP, Co-Secretariat of the Efficiency for Access Coalition

Quality of life and access to affordable, reliable energy go hand-in-hand. Achieving universal health targets, like those defined in UN Sustainable Development Goal 3, will require great improvements in the delivery of basic health services. Quality medical care is significantly influenced by the availability and reliability of modern energy services. Access to energy improves core facility operations in clinics, allowing them to expand operating hours, power lifesaving appliances such as fetal heart rate monitors, and manage patient records and referrals through digital systems.

The synergies within the energy-health nexus are intensified with the introduction of energy-efficient appliances. Energy-efficient appliances allow solar-powered clinics to maximize their impact by allowing them to get the most out of their system. Most solar-powered health care facilities are oversized and use inefficient refrigerators and medical devices. Solar panels and batteries represent the largest cost for distributed energy solutions. Efficient appliances could deliver the same service while using significantly less energy. For example, a super-efficient refrigerator requires just 10% of the solar panel and battery capacity as a conventional vaccine refrigerator. Analysis from CLASP and the Clinton Health Access Initiative found that the size of the energy system required to power an inefficient vaccine refrigerator could power a far more expansive load when a super-efficient refrigerator is used alongside a suite of other super-efficient appliances and medical devices (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Comparison of load configuration and system run time with a conventional vaccine refrigerator and super-efficient off-grid refrigerator

In early 2019, the Efficiency for Access Coalition conducted a series of field visits in Kenya to observe the diverse ways in which efficient, off-grid appropriate appliances can serve as a conduit to expanding access to energy services. While 75 percent of all clinics in Kenya have access to electricity, only 19 percent of facilities have access to a stable power supply. Our team visited a pilot health project in Kilifi County, a coastal province with a population of roughly 1.2 million people. Many households, businesses, and public institutions in this region remain unconnected to the grid. Those with access to energy often lack reliable service. As a result, many are turning to off-grid solar to meet their energy demand.

The government-run Mitsajeni clinic provides general, maternity, prenatal, and pediatric care to 80 patients each week on average. Prior to 2018, clinic staff relied solely on kerosene lamps and bottled gas to meet their lighting and energy needs. Everything changed when Energy 4 Impact — a non-profit organization, and Efficiency for Access Program Partner working to extend energy access in the region — noticed the clinic when installing an 800W system at an adjacent primary school.

In 2018, Energy 4 Impact and the OVO Foundation installed an 800W system with 400 AmH batteries. Accompanying appliances including a heater, suction pump for deliveries, and basic lighting were also installed. Clinic staff indicate that these new technologies have had a significant impact on the quality of care and working conditions. “Before I was really struggling to see”, Dorothy Mzungu, a nurse at Mitsajeni, explained. “[The solar system and our new appliances] have really helped me.”

The new system and the appliances it supports have also had an impact on Mitajeni’s operations. The clinic has extended its hours past sundown and now has the ability to provide material care, deliver babies, and extend emergency services into the night. Prior to the installation, Dorothy and her team had to turn away expectant mothers and refer them to the nearest hospital. In emergency situations, they delivered babies by light of kerosene lamps. Solar lighting allows the Mitajeni staff to treat more people and deliver a higher quality of care in the evenings. The system provides also provides ancillary benefits; for example, exterior lights help ward off snakes and allow staff ample lighting to better clean and sanitise patient rooms.

Dorothy Mzungu (left) in a clinic room with a suction pump, heater, and lamp (above). The delivery room (below).

For Dorothy, learning to use the new appliances “took a little time.” She indicated that understanding how to operate both the system and the appliances came with a steep learning curve, underscoring the importance of training and capacity building for basic PV operations and maintenance.

When asked which appliances they would like next, the staff at Mitsajeni identified sterilization equipment, an autoclave, a fetal heartbeat monitor, an oxygen concentrator, and a fridge as the top five appliances on their list of items to purchase. As the Mitsajeni clinic begins to acquire new appliances, the need to maximize the capacity of their system by identifying, sourcing, and using high-quality, efficient appliances will become increasingly important.

Energy efficiency is the central design principle for unlocking an expanded, holistic set of health services at the least cost. That is why the Efficiency for Access Coalition has partnered with the Clinton Health Access Initiative and the United Nations Foundation to advocate for a suite of research and programmatic activities to expand and solidify linkages between energy access and health outcomes. This includes assessing potential benefits of super-efficient appliances and devices for health service delivery in resource-constrained areas and identifying specific interventions with the potential to drive impacts at scale. Additionally, our work on off-grid refrigerators aims to increase service delivery and lower the cost of the healthcare appliance with the highest perceived demand. To learn more about the Efficiency for Access Coalition’s thematic work on health, visit our website or follow our hashtag, #EfficiencyforHealth.