How do solar panels save lives?

Let’s start from the start.

In southern Uganda, close to the shores of Lake Victoria, a woman goes into labour at home. The children of many previous births within those mud walls are getting ready to make space for one more. But unlike past births, a difficulty occurs and it is time to gather up the US$25 needed for a caesarean and head to the nearest hospital, 30 miles away.

Countless mothers make their way to Kamuli hospital in Jinja under just these circumstances. For those that arrive during the hours of darkness, the cost of the operation could increase to US$35, a huge sum in a country where the World Bank estimates a GDP per capita of US$170.

Kamuli hospital, which is around four hours from the capital Kampala, is connected to the country’s unreliable grid. Its only surgical theatre is also home to the only air conditioning unit in the building to help keep the room and its medical staff cold and clean. Should the grid be down at that point in time, the only choice is to use its diesel generators; funding the fuel for those could dictate whether the woman that arrives that night can afford the operation that could save her and her child’s life, before it has even started.

You can probably now see where solar panels and energy storage could play a role.

Why Kamuli?

Solar Power Portal and sister site PV Tech are part of the Henley Media Group, whose chairman Nigel Barklem introduced the idea of solar at the hospital to his friend Dr Philip Unwin. We’re looking for your help now and will also be building a fund-raising element into the hugely popular Solar Power Portal Awards on 13 October in Birmingham, UK.

Dr Unwin has been donating two weeks of his holiday every year since 2006 to help the two staff doctors. He established UK registered charity Kamuli Friends as an official channel to raise funds for the hospital. He has already done great work to help ensure the hospital’s improvement in the short term and in the longer term.

“The hospital was founded by missionaries about 100 years ago,” says Unwin. “The basic structure that is there today is 50 years old and a lot of the plumbing and electronics is just as old.

“The hospital’s main focus is to help pregnant women and their subsequent children. It has a surgical ward and a general medical ward where a huge range of pathologies can be seen ranging from diabetes and heart failure, things we see here in the UK, to things like cerebral malaria and tetanus and recently a case of Marburgs, which is just as deadly, but less well known, than ebola.”

In addition to cutting the hospital’s costs and those of its patients, stable electricity supply could also improve the safety of some procedures.

“It’s really difficult if you have a powercut when you’re in the middle of a surgery, it’s very awkward. It’s quite dangerous really,” says Dr Unwin.

Less dramatic but hugely important is the supply of electricity for domestic use at the hospital. It has long doubled as a nursing school with large numbers of trainees coming to Jinja to learn. With 100 people living onsite (on top of the 100 patients in the wards), electricity is also needed to improve their living standards and aid their education.

“Phones are absolutely vital, very few people have money, they do all their interactions and business on the phones,” explains Unwin.

These living standards also encourage staff to stay on at the hospital allowing it greater continuity and a break from the churn of trainees heading off to Kampala after they are qualified.

We are working with the Kamuli Friends and you, the solar industry, to bring a solar-powered lifeline to the hospital and the half a million people its two permanent doctors serve.

How can I help?

There are three ways you can help:

Donate your time – we need expertise to conceive, design, install and maintain the system
Equipment – we are hoping to install enough solar to power the hospital and its staff accommodation. If you have spare inventory taking up room in the corner of the warehouse and it's suitable for the job, let us know. We’ll be publishing a wish list soon with detail of the kit needed to transform the day to day running of the hospital
Money – the logistics, paid-for expertise not covered by donated time and local engineering assistance will not pay for itself. All donations to Kamuli Friends for this project will help make a huge difference

If you’d like to know more about the charity visit The video below also explains more about the hospital's work and its need for a reliable power source.

If you’re interested in learning more about how you and your organisation can help, email John Parnell, deputy head of content, Solar Media.

The small print

In conjunction with the industry a list of required skills and materials will be developed and hosted on SPP and PV Tech. Donors will be credited on these pages and in our print titles.

Kamuli Friends is registered UK charity number 1155812. Donations will be made to Kamuli Friends and used as it sees fit. Cash and equipment will be used to realise its off-grid power project with any surplus to be used at the charity’s discretion.