Healed by the Sun: Solar Energy Lights the Way for Quality Rural Health in East Africa during COVID-19
Like most urban dwellers in Uganda who rushed to villages at the start of Covid-19 lockdowns, Gloria Mucyunguzi had another crisis to contend with in the village: erratic power.
Remote from the grid, every time the sun sets, Mucyunguzi’s marital village of Mburamaizi in Bihanga, Buhweju district gets shrouded in darkness. But she badly needed a healthcare facility with access to electricity to have her child immunized.
Health facilities need electricity to power essential medical devices, refrigerate medicines, lights, and safely deliver babies in the operating rooms, among other purposes. For example, most vaccines are refrigerated at 35 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit to remain safe for use.
“With suspended public transport, I could not take my child back to Mbarara city for immunization,” narrates Mucyunguzi. Her only option was to carry her child on the back and walk to any health center. But Nsika health center four — the health facility on the power grid nearest to her village, is situated about 16 kilometers away. To reach it, Mucyunguzi would have to climb over ten hills. But to her disbelief, she climbed only one hill and found a health facility — Bihanga health center III, powered by solar energy, that offered the services she needed.
“We offer such services because of solar power,” narrates Osbert Ntumwa, the assistant in charge of Bihanga Health Center III that is off the power grid in Bihanga, Buhweju district.
Bihanga Health Center III is one of the health centers in Uganda that benefited from free solar systems, installation, and maintenance under the third phase of the energy for rural transformation project (ERT Project III).
The project, funded by the government of Uganda and the World Bank at a tune of 28.6 billion Uganda shillings, is one of a slew of government and donor-funded projects across East Africa that have endeavored to bring solar energy to rural health centres located off the electricity grid. Though many of the projects began before the onset of the pandemic, they have seen cascading benefits during Covid-19 – as many urban dwellers moved back to villages, and movements were restricted, leaving people to resort to walking to their nearby rural health centres.
During the pandemic, solar power systems in these rural health facilities in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania have been essential for keeping vaccines cold, providing light for mothers in labor, and supplying power for medical procedures such as laboratory tests, injections and blood transfusions.
This, despite major challenges posed to the off-grid solar energy sector as Covid-19 took a heavy toll on East African economies. In this year-long project, 10 journalists, videographers, data wranglers and designers explore how solar energy is lighting the way for quality rural health in East Africa during Covid-19.