Nearly 20 women wait to give birth at Mulanje Mission Hospital every day.
Three years ago, giving birth at the 220-bed hospital, which handles 440 outpatients daily and 250 births a month, was a matter of life or death due to frequent power cuts.
Health workers were literally groping in the dark to save lives.
“Safe motherhood was a big challenge,” hospital manager Ruth Shakespeare says. “Imagine nurses and clinical officers delivering babies by candlelight, having to use torches in theatre for Caesarean sections, difficulties in providing oxygen to patients, no ultrasound scans available.”
The flashback may be chilling, but these were just some of the challenges that compelled the hospital to turn to solar power.
Just like that, the life-saving facility has seen an end to frequent blackouts and “skyrocketing energy bills” associated with Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) on-off power lines.
“Nowadays, we have no blackouts in the wards. All essential equipment can run from solar sockets and our operating theatre is never plunged into darkness,” explains Shakespeare.
She is convinced that some women dying of pregnancy-related conditions in the country could be saved if hospitals harnessed the power of sunshine to close energy gaps.
Out of every 100 000 babies born alive, 570 women die in the process of giving birth.
At Mulanje Mission, the alternative power sources is shining the light on the power of renewable energy to roll back these high maternal mortality rates, especially in remote, off-grid clinics.
Even government uses solar power to improve provision of vital health services and living conditions of health workers who often shun rural clinics in preference for urban areas.
“The first priority was lights and power in the paediatric wards and labour. Then we connected the labs, theatres and the rest of the hospital,” says the head of Mulanje Mission Hospital which now has low-energy bulbs in corridors and exteriors to ensure the power of the sun is used efficiently.
Time to diversify
The nurses and clinicians shudder to slide back to the ‘dark days and nights’ when unreliable power had deadly impact on their ability to provide high standard care for their patients and pregnant women.
They spoke of massive gains amid recurrent electricity outages and low access to hydropower. Just about 11 in 100 people in Malawi have access to the grid.
The health workers find solar power reliable, clean, easy to install and sustainable-save for the cost of solar panels, batteries and other accessories.
However, they say the major saving is not the scraping of bills, but safeguarding patients and women from preventable deaths.
Sky Energy Limited managing engineer Schizzo Thomson and his four assistants installed the 30kW solar system in just four days.
“The impact will be there for decades,” says Thomson, explaining: “The gains of using solar in health facilities affected by power problems confirm just why the country needs to diversify its energy options. We can use solar as backup or an alternative source, even the main source for the have-nots or to supplement Escom power.”
His firm installed the second-largest solar plant in Malawi-a 100kW system-that enables an orphanage at Healing of Hope Ministries in Thyolo District to ensure nearly 150 pupils no longer learn in dark classrooms.
The system, only rivalled by an 840kW plant at Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe, also powers an irrigation scheme, poultry farm and residences.
Energy poverty But the story panning out at Mulanje Mission Hospital demonstrates that only innovative alternatives, not a public outcry, will lessen the plight of the population hit hard by power lapses.
Wonderful Mkhutche, the advocacy and communications officer at Renew ‘N’ Able Malawi, backs the push to scale up solar energy.
“The country is facing what we call energy poverty as nearly 90 percent of the population have no access to electricity. This means they have to find alternative forms of power.”
The renewable energy activist urges against the continued overreliance on hydropower.
“Water levels drop during the dry season, but solar power is more feasible because we have plenty of sunshine all year round,” he says.
Nearly 99 percent of the country’s power supply is generated down Shire River which has been hit hard by effects of deforestation, low rainfall and climate change.
Its levels dropped drastically for the past two years due to prolonged dry spells.
Escom recently warned that the prevailing power interruptions may persist for five years unless Lake Malawi and surrounding areas receive more rains.
Downstream, the power turbines are being clogged by silt and debris as communities on banks of the Shire wipe out trees in search of firewood and charcoal.
Amid the search for reliable power alternatives for health centres continues, this overreliance on wood fuel is unmistakable as forests go up in smoke in overcrowded shelters where patients’ guardians cook and sleep.
Thomson wants no one to be left behind in the push for better energy sources.
He says: “Solar power is the way to go if the country is serious about delivering clean energy in and beyond hospitals.” n
This story is part of training in reporting energy and climate change supported by Hivos. Extra reporting by National Association of Business Women publicist Otilia Kamphanda, Malawi Health Equity Network’s Florence Khonyongwa and MIJ FM journalist Tamanda Matebule.