Access to efficient modern energy is a critical enabler for essential maternal and newborn health care services, especially during emergencies. Yet a World Health Organization-led review of 11 countries in sub-Saharan Africa found that only 28% of health facilities and 34% of hospitals had reliable access to electricity. Such is the case for Kenya, where power outages can last up to several weeks in some locations.
In line with the High-Impact Opportunity (HIO) on Energy for Women’s and Children’s Health by the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative, UNICEF in Kenya, with funding from United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, has supported the Ministry of Health to roll out renewable energy technologies at high-volume health facilities. These innovations will serve as backup energy sources in districts with high maternal and newborn mortality and help mitigate against power failures or outages common with grid power.
In Homa Bay County, UNICEF has supported the Department of Health to equip 11 health facilities with solar energy for lighting and operation of essential equipment at maternity and newborn units. This has been done through the installation of solar suitcases and photovoltaic solar power panels that charge a set of batteries to backup power for use in the event of a power outage from the main grid. The health facilities have also been fitted with energy-saving light-emitting diode (LED) lighting bulbs.
This effort started with a mapping and planning phase that involved a detailed assessment of high-volume health facilities in the county based on electricity access, reliability and major sources of existing supply (e.g., grid, generators, solar, etc.). Based on these parameters, 11 priority facilities were selected.
Next, the project team, which was led by the Department of Health in Homa Bay County with technical support from UNICEF, identified essential energy needs in each of the 11 facilities to ensure high quality service delivery in the maternity and newborn units. This was key to inform the design of solar energy solutions that meet the specific needs of each facility. Upon installation, health care workers at the facilities were trained to enhance local technical capacity to troubleshoot and perform equipment maintenance.
Impact on maternal health and sustainable development
The solar power installation has had an immediate impact. For example, before implementation, Lambwe dispensary had no source of power, so deliveries could only be managed during the daytime. Now with solar power, health care workers at the dispensary can conduct deliveries during the night. This has improved access to safe delivery for many women in the community who previously delivered at home if labor began at night.
Despite their potential long-term benefits, solar energy systems still require greater capital investments by health facilities compared to conventional generators or connection to the main power grid, which poses a substantial barrier to change. Innovative financial solutions are needed to overcome capital cost barriers to deploying clean, energy-efficient systems in health facilities that harness renewable energy.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have set a broad agenda of advancing health and achieving equity by 2030, with SDG 3 calling for the promotion of healthy lives and wellbeing for all. Achieving this will require collaboration with key development sectors, including those working towards SDG 7, which seeks to ensure access to affordable, clean energy. However, these efforts—which tend to focus on household energy access—should also include health facilities as community institutions.
As the Lambwe dispensary example above shows, without energy, many life-saving maternal health services and interventions cannot be utilized effectively, which poses critical barriers to reaching the maternal mortality targets as well as other health targets for the SDGs.
Photo Credit: Solar system at a health facility in Homa Bay County © Joseph Nyagah, Engineer, United Nations Office for Project Services – Kenya
Learn more about maternal health under the SDGs.
Subscribe to receive new posts from the Maternal Health Task Force blog in your inbox.