The Bright Yellow Suitcase That’s Saving Moms and Babies

A portable, solar-powered electric system supports rural maternity clinics.

Laura Stachel showing the Solar Suitcase to health care workers in Liberia. (Photo: Courtesy

May 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Ajay Singh has written about human rights, health, and development issues for Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press.

On a moonlit evening in March 2013, Laura Stachel met with a midwife in Malawi named Fanny Chathyoka. An obstetrician specializing in public health, Stachel had traveled from her home in Berkeley, California, to the southeast African country with the goal of helping to improve rural maternal health clinics, including the one that Chathyoka ran.

It was nearing 8 p.m., and the first thing Stachel says she noticed was that Chathyoka’s clinic had no electricity. Using Stachel’s flashlight, the midwife showed her the clinic’s labor room, where three delivery beds stood in complete darkness. When Stachel asked Chathyoka how she planned to attend to expectant mothers that night, the midwife pulled out her cell phone, perched it on a counter across the room, and turned it on. By the phone’s dim light, Stachel could barely see the outlines of the beds. Asked how she could care for patients under such conditions, Chathyoka admitted that any complicated medical procedures would have to wait until the morning.

That’s when Stachel showed Chathyoka something she'd brought with her from Berkeley: the Solar Suitcase. Compact and bright yellow, the case contained a solar-powered electric system that provides medical-quality lighting, as well as enough power to charge accessories including headlamps and a fetal heart monitor. In a modern hospital, the same equipment enables surgeons to conduct cesarean sections throughout the night.

The midwife’s face beamed with joy. “By the grace of God, you have come,” she whispered.

Stachel is the cofounder of We Care Solar, a nonprofit organization she started in 2009 along with her husband, Hal Aronson, a solar educator trained as an environmental sociologist. Over the past five years, the suitcases have served an estimated 365,000 childbearing mothers and their infants in 27 developing nations, according to Stachel.

We Care Solar’s story began in 2008, when Stachel first visited Nigeria as a doctoral student in public health at the University of California, Berkeley. At the time, she says, Nigerian women were 70 times more likely to die in childbirth than pregnant women in the United States. Nigeria’s maternal mortality ratio—the number of deaths per 100,000 live births—was 550 from 2008 to 2012, compared with 12.7 in the U.S. during the same period, according to UNICEF figures. Stachel’s research focused on studying conditions at a state hospital where as many as eight expectant mothers died each month. During this time, she was stunned to experience prolonged power cuts, plunging maternity wards and operating rooms into darkness and crippling diagnostic and emergency equipment.

One night, in a dark delivery room illuminated only by her flashlight, Stachel had an epiphany as she watched a woman almost die from eclampsia, a life-threatening pregnancy complication that causes the woman to develop seizures or fall into a coma. “These women are dying in silence,” Stachel says. “I couldn’t turn my back on them. I needed to do something.”

Since its inception, We Care Solar has partnered with international aid agencies such as the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and Save the Children to install about 1,000 Solar Suitcases in rural clinics around the world, according to Stachel. Each suitcase, which includes rooftop solar panels that can be easily installed on a rooftop, is mounted on hospital walls or ceilings and costs $1,645 to manufacture and install. We Care Solar has trained more than 5,000 health care workers in the education and maintenance of the suitcases. This year, We Care Solar plans to deploy 1,200 Solar Suitcases to countries in need.

For all her accomplishments, Stachel is a “reluctant innovator,” she says. A debilitating back injury in 2002 had forced her to stop delivering babies, and later to abandon her flourishing ob-gyn practice altogether. “What I initially viewed as a devastating setback,” she says, “I now consider the beginning of the most fulfilling chapter of my life.”