Blog | (Em)powering Women and Their Communities: The Off-Grid Solar Service-Based Model

by Raihan Elahi, Jennifer Lynch, and Andrea Arricale

The Key Role of Electricity in Healthcare 

When Mwanakombo Kassim was in labour, she went to her local health facility. At 11 o’clock at night, it was dark outside – but inside she was able to receive care under lights powered by off-grid solar energy, and safely delivered her baby girl. She was the first woman ever to give birth while benefiting from electric lighting in the middle of the night at the Munje Dispensary in Kwale county, Kenya. 

Tragically, her experience is far from universal. In 2020 almost 280,000 women died during, or due to, childbirth. Ninety-five percent of these deaths occurred in low-income countries, where a 15-year old girl faces a staggering 1 in 49 lifetime risk of eventually dying from a maternal cause. By contrast, in high-income countries this risk drops to 1 in 5,300, underscoring the vital importance of quality healthcare – and the electricity to deliver it. 

Nearly 1 billion people in low and lower-middle income countries rely on health facilities with no, or only unreliable electricity, meaning that critical interventions including labor and delivery must often be carried out in the dark. At these centers, healthcare workers are typically forced to rely on kerosene lanterns or candles after dark – solutions that do not provide sufficient lighting and are coupled with emissions that are harmful to health. 

Similarly, without the electricity needed to maintain refrigeration cold-chains, vaccine deployment in remote rural areas is often delayed or impossible – contributing to the approximately 1.7 million children who die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases. Without reliable access to electricity, clinicians are also unable to utilize basic medical equipment, access diagnostic reports, or maintain patient records, negatively impacting lifelong healthcare.

The Benefits of Off-Grid Solar 

In communities where the national grid is distant or unreliable, accessing the electricity needed to deliver essential community services like health care and education has proven challenging. Grid expansion is slow, costly, and increasingly unfeasible, while diesel generators emit harmful pollutants and carry high recurring fuel costs. Off-grid solar systems, on the other hand, can be deployed at relatively low-ease and low cost, even in very remote locations, and can provide 24/7 clean electrification.  

These systems collect energy via one or more solar panels (typically installed on rooftops) which is stored in batteries, and can be used to power countless applications, ranging from task lighting to delivering supplemental oxygen. This technology has transformed hundreds of millions of lives over the past decade, with close to half a billion people using solar energy kits in 2021 alone.  

The Long-Term Service-Based Model  

But despite the many benefits, off-grid systems that are installed without a maintenance plan often quickly leave their communities right back where they started – in the dark. Regular maintenance is key to keep these systems functioning and able to power essential services – just as with any typical grid-based electricity infrastructure.  

To address this, through its Lighting Global program, the World Bank is working with government and development partners to procure long-term service contracts for the installation of off-grid solar systems in public institutions. Under these arrangements solar companies will maintain the off-grid solar systems, in exchange for regular payments for reliable electricity service. This model incentivizes companies to install, operate, and maintain high-functioning solar systems that communities can rely on.  

Remote monitoring of these systems is also encouraged so that companies can respond promptly to alerts. Electricity delivery according to key performance indicators can then be verified remotely facilitating payments by donors, ministries, and others. This focus on maintaining services – rather than simply installation – paves the way for sustained improved delivery of community services. 

(Em)powering Lives: Electricity Supports  Communities 

Off-grid solar energy is already benefitting health centers like the one Mwanakombo gave birth in, as well as other public institutions. At Antorita primary school, Mwanasiti Mwalela and her 8th grade classmates are able prepare for secondary school in a classroom powered by solar. Access to electricity expands classroom time beyond daylight hours, allowing teachers and students to access internet materials and engage with communities outside their own.  

This can have ripple effects across the entire community – including on maternal health. “Given the central role that schools often play as community centers,” explains Meskerem Mulatu, Practice Manager for Education at the World Bank, ”school electrification not only can transform learning but can also catalyze teacher training and engagement, enable community activities that can support youth and adult training, offer a gathering space to local associations, and offer communities shelter in times of urgent need.” Improving access to education also increases the number of trained health workers at the community level, while increased female education has even shown to reduce the likelihood of dying during childbirth.

Together, schools and health clinics are keystones for human well-being. The more hours they are open and the more services they provide, the more resilient their communities can be. We hope to continue to work closely with our colleagues in the education and health sectors to (em)power communities with sustainable off-grid solar solutions. Together we can ensure that the lights are on not only today – but that they stay on, so that Mwanakombo’s newborn daughter and countless others will be able to attend schools and visit health centers that have the electricity needed to deliver quality services. 

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