Off-grid solar systems have found use in applications that go beyond lighting a few LEDs or mobile chargers. From sophisticated water purification systems to pumping, the technology’s use has become limitless. The We Care Solar Suitcase is one such innovative, economical and easy-to-use power unit that provides health workers with electricity for medical lighting, mobile communication, charging laptops and computers, and small medical devices. In today’s world, maternal mortality is a major challenge, accounting for about 300,000 worldwide deaths yearly, of which 99 per cent occur in developing countries. The Solar Suitcase was designed and developed to overcome this challenge. It promotes safe motherhood in developing regions by providing healthcare workers with reliable lighting, mobile communication services and medical devices that run on clean and easily available solar energy.
As the name suggests, the device comes in the form of a portable suitcase that can be easily transported. While the system is run by a solar panel with a rated capacity of 40-250 W, the main body of the system consists of a suitcase that houses all the electrical equipment. An integrated 12 V, 12.8 Ah lithium ferrous phosphate battery is provided within the suitcase and can be charged with the help of solar panels as well as run devices during non-sunshine hours. The battery is light weight (1.7 kg) with a usable capacity of 153.6 watt-hours, and can work effectively for a four-to seven-year period.
There are two high efficiency 4 W direct current LED lights included in the suitcase, providing over 325 lumens for clear visibility during medical examinations in low-light conditions. The system also includes a cellphone charger with multiple outlet configurations, and USB and micro-USB cable connections. The adjustable headlamps present in the kit provide improved surgical lighting and can be charged with a 12 V USB adapter connected to the suitcase. The system comes with a Fetal Doppler and its battery charger to help healthcare providers detect heart rate. This device uses four rechargeable AA batteries, which are included in the kit.
For applications where the suitcase is placed in a permanent location, an optional light expansion box may be installed. The expansion box is capable of supporting two lights, in addition to those already provided, and a switchbox for operating the equipment. This box can be placed in a room up to a distance of 10 metres from the Solar Suitcase via an expansion socket located on the suitcase’s control panel. An advantage is that each suitcase can be expanded. That is, a system purchased with equipment having a lower device rating can be modified. For example, the solar panel capacity can be increased to 200 W or more and the battery capacity to about 100 Ah (ampere hour) for running a larger number of medical equipment and lights. In addition, the company provides a two-year warranty on the base system that includes a charge controller, LED lights and solar panels. According to We Care Solar, the device is robust enough to withstand harsh conditions, requires less maintenance as there are no fuses to replace and its battery does not need regular servicing. However, the battery may have to be replaced after every two years, which could be a challenge for some health centres that are low on funds.
Created as a solar power system for lighting purposes and charging a blood bank’s refrigerator in northern Nigeria in 2009, the Solar Suitcase story has found success in other African countries as well. The device is being deployed in over 20 countries in Asia, Africa, and North and South America. In India, one of the suitcases is located at the Real Medicine Foundation premises in Madhya Pradesh. Apart from the applications laid out by the company, the suitcases can be used to provide a host of medical services. For example, the device made a remarkable impact in providing immediate medical relief and saving numerous lives after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, 2013 typhoon in the Philippines, and, more recently, the earthquake in Nepal in 2015.
We Care Solar claims to have equipped over 3,000 health centres and trained more than 12,000 health workers. In the past three years, the company has conducted programmes and workshops in Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Nigeria, The Gambia, Liberia, Nepal and the Philippines by partnering with international NGOs, the respective national ministries of health, and United Nations agencies to service hundreds of health facilities. With the decreasing solar costs as well as an increasing interest in the solar segment, the consumer base will only grow for such innovative devices that also have a positive social impact.