The Gambia’s solar solution


As a nurse in a Gambian hospital, your challenges include more than a constant stream of patients. You’re also faced with an unreliable, stop-start supply of electricity. This creates problems for every task you undertake, from refrigerating a vaccine to delivering a baby.

The Gambia is the smallest country on the African continent, sandwiched between Senegal and the North Atlantic Ocean. Drought, deforestation, desertification, and water-borne diseases are among the many challenges facing the population. On average, Gambians have a life expectancy of just over 54 years.

These difficult conditions, coupled with erratic electricity, mean the Gambia’s healthcare system ends up failing many of its patients. That’s why an organisation called Power Up Gambia is looking to solar energy to ease the strain.

Responding to a Crisis
In 2006, Kathryn Cunningham Hall witnessed a number of preventable tragedies while volunteering at the Gambia’s Sulayman Junkung General Hospital. Lack of reliable electricity meant seemingly routine activities such as ultrasounds or refrigerating blood supplies, as well as life-saving surgeries including C-sections, were either difficult or simply impossible. Without even an incubator, hospital staff could do nothing to save a severely underweight newborn baby girl.

“I saw a hospital that itself was critically ill,” Kathryn explains. “It had staff and equipment, but it could barely afford to run a generator for a few hours a day. I came home and found it impossible to not do something.” Kathryn’s response was to found Power Up Gambia, believing that solar energy could provide the solution the Gambia needed.

Solar Energy in Action
After undertaking a technical review, Power Up Gambia’s small team of six volunteers decided that the Gambia’s sunny climate, along with the reliability and ease-of-maintenance offered by solar panels, made solar the obvious choice for providing electricity and water to the country’s healthcare facilities.

For their first project, Power Up Gambia set about raising $300,000 for solar panels at the Sulayman Junkung General Hospital. Here, solar energy now provides light to patients and staff all day and night, not to mention the energy needed to run devices such as the hospital’s oxygen machine and its vital laboratory equipment.

The Next Step
While patient care was significantly improved at Sulayman Junkung General Hospital, Kathryn and her team knew there was still plenty of work to be done. Their next project was to power a clinic in the village of Somita. Visiting the clinic earlier this year, Power Up Gambia volunteer Sesh Sundararaman’s saw a healthcare facility that barely functioned.

“The clinic’s microscope sits idly in the lab while [the head nurse] must diagnose malaria, bacterial infections, and STDs by visual inspection,” Sundararaman wrote at the time. “Yacoba, the lab technician, uses whole blood for HIV screening, reducing its accuracy, because he has no way to separate out plasma.”

The Somita clinic is situated in a village of 5,000, but it also serves many of the surrounding villages, raising potential patient numbers to 23,000. Clearly, this was a community in need of reliable medical care.

A Solar Future
Power Up Gambia responded to the call, and can now report that Somita’s solar installation is nearing completion. Next on the list? Replacing a ten-year-old solar installation at Bansang Hospital, along with finding a partner to fund the creation of a curriculum in solar technical training at Gambia Technical Training Institute.

Power Up Gambia says a training program like this would provide a long-term, sustainable solution to the problem of powering Gambian healthcare facilities. “[This] does more than place a band-aid on a matter, more than air-dropping aid and supplies,” explains Paul Blore, the organisation’s spokesperson. “It provides a long-term and sustainable solution to the problem of powering health in the Gambia.”