In March, one of Saving Lives at Birth’s innovators, Dr. Laura Stachel of We Care Solar, was named a CNN Hero of the Year.

On her first trip to Nigeria in 2008, Dr. Laura Stachel saw firsthand the power of light.

“I realized that my skills as an obstetrician-gynecologist were utterly useless (without) something as basic as light and electricity,” Stachel said.

Midwife in Samaru Clinic using typical kerosene lighting. Photo credit: We Care Solar

Countless numbers of pregnant women would arrive at the local clinic with severe complications. Without adequate light, these women often had to wait until sunrise to be treated or undergo risky procedures by kerosene lantern, candlelight, or even cell phones. Lives of mothers and babies were even more at risk because there was no electricity.

Moved by this experience, Dr. Stachel, with the help of her husband, a solar energy educator, developed a suitcase-sized off-grid solar electric  unit. This “solar suitcase”  is an a simple, economical  technology that provides a sustainable source of power, allowing health workers to provide life-saving interventions 24 hours a day.

So far, We Care Solar has provided nearly 250 solar suitcases to facilities in more than 20 countries. They’re being used in main hospitals as backup systems and in rural clinics as a primary source of electricity.

Through a Saving Lives at Birth transition-to-scale grant, We Care Solar is partnering with AMREF Uganda to ensure 200 health centers can deliver life-saving procedures 24 hours a day. Saving Lives at Birth – a partnership among USAID, the Government of Norway, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada, and DFID – seeks to identify and develop the tools and approaches needed to help  mothers and newborns during their most vulnerable hours. In Uganda, an estimated 6,000 women and 35,000 infants die from childbirth related complications each year. This innovative suitcase provides solar power for a fetal Doppler to detect fetal well-being, phone charging to enhance patient referrals, and a computer to for data entry in the electronic Health Management Information system.

The solar suitcase “empowers health workers to provide better care 24 hours a day,” Stachel says. “It motivates staff. It increases demand for skilled care and it saves lives.” And the impact has been proven. In its first year, the Nigerian clinic reported that the death rate for women had decreased 70%. Nurses could see what they were doing and they had power for equipment and procedures. Women received  blood transfusions because the electricity provided power for a blood bank refrigerator. This is the power of light.