By JOSH RUXIN
When an Italian priest and his cadre of nuns founded the Munyaga Health Center in 1986, it was a barebones operation. Tucked among the rolling green hills and small mud homes of eastern Rwanda, the health center had limited services; the nearest source of potable water was five miles away, and kerosene lamps were often the only source of light. The center’s most expensive technology was an array of solar cells to provide power for part of the day.
Today, the health center serves a population of over 15,000 people. Staff are well equipped to provide everything from anti-retroviral treatment for those infected with HIV to de-worming services. The health center has three desktop computers that are used to track patient health and insurance records, and clean running water is pumped throughout the facility.
There’s just one looming problem: The health center only has electricity for two and a half hours per day, which means that women who go into labor at any time after the electricity goes off at night are attended by candlelight or kerosene lamp. Laboratory services also suffer, as health center staff can’t complete diagnostic tests without adequate microscope light.
The two and a half hours of power come from four solar modules that were installed 25 years ago; the batteries are low and the converters outdated. However, in an amazing testament to the longevity of solar energy equipment, the solar panels themselves are good as new. This year, as Munyaga Health Center looks for funding to improve its current electrical supply and ensure that its patients are served at all hours of the day, the solar panels are the one component that will not be replaced. When new batteries and converters are updated and additional solar panels installed, the health center will benefit from a solar system that integrates old with new and produces full power for all of its needs.
Rwanda – about the size of Maryland, but with twice the population – is one of the most densely populated countries on Earth. Though the country has experienced substantial development, infrastructure remains an enormous challenge. Fewer than 8% of Rwandans today have access to electricity, and the electricity that is available is centralized: Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, accounts for nearly three quarters of the country’s total energy consumption, even though 90% of the population lives in rural areas. Many rural health centers have no running water or electricity at all. It’s hard to imagine how health centers can function without water or light.
Plans to amp up Rwanda’s electricity resources are grand: the Rwandan government has allocated $400 million over the next four years to ensure that 220,000 additional households and businesses are connected to the power grid. By the year 2020, the grid coverage is projected to reach 35% of Rwanda. But even when new power lines are hung, there will remain many out-of-reach rural areas. In these regions, solar power could be the answer.
However, the development of alternative energy has lagged in many lower- and middle-income countries; the places most in need of off-grid power are also most likely to lack the expertise, equipment and money needed to implement it. Of the $162 billion invested in renewable energy worldwide last year, an estimated $44 billion was spent in China, India and Brazil collectively, while just $7.5 billion was invested across the rest of the developing world. Just as the rapid expansion of cell phone coverage across Africa has meant that many remote places will probably never bother with land lines, a focus on renewable energy in developing countries could provide desperately needed power while skipping over environmental damage and reliance on external sources of fossil fuel.
If the 25-year life span (so far!) of the solar panels at Munyaga Health Center are any testament, it is clear that solar could be the next best thing.
Josh Ruxin is the founder and director of Rwanda Works and a Columbia University expert on public health. He is also the director of the Access Project and Access’s Neglected Tropical Disease Control Program. Dr. Ruxin has extensive experience operating at the intersection of public health, business and international development. He lives in Kigali, Rwanda, with his wife and two daughters.