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Laura Stachel, M.D.

We Care Solar — Berkeley, California


No woman should die giving life. Our specialized, portable Solar Suitcases bring electricity to obstetric facilities in low-income countries that lack nighttime lighting, because we believe every woman has the right to deliver safely in a well-lit health center. In the past 13 years, we’ve deployed 8,400 systems to these health facilities, improving obstetric care for millions and saving lives.

The problem I’m trying to solve

​​Medical facilities in sub-Saharan Africa not only lack advanced equipment — half of them don’t have reliable electricity. This energy poverty means there may be no lights to perform nighttime obstetric care like emergency cesarean sections, no refrigeration to store blood for transfusions, and no power for electronic medical devices.​​ Complications from pregnancy and childbirth kill 300,000 women across the world each year. In sub-Saharan Africa, there are 390 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births, compared to 33 in the U.S. Lack of electricity is one factor behind these dismal statistics.  ​​Some facilities resort to candlelight or kerosene lanterns, which throw so little light it’s hard to even insert an IV. Others own generators but lack the fuel that powers them. Many resort to turning away pregnant women who arrive after dark.

The moment that sparked my passion​

​I was an OB/GYN with a thriving practice in Berkeley, California. But back pain from several severely degenerated discs sent my career to a crashing halt. After a year of rehabilitation, I began a graduate program in public health at the University of California, Berkeley. ​​During my studies, I had the opportunity to observe obstetric care in a Nigerian state hospital. I was stunned to learn that women in northern Nigeria face a 1 in 13 lifetime risk of dying during their reproductive years from complications of pregnancy and childbirth.​​ The hospital had sporadic power, so I watched helplessly as women and newborns failed to get lifesaving care during power outages.

I shared my experiences with my husband, Hal Aronson, an expert in renewable energy. Hal designed a solar electric system for the hospital. He also prepared a portable unit intended for demonstration, but when the healthcare workers at the hospital saw his suitcase-sized invention, they were overjoyed. They showed me the utility that a compact unit could have in medical settings. They quickly directed me to other local birthing facilities that would also benefit from this portable device. This was the inspiration for the Solar Suitcase that has now reached millions.​​

What I wish other people knew

​​Mothers and babies around the world too often die from conditions that are treatable, including hemorrhage, obstructed labor and infection. In Nigeria, I watched pregnant women fight for survival in near darkness while providers were forced to cancel or delay procedures until daylight.​ Supporting a health facility with a Solar Suitcase costs just $3,500, including installation, health worker training and ongoing support — a relatively small sum. Every woman, no matter where she lives, deserves safe childbirth in a skilled facility.

Why my approach is unique​

​No other organization working on maternal health focuses on access to clean energy. We designed a unique technology and work on a systems level to uplift maternal and newborn care. And we work where the needs are of utmost urgency. ​​Our primary focus is birthing mothers, but other Solar Suitcases we’ve created are saving lives in diverse medical conditions. One doctor who had an island clinic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo used solar power to monitor dozens of patients during a cholera outbreak. For the first time in his village, no one died from this disease. We also have an educational program where students build dedicated units for energy-poor schools and refugee centers abroad and for emergency power in the U.S.​​ The best part is we’re doing all of this using renewable energy, which is not only saving women and babies but the planet too.​​​

Advice to others who want to make a difference

​​People over 50 have abundant skills and life experiences they can put toward solving problems. I believe that our purpose in life is tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of “healing the world.”​​ Identify a problem you feel especially passionate about and determine any way you can make a difference. Nonprofit work isn’t easy, and it’s your passion that will keep you going. ​​Don’t worry if you don’t have a master plan. All I knew was that I wanted to help one hospital, then a few more, and so on. Find one area that needs your help and take an action. If that opens another door, you can then decide whether you want to walk through it.​​

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