Whether sustainability is just a fleeting buzzword, or part of a major shift towards a new paradigm, the notion is one that permeates American society. The definition varies from person to person, as does the sincerity behind any effort to ‘go green’. Even so, we as a culture are reassessing our way of life, the steps we took to get here, and what steps to take as we continue to develop.
But in much of the world, any consideration of sustainable development is a privilege that most cannot afford. At the same moment that the green movement is flooding the Western cultural landscape, poverty in the developing world is draining the life—figuratively and literally—from people and resources at all levels. Advocates for environmental stewardship find their words fall on deaf ears as long-term stability is traded for day-to-day survival.
While poverty forces many to hone their focus on immediate needs, we at Power Up Gambia are finding that our own narrow focus—“transforming healthcare through solar energy” in one tiny nation—has a broad range of positive impacts with long-term implications.
In 2006, a University of Pennsylvania pre-med student named Kathryn Hall applied to spend her summer vacation volunteering abroad. Kathryn admits that when she was informed of her assignment in The Gambia, she had to do a Google-search to locate the African continent’s smallest country.
Not quite double the size of Delaware, The Gambia is easily overlooked and unfamiliar to most Americans. With no high-demand natural resources or exports, the US Government has very little interest in the country. On one hand, staying out of demand means the country stays out of trouble. Without oil, diamonds or any other materials that so often have led to conflict in other countries, The Gambia is largely peaceful, staying off the nightly news and out of the minds of most Americans. But on the other hand, resource-poverty equates to financial poverty; the average Gambian’s annual income is $350.
Kathryn’s work was at one of the country’s four hospitals, where she quickly saw the limitations that this degree of poverty puts healthcare. Even as the newest hospital in the country, it did not have a reliable source of electricity, which drastically impaired the staff in their efforts to provide quality medical care to 20,000 patients per year.
When the power was out, the hospital’s state-of-the-art lab equipment sat idle, greatly hampering the staff’s ability to run diagnostic tests. Refrigerators cut in and out, spoiling vaccines and cold-chain dependent drugs, and making it impossible to maintain a blood bank. Kathryn’s own veins were tapped on one occasion for a patient in emergent need of a transfusion. In West Africa, a blood transfusion can save the life of a child suffering malaria-related anemia, or a mother hemorrhaging after a difficult delivery.
In more than one instance, Kathryn paid witness to mothers and newborns in distress. One baby girl was born to a malnourished mother—as so many impoverished mothers are—and had very weak lungs. In the absence of a working incubator, she struggled to breathe, and died in a matter of days.
Another mother underwent an unplanned C-section after hours of labor proved unproductive. With an ultrasound, the physicians would have known better how to proceed, and sooner.
For Kathryn, the hospital’s erratic electrical supply put into perspective all that we take for granted in the US, right down to the simple ability to switch on the lights. After all, that C-section had been performed by candlelight.
Two continents in contrast
According to the International Energy Agency, 587.1 million people in sub-Saharan Africa go without access to electricity; even more go without reliable electricity. This figure dwarfs the population of all of North America, which stands at 528.7 million people.
Satellite images of the world at night make this reality astonishingly clear. The United States—joined by the southern portion of Canada and parts of Mexico – is thick with countless, sparkling pinpoints of light. One can almost make out the electrical grid fanning out across the continent. Most of the African continent, on the other hand, is cast in darkness. It appears like a black piece of construction paper on a child’s Lite-Brite, ready to be pierced with handfuls of those plastic translucent pegs.
In the US, the proclamations and protestations of environmental advocates resonate with more people now than perhaps ever before, as mainstream consumers seek out products emblazoned with ‘organic’ and ‘local’. Our political leaders also pay the concept lip service, making green-hued injections into their platforms and policies, even into some of the language within the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Meanwhile in Africa, just as the common person can scarcely dream of a full plate—much less high-end luxuries such as fair-trade coffee or free-range, grass-fed beef—the highest government official cannot dare to make extravagant promises of nationwide infrastructural development. Creating an electrical grid even close to that of America carries an enormous price tag (USAID estimates $10,000 per mile of grid extension), not to mention catastrophic impact to the environment, both locally and globally.
There is a huge gap between development —whether ‘sustainable’ or otherwise— and the capital needed to implement it. But as Kathryn came to discover, capital comes in many forms.
Power in plain sight
Kathryn describes the hospital’s CEO as a ‘wise, brilliant man’. Mr. Kebba Badgie knew the answer to many of the hospital’s woes was round-the-clock electricity, and was shrewd enough to know the answer could be found in a readily available resource: the sun.
Despite its financial poverty, The Gambia has a tremendous wealth of sunshine. The country rarely sees a drop of rain six months of the year; storms during the rainy season are powerful but short, leaving room for sun before and afterwards. Unfortunately, harnessing this wealth would still require a great deal of upfront capital.
Mr. Badgie had gone so far as to get an estimate for a solar array powerful enough to meet all the hospital’s energy demands. When Kathryn nonchalantly asked him how she could continue to help once she returned to the States, the CEO asked her to collect more than just band-aids, as she expected. Mr. Badgie pulled the quote from his back pocket and asked that she raise its hefty sum: $300,000.
Kathryn, took the challenge and formed Power Up Gambia. After successfully funding the installation, the 12kW photovoltaic system has proven to be well worth it, as it is in similar efforts in facilities around the world. Providing power to hospitals is a ‘quick-win’ in developing countries, which can “bring vital gains in well-being to millions of people,” according to The UN Millennium Project.
And, putting healthcare aside for just a moment, the installation addresses poverty in another sense. Earlier this year, the UN Environment Program published a report declaring that investment in a ‘green economy’ would deliver long-term stability to the global economy, with benefits that far outweigh ‘business as usual’.
At the hospital, ‘business as usual’ translated into spending $35,000 on diesel fuel each year, or 16% of its annual budget, to run unreliable generators for a third of the day. Diesel generators tend to last 25,000 operating hours; running at 8 hours a day, these generators would need to be replaced in roughly 8.6 years... during which time, the hospital would have spent $300,000 on fuel. Before you even add human life to the equation, Power Up Gambia’s work holds up in a cost-benefit analysis.
Of course, reliable power has brought changes to every aspect of care at the hospital, but perhaps most notable is its bearing on maternal care. In the year following the installation, the hospital made a claim that no other Gambian hospital could: zero maternal or infant deaths. This contrasts previous records of 3-6 deaths per year, in a country with an infant mortality rate ten times that of the US.
A people empowered
The newfound electrical capacity also means the hospital can make better use of its other capital. Mr. Badgie notes that staff once felt “their hands were tied”, and left for less difficult working conditions elsewhere. Now, morale is up and therefore, so is staff retention. Other charitable organizations are more willing to donate equipment or send volunteer healthcare workers, knowing the hospital can put those resources to good use. The hospital itself has better credibility, meaning that more people seek routine, preventative care. This, combined with delivery of viable vaccines, has considerable long-term economic impact.
As Power Up Gambia continues in its work, we partner with Gambian stakeholders to identify future project sites, while being careful not to abandon our previous sites. As we prepare to take on our biggest project yet, an installation at The Gambia’s largest and most remote hospital, we remain steadfast in our optimism. The project will have a huge impact—the hospital serves a catchment area of 600,000 people—but will likely turn out to be easier and cheaper than our first installation.
That is because technological advances will continue to reduce the costs of panels, inverters and batteries, while myriad factors will only continue to boost the price of fossil fuels. With these things in mind, harnessing renewable fuel becomes not just an obvious choice for PUG’s work, but for development around the world.
At this time in history, as America is rethinking how it came to be flooded with light and how it ought to develop from now on, Africa is just beginning that process and has the opportunity to leap right over the old model of development and infrastructure into a new paradigm. Until now, Western society has lived outside its means, consuming resources faster than they can be replenished, but Power Up Gambia is demonstrating that the world has the means to address many of the problems which have plagued it for so long, and that those means are, in fact, renewable and sustainable. For more information Please go to powerupgambia.org