Social entrepreneurs Laura Stachel and Hal Aronson: helping to save lives in developing countries with their solar suitcase invention

The week before last, the city of Berkeley took time to honor two of its citizens. Laura Stachel and her husband Hal Aronson were issued with a proclamation and words of praise from Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Linda Maio, among others, at the April 3 meeting of the City Council. The following night, PBS Newshour ran an eight-minute segment on the couple’s work (watch it below). Six months ago, Diane Sawyer introduced Stachel as “Person of the Week” on ABC World News Tonight. Also in October, the pair appeared on CBS after winning the Nokia Tech Awards as part of the San Jose Tech Museum Tech Awards.

Such plaudits have come to the couple, who live with their kids near College Avenue in south Berkeley, because they are literally helping to save people’s lives on a regular basis, and are doing so through a combination of smarts and sheer determination.

Stachel and Aronson’s brainchild was to create a portable “solar suitcase” which is able to provide light to hospitals that face chronic power shortages — a situation many healthcare clinics in developing countries face on a daily basis. Having the lights go off during surgery can mean the difference between life and death. The situation can also be critical if you have to wait for daylight to break in order to begin an urgent operation.

Watch ‘Solar Suitcase’ Sheds Light on Darkened Delivery Rooms on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Stachel, who practiced as an obstetrician before a back injury led her to change course and pursue a doctorate of public health at UC Berkeley, saw this first-hand when she traveled to Nigeria in 2008. She quickly realized that helping the hospital get reliable power would be as valuable to the doctors there as her medical advice.

“My clinical skills were useless without there being basic infrastructure,” she says.

Stachel admits she was not aware of the scale of the problem globally until she began visiting hospitals in developing countries. She estimates that 300,000 health facilities do not have reliable electricity around the world. “There’s a 100-fold higher risk of dying in childbirth in developing countries than here,” she says.

After she returned from that visit, she and Aronson worked on designing a solar system she could carry in her luggage for her next trip to the hospital. Aronson, who has spent more than a decade teaching about renewable energy systems locally and throughout California, was well placed to help.

The couple began crafting solar suitcases in their Berkeley backyard. Solar suitcase parties with neighbors followed, as their friends and family helped them build more to meet the demand for the ingenious kits. They eventually enlisted an engineer, Brent Moellenberg, to help them develop what eventually became their signature yellow We Care Solar Suitcase.

We Care Solar’s signature solar suitcase which was invented by Laura Stachel and Hal Robinson
We Care Solar’s signature solar suitcase which was invented by Laura Stachel and Hal Robinson

What began as a passion has turned into a full-fledged nonprofit organization. We Care Solar has received support along the way, including a grant from the MacArthur Foundation and pro bono work by local companies such as Everbright Solar, a solar panel manufacturer based in Fremont, and Holly Solar Products, which makes solar powered lighting out of Petaluma.

We Care Solar recently embarked on an exciting collaboration with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to test their high-efficiency, robust and affordable lights. They have worked with LBNL scientist Francis Rubinstein, and will be partnering with LBNL’s new Institute for Globally Transformative Technologies.

“Having these scientists partner with us means we will be able to create a more robust product. Additionally, we’re hoping to develop a suite of medical devices that can use our 12V DC energy platform,” says Stachel.

The couple have moved manufacturing out of their Berkeley garage to a Fremont factory where a team currently produces 30 suitcases a month. Each suitcase costs $1,495 and, to date, We Care Solar has placed 160 of them in 17 different countries.

The Blum Center for Developing Economies on the UC Berkeley campus has provided funding as well as office space for the initiative, which is where Stachel is now based when she’s not traveling the world bringing the suitcases to hospitals. She also oversees an education program to ensure staff on the ground know how to install, use and maintain the kits.

Stachel is taking care to document her work so far and wants to study the impact of the solar suitcases, both qualitatively and quantitatively. She remembers an early conversation with a midwife in one of the hospitals which had started using the solar system. “She told me, ‘We are saving lives’ and I just burst out crying,” she says. In one Nigerian hospital with solar electric lighting in four wards, and a new solar-powered blood bank, the hospital maternal death rate has been reduced by 70%.

While the expertise they have attracted has been invaluable, a priority going forward for the Berkeley non-profit is raising money. “We need funding in order to be able to expand,” Stachel says.

What is clear is that what started as a homespun solution is rapidly gaining traction as a system with broad potential worldwide. Demand is outstripping supply as organizations such as schools, orphanages, and refugee camps are enquiring about the suitcases.

Stachel, who concedes she is an accidental social entrepreneur, is acutely aware that to be a game changer long term, the We Care Solar project needs to scale and to gain widespread support — from the likes of health ministries and NGOs . We Care Solar may well be on its way. In February, the Ministry of Health in Sierra Leone told Stachel it wants solar suitcases for all of its 1,120 primary care clinics.

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...