Power to the people: Berkeley couple brings light to clinics in developing nations

After the lights went out, a light bulb turned on in Laura Stachel’s mind.

The Berkeley obstetrician was touring Nigeria as part of a 2008 maternal mortality research project. Her hosts took her to a dilapidated, poorly equipped hospital, where electric power routinely fizzled out.

Mothers coming to the hospital often delivered babies by kerosene lantern or candlelight. Some C-sections were delayed. Some pregnant women were turned away. Others died from complications rarely seen in the West, such as uterine rupture.

In Malawi, women in labor are required to bring their own candles when they arrive at clinics. In Uganda, midwives sometimes illuminate nighttime deliveries by holding a cellphone between their teeth.

“There was one night I saw a woman fighting for her life in darkness,” Stachel recalls. “I felt like I was in a chamber of horrors, and I thought ‘Why am I here right now bearing witness?’ I thought maybe I could be a voice for this woman and others.”

Then it hit her: What if these clinics had a reliable 24/7 source of electricity to illuminate delivery rooms, keep blood supplies refrigerated, and recharge cellphones and two-way radios so doctors could be located quickly?

A source like the African sun.

After Stachel described the conditions she witnessed in Africa to her husband, solar energy educator Hal Aronson, the two conceived an impossibly simple idea: an easy-to-install, easy-to-use solar power unit small enough to fit in a suitcase. And powerful enough to change the world.

And thus the most beneficent piece of luggage on Earth was born.

We Care Solar is the couple’s Berkeley-based nonprofit.  In just four years, the organization has deployed more than 200 bright-yellow solar suitcases to clinics in 25 countries across Africa, Central America and Asia, including in Somalia, South Sudan, Nicaragua and Afghanistan.

After a short tutorial, almost anyone can unfold the suitcase’s solar panels, affix them to a roof, plug the cords into the suitcase main panel and power up. The sun does the rest.

The system includes high-efficiency LED medical task lighting, a universal cellphone charger, a battery charger for AAA or AA batteries, headlamps, a fetal monitor, and outlets for 12v DC devices. It comes with 40 or 80 watts of solar panels, and a lead-acid battery that needs replacing only every two years.

Berkeley obstetrician Laura Stachel holds an LED headlamp at a clinic in northern Nigeria.

It provides light and power for 24-hour critical care, mobile communication and that all-important blood bank refrigeration. In other words, it saves lives.

The organization has attracted substantial financial support from funders such as the MacArthur Foundation, Starr International Foundation, the University of California’s Blum Center for Developing Economies and the Segal Family Foundation.

The couple also has won awards from U.C. Berkeley, the Department of Energy/Massachusetts Institute of Technology and 2011 Nokia Health Tech Awards, as well as being named one of three winners of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s “Half the Sky” contest, which recognizes organizations that promote female empowerment.

Ask the couple why they invest their time and energy in bringing light to developing countries — the globetrotting Stachel practically lives on an airplane — and winning awards probably would rank last.

“We were raised with a strong sense of tikkun olam,” says Stachel, referring to the Jewish value of repairing the world. “It reflects our strong interest in social justice and making the world a more fair place. In seeing problems, we both feel a responsibility to do something about them.”

Stachel won yet another award last year: a $25,000 grant from Isha Koach (Women of Strength), a group of philanthropists allied with the Jewish Women’s Foundation that honors Jewish social entrepreneurs like Stachel.

JWF executive director Joy Sisisky met Stachel last September in New York, where the Berkeley woman convened with the Isha Koach board and spoke at the Jewish Federations of North America’s 2012 International Lion of Judah Conference.

“She’s totally mesmerizing,” Sisisky says. “She met with our [executive] group of 10 women for an hour. I never heard them so quiet. Laura told the story of We Care Solar, and the impact it will have immediately and long term. It was overwhelming.”

Laura Stachel and Hal Aronson in their Berkeley backyard photo/cathleen maclearie

Adds Isha Koach co-chair Leith Greenslade, “We found 25 to 30 Jewish women who fit our [award] criteria, and Laura was No. 1. There’s a reason for that. She’s a force, she has something inside her that drives her; she’s super smart, but she works so hard, constantly traveling the globe to promote this work.”

When a We Care Solar suitcase shows up in African villages, people dance and sing.

In Uganda last summer to deliver a suitcase, Stachel and Aronson were met by a chorus line of dancing women. Stachel grooved along with them. On a different occasion, as she arrived in a Sierra Leone village, Stachel was again greeted by a happy crowd on its feet.

“Everyone surrounded the suitcase singing and dancing, holding hands,” she remembers. “I was in tears. Often we’re bringing the first electricity to a community.”

In Sierra Leone last year she arrived at a remote village long after sunset. Before she could get final approval to install the suitcase, Stachel was taken to see the village chieftain.

“In the dark I tried to tell the chief through a translator what I was bringing,” she says. “I had him turn on the solar suitcase, and people broke out in song and dance.”

Stachel, 53, often delivers the suitcases personally, and though she encounters cultures very different from her cozy Berkeley Jewish milieu, wherever she goes she is met with love and gratitude. That includes the many Muslim countries and communities she helps.

“I am working in places with largely Muslim or Christian populations, and virtually no Jews,” she says. “I was told ‘You will be in these Muslim places. Don’t reach out your hand to men,’ all these fear-based things. But the people were incredibly respectful.”

Stachel has never hidden her Jewish identity from those she has helped. One of her visits to Nigeria’s Muslim region coincided with Hanukkah. When she told her Muslim driver about the holiday, he invited her to his home where he, his wife and Stachel fashioned a menorah out of a watermelon.

“We had fried sweet potatoes, I did the blessing, they sang me their songs,” she recalls. “It was beautiful. It made me feel much closer to Muslim culture than I ever had before.”

A Nigerian midwife uses an LED headlamp to start an intravenous line.

Because of that ambassadorial spirit (not to mention the quality of the product), governments, multilateral agencies and NGOs around the world have requested suitcases. The goal for We Care Solar is to make the technology available to all who need it, whether or not they can fully afford the $1,500 price tag, plus more for training, monitoring and evaluation.

The market for solar suitcases should stay bullish for a while. According to the United Nations Foundation, approximately 1.3 billion people today live without adequate electricity, including more than 200,000 health care facilities in developing nations. We Care Solar is cranking out the suitcases as fast as possible.

The solar suitcase has proven very reliable in the field, thanks in large part to Aronson’s engineering savvy. In his other life, Aronson, 56, is co-director of Solar Way Forward, a Berkeley solar design, education and consulting firm. He has a doctorate in sociology.

In creating the suitcase, Aronson admits he invented no new technology. Tinkering in his backyard workshop, he simply took on the role of “integrator,” pulling together different pieces of existing technology to solve an engineering puzzle.

“I had to figure out the power needs,” he recalls, “then design a power system that would last, and needed minimal maintenance.”

In the first years, Aronson assembled units by hand. Now, thanks to outside funding, they are factory-assembled in Fremont, where the solar panels also are produced. The lights come from Petaluma and the chassis from Richmond.

Over time, he perfected the unit. “What we learned was that given the kind of stresses on parts, some didn’t hold up as well as we wanted,” he says. “So we improved the lights, the connectors, the wires, and we built a main control board that was user friendly.”

In Nigeria, Stachel teaches health workers how to use the solar suitcase.

Stachel understands the tech talk, but her real passion is working with patients and medical personnel in dusty African villages.

She never would have visited Africa in the first place had she not been stricken with a degenerative condition in her spine and neck, making it difficult for her to sustain the rigors of her OB-GYN practice. It was time for Plan B, so she pursued a doctorate in public health. And that led her to Africa.

Long before that came her Jewish upbringing near Boston. The daughter of a college professor, Stachel traveled the world as a girl, and she attributes her social activist consciousness to her parents.

Aronson grew up under different circumstances in St. Paul, Minn., and Austin, Texas. The family, which included his Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor mother, occasionally was a victim of anti-Semitism.

“The neighborhood kids threw [feces] on our car,” he recalls. “I didn’t know I was Jewish, but my Minnesota neighbors did. That’s how I learned I was Jewish.”

His parents always stressed social justice, something his father later put to the test working for civil rights when the family moved to Texas. Aronson moved to California in 1974 to attend U.C. Santa Cruz, and in 1998 he relocated to Berkeley.

In Nigeria, Stachel holds a newborn.

Stachel and Aronson both have children from previous marriages and together they have an

11-year-old daughter, Rachel. The family belongs to Berkeley Renewal congregation Chochmat HaLev. “I feel being Jewish is a lot about making an effort to make the world better, less broken,” Aronson adds.

SaraLeya Schley knows the couple well, and not just because she serves as rabbi at Chochmat HaLev. Like Stachel she is an OB-GYN, and their daughters were friends at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito.

“I’m in awe of their creative thought,” Schley says of the couple. “To not have light means that for half the day you cannot get someone out of trouble. It was just brilliant to bring portable solar to places in the African bush, solving a huge public health problem.”

Sometimes, professional admirers of Stachel and Aronson become personal friends.

Shashi Buluswar serves as executive director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Institute for Globally Transformative Technologies. The native of India has been a longtime adviser to governments, NGOs and the U.N. on issues such as economic development, health and agriculture. He also teaches international development at U.C. Berkeley.

He met the couple last April, just after he started at the institute, which develops technologies to fight global poverty. Buluswar immediately was intrigued by the solar suitcase and the two people who created it.

Clinic nurses learn to use the solar suitcase in Liberia.

“The word ‘transformative’ is in our name, so our job is to come up with absolute game changers,” he says. “In a village that never saw anything lit at night, all of a sudden, [the solar suitcase] is the beacon that drives [people] to use the clinic more often.”

The institute has established what Buluswar calls a “strategic partnership” with We Care Solar, in the hope that it will be part of “a suite of medical technologies for neonatal care. We think of the solar suitcase as one possible avenue for powering that.”

Meanwhile, Stachel is packing her suitcase — the Samsonite variety — for a two-week trip to Malawi, which begins this week. We Care Solar recently shipped 10 solar suitcases there at the request of President Joyce Banda. If the pilot program pans out, an additional 80 units will go to that impoverished East African nation.

Aronson will stay behind and run the organization. As many accolades as Stachel has gotten, no one admires her more than her husband.

“She is courageous, compassionate, smart and very charming,” he says, “so she connects with people. Whenever we travel, Laura wants to go into the homes of ordinary people. With a sick person, she’ll step in and nurture, or bang on doors to find a doctor.”

The work goes on, and though the couple hope to grow their enterprise, they know We Care Solar alone cannot light all the world’s underserved clinics. But they hope their example will inspire others.

“We believe all women have a right to deliver their babies safely, and that childbirth should be happening with light,” Stachel says. “We turned our lives upside down and put everything else secondary because we feel so committed to this idea.”

Adds Aronson, “Even though you cannot fix the whole world, you still have an obligation to make an effort. That’s liberating, because it’s not easy work. But you still have to try.”

For more information, visit www.wecaresolar.org


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.