Guest Articles

May 12

John Keane / Sofia Ollvid

Fighting a Pandemic in the Dark: How SolarAid is Helping Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa Respond to COVID-19

As countries around the world deal with unprecedented pressure on their national healthcare systems, and the global economy faces increasing turmoil, inequality has never been more apparent than now. With countries locking down and quarantines in place, it has been inspiring to see the support for health workers and the emotive slogan “We are all in this together.” But who are “we” – and are we really in this together?

Governments in much of the world are cautiously starting to roll out plans to open up societies again. But the coronavirus is just starting to spread throughout the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, a continent of incredible people, wonderful diversity and, unfortunately, widespread poverty. An estimated 600 million people live without access to electricity in their homes. Typically, these homes also lack running water. Hundreds of millions of families cook with wood and fire, on the floor, every day. Hard-working rural populations grow their own food and crops each year in order to survive. It’s backbreaking work.

Climate change is making this work harder – much harder. You may recall the devastating floods across Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe last year, which brought communities to their knees. Zambia, meanwhile, has been enduring its worst drought in decades, resulting in widespread food insecurity and economic instability. People living in towns and cities are also going without electricity for up to 18 hours a day, as water in the Kariba dam, which fuels the country’s hydroelectric plants, hits all-time lows.

Meanwhile, an estimated one in four health centres across sub-Saharan Africa remain unelectrified, with a staggering 75% of health facilities having unreliable access to electricity. This means that access to modern healthcare is extremely limited. In short, people are more vulnerable now than ever.

Does all this sound like a good recipe for fighting off a growing pandemic?

We all hope that, through hard work or good luck, sub-Saharan Africa is spared the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. But if we really are all in this together, what the global community needs to do – right now – is help with preparations.

African homes, communities, healthcare workers and health facilities need access to the information and technologies that will help protect and treat local populations. At SolarAid, we have responded to this urgent need in a number of ways.

For starters, we’ve recognised that a virus can spread faster than information about how to fight it – especially within communities with limited access to modern forms of communication. So our teams – which are usually on the road, working to help bring solar power to remote communities – are now on the phone, disseminating vital health information to thousands of people, helping them stay safe. Our teams are also combating the spread of misinformation which can take hold in rural communities, such as the belief that witch doctors and pastors can cure the virus.

We also recognize that modern healthcare is only possible if rural health facilities have access to reliable electricity and modern medical appliances. Lack of access to electricity in health clinics means that many have little to no light during the night. Some even ask their patients to bring their own candles or torches when visiting clinics during the dark hours. Others have to close when night falls.

We believe that this situation is unacceptable in the midst of a global health pandemic. It should go without saying that you cannot provide adequate protection to health workers or their patients if they are working in the dark. So we are committed to working together with health experts to equip rural health facilities with basic power and lighting to help them deliver vital healthcare and save lives. As an immediate response, SolarAid is supplying over 4,000 free solar lighting and power products to help equip health workers and provide light and power for rural healthcare facilities, quarantine areas and referral hospitals in Zambia and Malawi. These products have an additional benefit, allowing users to recharge phones, which are necessary in order to call for emergency assistance. We have also seen other companies in our sector, such as Solar Sister in Tanzania, take action, donating lights to health workers.

We’ve seen the impact that this support – even on a small scale – can make. As Sister Valeria Prudence Kabase, who works as a midwife at St. Luke’s Nursing School in Zambia, told us, “One solar light placed in a rural clinic could help save a person who comes in with coronavirus symptoms, by giving us health workers adequate light.” To help expand this response, we have launched our public Moment of Sunshine Appeal in the U.K. Several supporters have already pledged matching funding to help generate more support, and we are continuing to seek more of this funding to encourage the public to give.

Access to basic lighting and power is just the start, however. According to Adam Mwanza, clinical officer at Lualizi Rural Health Post, “Our main concern is that we do not have the right equipment or gear, if at some point we would have to have patients coming in due to COVID-19. … The health post also lacks sanitiser as well as the right protective gear.” That’s why now is the time to ensure that rural health facilities have access to modern appliances and reliable electricity. We cannot wait to achieve these goals by 2030, as set out in the SDGs. We must act now.

SolarAid is committed to working with our partners and supporters to use the latest solar technology, energy-efficient medical appliances and innovation to help ensure that countries in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have to face the COVID-19 pandemic in the dark. If you’d like to learn more about our response, and explore ways you can help, visit our website for more information.


John Keane is CEO and Sofia Ollvid is the Communications and Marketing Manager at SolarAid.


Photo courtesy of Lendwithcare/Peter Caton.




Coronavirus, Energy, Health Care
COVID-19, energy access, rural development