How solar power is saving lives in DRC

CommunityEnergy SourcesEnvironment and climate change
Isabelle, aged 18, with her young child in Madzangina village, near Bunia, Ituri province, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). She delivered her baby at night with light provided via a solar panel. Photo: Hannah Maule-ffinch

Come nightfall, the residents of Madzangina lived in complete darkness. The village, in a remote part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has no roads and is located on the far side of a river without a bridge. There is only a small wooden boat pulled from one side of the river to the other on a rope.

Two out of three people in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity, according to the US government-backed Power Africa. And DRC has one of the lowest rates of electrification in the world at just 9 per cent, with 1 per cent in rural areas and 19 per cent in urban areas. 

Having no light at night seriously limited the lives of the villagers in Madzangina. No electricity meant it was not safe to go out after dark, particularly for women. It was also difficult to store medicines in fridges, and expectant mothers in labour faced a terrifying three-hour journey on the back of a motorbike to the nearest hospital. 

Fortunately, thanks to the work of the local church, the community decided to build its own health care facility and now has a small clinic run by two male nurses. The clinic has a waiting room, consultation room, delivery and recovery room and an open ward with eight beds. The floors are mud and the beds are wooden frames with limited mattresses and bedding. The only electricity is supplied to a single light bulb above the delivery bed and powered by a small solar panel on the roof.

A solar panel used by a community close to Madzangina village. Photo: Hannah Maule-ffinch

Isabelle was just 18 when she gave birth to her son at night. The tiny light powered by the solar panel was a great comfort to her. ‘I was hurting and my abdomen was aching,’ says Isabelle, who arrived at the clinic at 4pm and gave birth 12 hours later. 

She explains what would have happened if the clinic had not been there. ‘It would have been difficult because it’s hard to get a motorcycle at night, and travelling to Nyakundi takes three hours. I would have suffered, and going to deliver there would have been problematic. So it’s good that there is a hospital here to give birth.’

Using solar power instead of non-renewable fuel protects natural resources and the environment. It is also better for people’s health and protects household income from the impact of unpredictable fuel prices. Solar products can be cheaper in the long run than connecting to the grid or buying kerosene. In DRC, households spend up to 100 USD a year on kerosene to fuel lamps, whereas entry-level solar lamps can cost as little as 5 USD. Another important benefit is that solar power can be used to charge batteries, which provide electricity when the main power supply is cut off or when there is no other access to electricity. 

People need clean, affordable, sustainable and safe energy to get out of poverty. Off-grid renewable electricity offers the most viable way to ensure that everyone has electricity by 2030, especially in rural areas. A recent report published by Tearfund and the Overseas Development Institute shows that solar and micro-hydropower are often cheaper, faster, more reliable, safer and cleaner than extending a centralised grid, or using diesel and kerosene. 

Find out more about the benefits of solar power in Tearfund’s recent publication, Pioneering power: Transforming lives through off-grid renewable electricity in Africa and Asia 

You may also be interested to read these blogs: How one woman brought light to her community in Uganda and Replacing honey with better burns treatments in East Africa

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Nick Wyke
Nick Wyke is the editor of the Tearfund Learn blog.