Solar Powered and Secure

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In Malawi, new storage units have expanded and greatly improved storage conditions of commodities for health facilities serving people in remote areas
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Date
September 17, 2019
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A 2014 assessment of over 730 public health facilities in Malawi found that more than three quarters of them had less than half of the pharmacy storage space needed to meet existing demands, a situation that would only get worse as the population grew

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Between 2016 and 2017, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), the Global Fund, and World Bank completed initial efforts to address this challenge by installing 210 prefabricated storage units at health facilities with access to the electrical grid. However, this still left the health facilities that support up to 80 percent of people in rural areas (where many health facilities are not connected to the electrical grid) without a storage solution.

Between September 2018 and March 2019, with funding from PEPFAR, the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), and DFID, the USAID Global Health Supply Chain Program-Procurement and Supply Management (GHSC-PSM) project spearheaded a major initiative to install an additional 239 pre-fabricated pharmacy storage units at health facilities in rural areas, including 117 health facilities off the electrical grid that would be powered by solar panels.

Solar power and temperate control

With a noticeable drop in capital costs over the last five years, solar energy has become commercially mainstream and offers an opportunity to bridge the healthcare delivery gap between urban and rural populations.

GHSC-PSM supported a multisectoral steering committee to improve the design of the new prefabricated units, including use of solar energy to power the 117 prefabricated pharmacy storage units (49 percent of the new facilities) located at the electrical off-grid facilities. The new solar powered storage units, which come in two sizes to match health facility catchment populations, included the following innovative features:

  • A solar power system that can use generators and/or grid power as a back-up power source.
  • A special function that helps prolong battery lifespan.

Key features of solar powered units: 

  • Assembled for use in 5-7 days
  • Solar powered in areas lacking access to the electrical grid
  • Passive temperature control design
  • Automated security, temperature and other alerts to staff
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To limit the use of air conditioning (AC), the units employed innovative passive temperature control designs, including insulated wall panels, a double-roof structure to promote air circulation, and heat-reflective roof paint to reduce indoor temperatures by up to five degrees Celsius.

The solar installations in 117 units adds an estimated 2.4 megawatts of power per day to Malawi’s energy sector. For those with solar power, staff now have reliable lighting, which allows them to make accurate stock counts, check expiry dates, and manage their inventory.

“Apart from the security benefits, the monitoring system gives me visibility on solar system performance in the pharmacy units, and it helps regional and district MOH teams assign staff with appropriate skills for the identified problems,’’ said Rumbani Sidira, Chief Medical Engineer for the Ministry of Health.
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I’m delighted that solar power has made this new pharmacy possible and improved how we store our medicines. Khulumura Evance, Medical Assistant, Nkalo Health Center
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Improved security and reliability
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The new solar powered units also have a web-based system that monitors equipment functionality, temperate and security conditions, and alerts staff through SMS text alerts.

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At all hours of the day, including when staff are not working, the monitoring system sends alerts for various reasons, including if:

  • Solar panel is removed
  • Solar system storage battery is removed
  • One/or both AC units are dysfunctional 
  • AC is on but the temperature is outside the acceptable range
  • The door is open outside business hours, or during business hours for an extended period

Health center staff, district maintenance staff and community representatives receive such alerts and take appropriate actions. This type of constant remote monitoring is unprecedented in Malawi, as well as many other parts of the world that lack rural electrification.

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High-quality services for rural populations
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Image of dashboard example

Users can also check the status of their storage units on their laptops and smart phones. ‘’Normally, when you see red, you are alarmed and you don’t want those red alerts, but it gives me great pleasure to have visibility of system functionally at all sites within my district without having to travel to the sites," said Collins Gama, Senior Maintenance Supervisor, Zomba.

The addition of the new units has considerably improved the Government of Malawi’s ability to meet its population’s needs for secure, quality medicines – especially in rural areas – with 73 percent of health facilities now having adequate storage space. The 239 new storage units provide an additional 10,000 cubic meters of temperature-controlled space to the sites. With the additional storage space available, clinics have shifted boxes of medicines out of clinic hallways, examination rooms, cupboards and other small spaces into the storage units. Having a dedicated storeroom and alerts helps prevent theft and ensure medicines are stored at the proper temperature. Most importantly, health facility staff can better focus on those who seeking care. “I’m now able to properly examine my patients since all the cartons of medicines in the examination room have been removed,’’ said Hezekeil Mwale, the head of Likangala Health Center.