Notes from the field: Zimbabwe

On Thursday 7 June 2018, I visited Jari health clinic, scene of the first installation of our solar energy system. Here, I recount the one of the most fulfilling days of my professional career.

Asad Rahman
Jul 5, 2018 · 5 min read

Our pilot

We are testing the potential of a smart solar energy system to provide sustainable power to health clinics in Zimbabwe.

Developed in the UK by Africa Power Storage (APS), and put together and installed by local organisations, our solar energy system that can be transported, installed and maintained in off-grid, remote settings.It’s compact, efficient, and online: meaning it can collect data on energy usage.

For health clinics suffering without a sustainable energy source, it has the power to transform lives.

The solar inverter developed by APS, in the factory (left) and installed in a clinic (right).

In the words of Norman Timawaro, who is leading this pilot for the UK Dept. for International Development in Zimbabwe:

“What excites me is the potential that this tech has to enable health facilities to be more effective, and provide critical health outcomes. Secondly, from a solar perspective, it’s promising to answer some of the questions around sustainability of solar energy systems, and storage of solar power”

A shot of the factory in Harare where our solar energy system is a brought together and assembled by JVS Projects, local electric solutions specialists and our partner in Zimbabwe.

We have successfully carried out a first installation of the solar energy system in a health clinic in Jari, a village three hours from the centre of the capital, Harare.

This concluded our first sprint with the team, and Bojan and I paid them a visit to help reflect on what they had learnt, and how this might inform the rest of their pilot as well as future attempts to scale the tech across the whole of Zimbabwe.

Jari clinic is located in the heart of Zimbabwe’s bush — a beautiful setting I was fortunate enough to visit.

Why Jari clinic?

Jari clinic is completely off -grid, with no electricity generation infrastructure reaching the clinic. Although it has a solar-powered fridge, no electricity means no lighting in which to carry out routine procedures and clinic births (which are often done by candlelight today). No electricity means closing at 4pm with limited emergency care after the sun has set. And no electricity means no way for staff to charge phones on site, limiting communication and data usage.

Jari clinic provides healthcare services to a broad catchment area.

We also believe that fully testing the end-to-end process at Jari allows for the greatest learning with the least investment. Jari is tricky to access (but not the most difficult), relatively small, and staff and residents have no prior knowledge and experience of solar energy.

It’s similar to hundreds (if not thousands) of other health clinics in Zimbabwe.

It’s easy enough to be quick and relatively cheap to install our solar energy system, but difficult enough that we would generate meaningful learnings by doing so.

Some photos from inside Jari clinic

Here is Steve, the Managing Director of JVS Solutions, introducing our solar energy system:

Our solar energy system

We believe our solar energy system is the best solution to electrify rural areas in Zimbabwe.

In these videos, Steve explains how the system works to provide energy to Jari clinic.

There’s a plethora of things that go into making all of this work: a tested supply chain, an efficient logistics and installation process, high-functioning tech including lithium-ion batteries, and effective training and maintenance. All tailored to the specific context of rural Zimbabwe.

Effective training and maintenance can be as simple as having a special mop and bucket just for solar panels!

All of these things need to be working together for our solar energy system to be the best it can be, and all were subject to learning during our first sprint. To give one example of what we learnt (again, in the words of Norman):

“Coming to the end of our first sprint, we have learnt that we need to do more technical preparation and feasibility studies to better inform the installations of solar energy systems. For example: let’s have the installers being part of the initial site assessment”

From visiting Jari, I learnt that the journey to an effective solar energy system is not just about the technology. It begins, and in many ways hinges on, the preparation beforehand. We need a good method, the right people, sufficient time and local knowledge at scale when preparing to install our system. This makes sure that, when the tech arrives, it’s fit for purpose. Learning this will serve us well when we look to install in more places.

Here’s Steve making this point further:

Our Impact

This month — for the first time in Jari — five babies were born under electric lighting. We’ve proven that there is a willing and able end user for our solar energy system, and that the tech works and has a significant impact in improving lives. In the words of DFID_UK:

Here is a video of the Doctor from Jari clinic explaining the impact in some more depth:

I’ll leave the final words to Norman:

“It’s early days to assess the impact. But from what we have seen at Jari clinic, there is a great opportunity to scale here. As long as we can learn enough about how to tackle the technical, social and management issues, I see upscaling as the natural next step after Frontier Technology Livestreaming”

What’s next?

We will be installing our solar energy system in six further health facilities across the country, applying what we have learnt and generating more evidence of what works in the Zimbabwean context.

At Jari itself, we’re looking at all the opportunities presenting themselves now that we have a reliable power source. For example: can we build a water pump to provide sustainable fresh water?

Or can the clinic sell surplus energy to the school and business centre? This would create a new revenue stream for the clinic, and a local mini-grid leapfrogging the need for expensive energy infrastructure.

Be sure to follow our livestream page for more photos, videos and updates as this pilot develops!

Frontier Technologies Hub

Working with the UK Dept. for International Development to apply frontier technologies to the biggest challenges in development.

Asad Rahman

Written by

Applying tech and innovation to international development with UKAid. Follow us here:

Frontier Technologies Hub

Working with the UK Dept. for International Development to apply frontier technologies to the biggest challenges in development.

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