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Madagascar: solar power ends dark age for rural clinics
by Staff Writers
Nairobi (AFP) Sept 29, 2008

Solar panels sit on the roof of a rural hospital in Antsahadinta, in rural Madagascar which is still unconnected to the national electricity and water grid. Several rural hospitals such as Antsahadinta's were equipped with solar technology four years ago to produce their own electricity. Photo courtesy AFP.

Elisabeth's 13 children were born by candlelight. Her daughter, who has just become a mother for the first time, was more "fortunate".

Now, in Antasahadinta hospital in rural Madagascar, the use of solar energy means stories like Elisabeth's have been consigned to history -- a small success for a power source so abundant yet so hard to tap on a continent fraught with poverty, lacking infrastructures and prone to instability.

Still unconnected to the national network, several rural hospitals were equipped with solar technology four years ago to produce their own electricity.

Antsahadinta is a small village 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the west of the capital Antananarivo. The village health centre is responsible for 12,000 people and can see up to 400 patients a month.

"My 13 children were born in the old hospital by candlelight; my daughter is fortunate to have given birth in these conditions," said Elisabeth Razafindrataka, a 53-year-old grandmother, accompanying her daughter after giving birth to her first child.

Not that long ago, you had to bring your own candles with you if went into labour at night, she said.

And despite its close proximity to the capital, Antsahadinta will not be connected to the electricity supply for some years yet.

This Indian Ocean island state is one of the world's poorest countries, and its electricity grid is limited: just 43 percent of Madagascar is covered by the national water and electricity company, JIRAMA.

According to a 2006 United Nations report, only three percent of the rural population is connected to the network. Yet 85 percent of Madagascar's 17 million people live in the countryside, and most below the poverty line.

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The poor financial health of JIRAMA, which struggles to maintain good supplies even in some large towns, and Madagascar's rampant poverty explain delays in fitting equipment and connecting people -- a scenario all too common in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

When Antsahadinta's health centre was rebuilt in 2004, the Development Intervention Fund (FID), a private association in part financed by the government, installed three large solar panels. The three panels can produce up to 400 watts of electricity.

"This really makes our work easier, especially since 80 percent of births take place at night," said Mamy Rakotondrainibe, the head doctor at the centre.

From now on, each room is equipped with light bulbs. The centre has also been able to get rid of the generator that it used to power a refrigerator that stores vaccinations and medicines. The generator used 30 litres (quarts) of fuel a month and was very noisy.

"The beneficiaries have said they are really satisfied and the tendency is to research alternative energy," said Rasendra Ratsima, FID's managing director.

With the help of financing from the World Bank, FID decided to launch a new wave of solar installations in 27 health centres at the cost of 1.3 billion ariary (739,000 dollars, 520,000 euros).

The initiative appears to be a success -- a way of tackling the problem of the remoteness of the majority of Madagascar's health centres.

The Antsahadinta centre still faces one major difficulty: the lack of running water. The staff are left with the only option of boiling water from a nearby well.

"The problem, as always, is water. There are no taps throughout the whole health centre. We only have a well, which is 20 meters (65 feet) deep," said Rakotondrainibe.


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