Winter is here. We’ve dusted off winter jackets that were in the back of our wardrobes since August last year. The sun is taking a little longer to show up every morning and children are called into the house a little earlier from playing outside. Despite the nippy beginning and end to our days, winter days in Zimbabwe are beautiful. The sun shines defiantly, ruining our outfit choices but giving us excuses to prolong our office lunches in the garden. Out of 365 days a year, Zimbabwe has sunlight for almost 325 days. This makes the country a perfect place to explore solar power.
Enter the African Solar Taxi project.
The seed of this idea was planted by Research Triangle Institute International official Fortunate Machingura, who is currently working towards a PhD at the University of Manchester. From the proceeds made through a documentary filmed at the Zambezi Valley’s St Albert’s Mission hospital, her and a few colleagues managed to raise enough funds to build a waiting mother’s shelter that can hold 200 women. “Mash Central is the second poorest province with 75% poverty levels and so it was obviously natural for me to explore what women and girls were facing and what the health priorities were,” said Machingura. “The delay in seeking maternal health care is what we wanted to bridge by providing a transport mechanism that was affordable. This was not just to transport the women, but also to provide the village health workers with transport to give information needed by women regarding the risks of pregnancy.”
Innovative Solutions for Maternal Health
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Zimbabwe’s 2014 maternal mortality ratio stood at 614 deaths per 100 000 live births. While it has reduced significantly over the years, the rate is still unacceptably high. The Ministry of Health received a budget of $337 million instead of the $712 million it needed this year. Combined with occasional doctors and nurses strikes, shortages of medicines and 70% of a citizenry without health insurance, the health sector looks to be in need of as many innovative, cheap solutions as possible.
The solar taxi is exactly that – a vehicle that is designed to run on solar energy. In 2013, combined efforts between Machingura, Italian NGO CESVI, electric car designers Team Trev and the University of South Australia, saw the birth of the project. St Albert’s Hospital in the Zambezi Valley services about 120 000 people in that area and delivers about 2,600 babies annually. With a large community to cater to but bad roads and inadequate sources of fuel and mechanical services, the solar taxi would be a welcome introduction.
Solar Technology and Health Care
“The Taxi is designed for low mass, ruggedness and simplicity. Low mass will keep energy consumption low, which makes it technically and financially viable to power using solar panels and batteries,” said Andrew Dickson, a member of Team Trev. Team Trev is responsible for the building of the vehicle and is comprised of volunteers that have generously given their time to see the project through. The technology behind the vehicle is entirely open source, meaning that anyone with the will and resources will be able to build their own models. “Overall, it will be a simple and cost-effective vehicle, and it will have no fuel costs, because it will be powered by sunlight. This is a big issue in remote areas where petrol is expensive and often very hard to obtain,” Dickson added. Team Trev is hoping to complete the first trial run in Zimbabwe in the next few months.
Initiatives like the solar taxi are telling of the times we live in. The reliance on non-renewable energy sources has not only resulted in mass power cuts and load shedding across the country, but it has affected industry and local production as well. Last year, Zimbabwe was said to be spending $1.5 billion on fuel imports alone. This could be reduced significantly in the future if solutions like the solar taxi are taken seriously. This kind of solution is extremely useful in remote parts of the country that are not on the electricity grid and that are battling with delivering services to people.
In the video below, Loris Palentini, the CESVI Zimbabwe country representative, speaks in more detail about the potential of the solar taxi in Zimbabwe.