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Solar power, text messages fight maternal deaths in rural Cameroon

Julianna Senze, 40, had been in heavy labour for eight hours when she arrived at the Idenau Health Centre in Limbe, on the southwest coast of Cameroon.

Like many women in the country, she had had no prenatal care, so what should have been a routine delivery was now a high-risk medical procedure. The nurses, looking worn and tired, rushed her to the delivery room.

“We had to get her here quickly from Batoke village, some eight kilometres away, after receiving an SMS message from the doctor on duty,” said her husband, his voice strained with worry. Less than an hour later, Senze safely delivered a healthy baby boy.

Only a few years ago, Senze’s story could have had a more tragic ending.

Cameroon has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. More than 7 000 women die due to pregnancy-related causes and 58 000 children under the age of five lose their lives every year in Cameroon, according to the United Nations Population Fund in Cameroon. Most of them live in rural parts of the country, where health services are weakest.

But a combination of solar energy and a new mobile phone platform, which gives women access to important health information, is changing that.

Low tech, high impact
New renewable energy projects are giving more people the electricity they need to access health information, and giving hospitals power to deliver essential care, experts say.

The message that may have saved Senze’s life was sent using Gifted Mom, a mobile platform founded by Cameroon engineer Alain Nteff in 2012.

The text-messaging service and app gives women in out-of-the-way rural communities free health advice, sending reminders about prenatal check-ups and children’s vaccinations. It tells users when and where to get the treatment they need, and gives them access to doctors who can answer health-related questions.

According to Nteff, Gifted Mom is now used in all 10 regions of the country. 

“The project expects to help reduce the number of Cameroonian women who die during childbirth and the number of babies who die at birth by at least 70% by 2020,” said Nteff, talking to the press in Yaounde.

But Gifted Mom’s success would be impossible if it weren’t for the other projects tackling another issue that blights the lives of those living in rural Cameroon: lack of electricity. 

Solar and wind step in
According to the World Bank, nearly 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa – most of them in rural areas where poverty is high – still lack access to energy, and electrification is barely keeping pace with population growth.

Limbe, a big coastal town in southwest Cameroon, runs on hydroelectricity provided by ENEO, the country’s lone energy provider. But even residents connected to the grid can’t rely on having electricity when they need it.

Prolonged droughts have caused a severe drop in the water levels of the Sanaga river, which feeds the area’s hydropower plant, resulting in crippling power outages.

“We suffer from persistent blackouts on a daily basis,” said Motanga Andrew, the government delegate to the Limbe city council.

In Idenau and Batoke, two fishing villages about 12 kilometres from Limbe city, there are pretty beaches and vast tracts of unspoiled mangrove forests that bring in the tourists.

But, until recently, the communities couldn’t access enough power to meet the most basic needs of running their businesses and health services. 

The recent arrival of solar power, however, is already improving the lives, health experts say.

Renewal energy
In 2015, a renewable-energy expert from Canada began using homemade wind turbines and solar panels to build a network of renewable energy electrical stations to supply power to homes and medical clinics in the area.

The networks are also used to charge motorcycle batteries, which residents take home to power their lights and charge their cell phones, which they can then use to conduct business and access health information.

Also last year, the African Resource Group Cameroon (ARG-CAM), in collaboration with the Limbe city council, built mini-electrical grids to provide light, cooking energy and phone-charging stations to the people of Limbe, Idenau, and Batoke.

According to the non-governmental group’s director general,  Edmond Linonge Njoh, the initiative, funded by the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development, aims to reduce the fishing communities’ dependence on fuel wood and kerosene, both of which come with significant health risks.

“The coming of alternative and cheaper energy to our council area is a welcome relief,” said the government delegate to Limbe.

Changing lives
In Idenau, storekeeper Njombe Ikome said the provision of solar energy to the community has changed the lives of people there.

“Our children can now do their homework at night and they are doing well in school,” he said. “Idenau is a business community and so the use of cell phones for communication with business partners is very important.”

According to Rose Agbor, assistant warden of the Idenau Health Centre, the facility used to help fewer than 15 pregnant women and nursing mothers each day.

Now, with solar energy providing a reliable electricity supply and the Gifted Mom platform raising awareness of the availability of prenatal care, the centre sees over 50 patients daily. 

“The arrival of solar electricity here has changed everything,” she said. – Thomson Reuters Foundation

The Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, covers humanitarian news, climate change, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit the site here

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