Shirati Hospital Energy Project (SHEP) : How it all started

Yvonne Baginsky

Like the proverbial oak, the Shirati Hospital Energy Project (SHEP) started small, with a passing observation. In the summer of 2006, my brother, Dr. Peter Baginsky, a diabetes specialist and Associate Professor at Touro University in California, was asked to be Field Supervisor on Touro's Global Health Initiative programme at Shirati Hospital in Tanzania. He invited me to accompany him and his wife and son to Shirati for a month: I was given the chance to run art workshops in the local primary school.

(l)Samwel Ogoya and Tom Grassie, Napier University, Scotland

As a birthday present a few months previously, my niece had given my brother a special briefcase for his trip to Africa. Small solar panels on the outside of the case were connected to an electrical apparatus on the inside which could charge up cameras, computers, batteries, or mobile phones - just about anything electrical in fact - using the energy from the sun.

(l)Samwel Ogoya and Tom Grassie, Napier University, Scotland (l)Samwel Ogoya and Tom Grassie, Napier University, Scotland

This solar backpack was sitting out in the hot Shirati sun one day as my sister-in-law and I sipped ice tea in the welcome shade. My brother joined us for lunch, just back from supervising his medical students in the hospital's operating theatre. There had been a power failure the night before and the doctors, plunged mid-procedure into pitch-black darkness, had been forced to perform an emergency operation by the light of their mobile phones.

hospital hospital

This was not, our host family assured us, an isolated occurrence. Power failures were common all year round, and when the hospital's generator was out of costly diesel and no cars were on hand whose batteries could boost the energy supply, mobile phones were a necessary last resort. In a large regional hospital like Shirati, with a catchment area of over 200,000, hardly a day went by without emergency operations, and many of these took place at night. In Shirati, so close to the equator, every night lasts from 7 in the evening to 6 the next morning: in the middle of the African countryside, with no streetlights and few lit homes, night is very, very dark.

peter with solar panel

It was one of those 'eureka' moments: my brother's backpack, slowly but surely charging up our phones in the hot Shirati sun, and just a few minutes up the road, a hospital operating by mobile phone-light because their whole power supply was down. The seed was planted.

Over the next year my sister-in-law and I investigated renewable technologies, but it was only in late 2007 that an actual project began to take shape. Once again, it was one of those "coincidences". I had started working at Screen Academy Scotland, part of Edinburgh's Napier University. Our Film Academy had recently amalgamated with the seemingly unconnected School of Engineering and the Built Environment to form one Faculty. At the University's Christmas Dinner in December, I met Professor Ian Hunt, Head of the School of Engineering-and suddenly found myself talking non-stop about Shirati.

A number of very productive meetings with keen Napier engineers followed. It turned out that Napier University has a long-term research - and practice-based commitment to alternative/renewable/sustainable energy: several of the people whom Professor Hunt gathered around the table to hear about Shirati Hospital and its power requirements were renowned solar-, hydro-, or wind- energy experts.

small boy small boy

The project team came together almost effortlessly. From the very first meeting, Senior Lecturer Tom Grassie, an expert in solar thermal and renewable technologies, expressed an enthusiastic personal and practical interest in the project. He in turn suggested one of his PhD students, Peter Clarke, whose experience and research interest in photovoltaics would be an invaluable contribution. Likewise there from the start was John Paul McKeown, founder of Edinburgh-based charity EngineerAid: 250 professional engineers from around the world contributing specialist aid online to people and communities with engineering problems worldwide.

small boy

The final member of the UK team was my daughter, Natasha Shea, a recent graduate in Architecture from Cambridge University, a school with a particular focus on sustainability in design. Currently working as an assistant architect for architecture and urban design practice Terry Farrell and Partners in London, she brings to the team an architectural angle on sustainability.

small boy

Within weeks, John Paul and the Napier engineers had established contact with Emmanuel Birai, Director of Shirati Hospital; Josia Magatti, Director of its Research Station; and Samwel Ogoya, Chief Engineer of Shirati Hospital. Together they forged the first professional connections between engineers in Edinburgh and Shirati, laying the foundation for the technical collaboration that would be integral to the project.

small boy

In June, five months after Professor Hunt and I first talked about Shirati at Napier's Christmas Dinner, Tom, Peter, Natasha and I were on our way to Shirati to meet Samwel Ogoya, Mr. Birai and Josia Magatti. The seed of an idea planted in Shirati had sprouted in Edinburgh and was returning to Tanzania to take root. The Shirati Hospital Energy Project had begun!