Shirati Hospital Energy Project: a truly sustainable collaboration

Natasha Shea

Every day hundreds of sheets are washed by hand in water boiled over wood fires, requiring a large amount of fuel

I first found out about Shirati Hospital through personal connections: through my uncle, who led a group of medical students at the hospital; through my cousin, who went to Shirati as part of the group; through my mother and my aunt who accompanied them.

Over two years I heard their stories of Shirati: the people they met, friends they made, the village, and most of all, Shirati Hospital. Each time they went out, they came back different - not just with new stories and pictures, but with a sense of a place that had the potential to change the lives of people who spent time there: visitors as well as patients and doctors.

This year I had the chance to go to Shirati myself. Now I can understand why this feeling is so persistent, why it can travel back with people, and stay with them long after they have left Shirati.

Over five days in Shirati, together with Samwel Ogoya, the Shirati Hospital engineer, we conducted an energy audit of the whole hospital. It was constantly inspiring to me to see how much greater than the sum of its parts was the mix of skills and knowledge from two very different sources - Scotland and Tanzania - and also to see how similar were the three engineers' enthusiasm and openness to new ideas.

Every day hundreds of sheets are washed by hand in water boiled over wood fires, requiring a large amount of fuel

Walking around the hospital, with an overarching plan of devising a system for constant power and hot water, all three engineers looked at what was available with fresh eyes. A yard full of old hospital beds was no longer scrap metal, but potential for a solar thermal system to provide hot water to the wards. Measuring the hospital generator early one morning, Tom and Peter, the Scottish engineers, noted how close the generator was to the laundry area. Twenty minutes later they had designed a heat-transfer system using waste heat to boil water for washing sheets.

Every day hundreds of sheets are washed by hand in water boiled over wood fires, requiring a large amount of fuel

Every day hundreds of sheets are washed by hand in water boiled over wood fires, requiring a large amount of fuel

Washing Bed Sheets

It was only by actually being in the hospital that we were able to let these ideas take shape, and it was only there that the real importance of the project became evident. Back in the UK, we had seen the core project - providing a constant electricity supply for the operating room - as something that would be a great improvement to the hospital. After ten minutes in the hospital, it became clear to all of us that a constant power supply was absolutely essential for the hospital. Without power even the most sophisticated equipment is redundant.

Operating Theatre Staff working

We have decided to keep our project clearly focussed on the part of Shirati Hospital felt by hospital staff to be in most critical need of a constant source of energy: the Operating Theatre. The will to make great changes is there, the skills are there, what the hospital lacks is the material resource. This is what we will try to provide. Few of us are able to perform a caesarean by torchlight, and most of us would have difficulty welding a generator into place. But the abiding feeling I took from spending time in Shirati was that we all have the potential to make great differences in our lives and the lives of others, in whatever way we can.

The Shirati Hospital project is about empowerment and self-sufficiency as much as it is about electricity: 'sustainability' as acknowledging the stake that people have in improving their lives, and welcoming the power that comes with such responsibility and ownership. The people of Shirati, like all of us, would rather enjoy the active empowering role of sharing and collaboration than the role of passive receiving. True sustainability depends on this kind of shared responsibility.

Education is a light

Shirati Hospital is already a beacon of hope and care for the wider community it serves, but the hospital also has the potential to become an exemplar of the positive change that can be achieved when people share knowledge, skills and time: an exercise in 'empowerment' for all. Great need can point the way to great possibility. Very different skills, if pooled, can work wonders.