Nairobi — Solar-powered refrigerators could be a game-changer in Africa's fight against COVID-19 by helping the continent to store and distribute vaccines, especially in rural and remote areas with no connection to electricity, experts say.
As the world prepares and rolls out mass vaccinations against COVID-19, experts from the Global Environment Facility-funded Sure Chill vaccine storage project in Colombia, Eswatini and Kenya add that equipping health facilities not connected to the national grid with solar-powered refrigerators could be key to reaching rural populations.
"We are now faced with the challenge of expanding the cold chain to health facilities especially in the rural areas as we prepare for mass vaccinations," said Nancy Finger, a senior project consultant at Germany-headquartered HEAT, an international energy consulting firm working on the Sure Chill vaccine storage project.
In an interview with SciDev.Net, Finger explained that in many parts of rural Africa, many health facilities are limited in their ability to deliver quality health services, partly due to a lack of appropriate, affordable and accessible energy services.
The existing cold chains in Africa may not be sufficient for mass vaccinations against COVID-19, she added.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), every year, more than 50 per cent of vaccines are wasted globally because of poor temperature management.
Rose Katee, a nursing officer at Mulango dispensary, a private facility located in the outskirts of Kitui town, eastern Kenya, said that solar refrigerators are ideal in areas prone to frequent electric power losses.
"Three years ago, this area was plunged into total disarray as we went for seven good months without electricity," Katee recalled. "The situation was so devastating that we wished we could have our usual intermittent supply of power because we could not help our patients."
The biggest challenge for the health centre was how to store life-saving vaccines, especially for children in the facility catchment area. The situation, recalled Katee, led to many children missing out on vaccines.
But in 2017, the facility received solar-powered refrigerators from the Sure Chill project that Katee said have been instrumental in storing vaccines at the required temperatures.
"In the last few months, public health facilities have been paralysed by strikes of doctors and nurses. Our facility has been of great help especially to children: vaccinating them against deadly diseases such as measles."
About 30 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines are expected to arrive in African countries by next month, according to Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, in a media briefing.
Katee added that her dispensary is more prepared for COVID-19 vaccination as she can store the vaccines at the recommended temperatures.
Josphat Ndoinyio, a clinical nurse at Olderkesi dispensary in South-western Kenya, told SciDev.Net that solar-powered refrigerators have helped store vaccines and reduced their costs of operating gas-powered refrigerators that they were using before.
"Refilling the gas tanks regularly was very expensive for a small dispensary like Olderkesi. Now, we can save as we do not incur any expenses," Ndoinyio told SciDev.Net.
But he said that the small capacity of the refrigerators limits the number of vaccines doses that can be stored. He called on innovators to design relatively larger refrigerators to increase storage capacity.
Kenneth Njeru, medical equipment technician at the Christian Health Association of Kenya, said that most solar-powered refrigerators have freezers that range from two to eight degrees Celsius which is the common storage temperature for many vaccines.
According to Nigel Saunders, chief executive officer of Sure Chill, the thermostat "ensures the refrigerator stays perfectly chilled in off-grid locations or locations plagued by power cuts without using a battery and with no harmful chemicals".
David Elliot, a senior technical consultant at Dulas, a UK-based renewable energy company, told SciDev.Net that solar-powered refrigerators are now helping save lives that were previously lost because of destroyed vaccines.
"Planning ahead and getting these refrigerators in rural Africa and Asia will help in ensuring equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines," Elliot said.
But Njeru said that the high cost of procuring solar-powered refrigerators makes it difficult for many health facilities in rural areas to buy them.
According to Elliot, solar versions of vaccine refrigerators are typically four times the price of the electric powered version. The major cost increases are the solar panels, extra insulation, and the inbuilt energy store.
"As an example, you can get an electric powered 120 litres vaccine refrigerator for between US$1,000 and US$2,000 from country of manufacture. It would cost around another US$900 to get that refrigerator into country and installed (not including any import taxes). For an equivalent 120 litres solar direct drive refrigerator, then the cost for the equipment will be US$4000 to US$5000 (including the panels), shipping and installation would add another US$1500 to that".
Finger however said that they will continue exploring opportunities of collaboration for the further uptake of the Solar Chill technology, "We are looking into funding options and can certainly support with our expert network".
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.