Bringing Solar Power To Remote Hospitals Is Saving Lives

One startup working in Nepal learned that delivering high-quality health care often means having to innovate in unexpected ways–such as building new energy systems.

Founded by three Yale University Medical School students, Possible is a nonprofit health care company that runs medical facilities in remote Nepal. These include the 25-bed Bayalpata Hospital, in Anchham, a series of local clinics, and a small army of community health care workers.


Part of its model revolves around importing Western standards of medicine and management, including modern equipment and electronic systems for patient records, HR and accounting. But in one aspect Possible (previously Nyaya Health) found itself relying on local infrastructure–energy–which was causing problems. Anchham’s grid works intermittently, if at all, and most people fend for themselves with diesel-powered generators. Diesel is relatively expensive and needs to be brought in from faraway. Anchham is a 14-hour drive from the nearest airport.

Possible has therefore turned to solar power. In 2011, it started working with Andy Moon and Jason Gray, then at SunEdison, to install solar panels at its facilities. Moon and Gray have since formed SunFarmer, a U.S. nonprofit with a hybrid model for spreading solar around the globe. It funds installations at health care facilities using donations. Clients then pay back the cost over an eight-year period, with SunFarmer covering maintenance. Any proceeds left over are then reinvested in future projects.

For several years, international agencies and nonprofits have installed many solar panels across the developing world. But they haven’t always followed up with the necessary cleaning and repairs. Moon says there are dozens of defunct systems in Asia and Africa, including one or two in Nepal itself.

“Solar is the perfect solution in these remote areas where diesel is expensive and unreliable,” he says. “The issue is that there’s been a lot of one-off donations and they’re often not working after six or 12 months. That’s because there’s no maintenance.”

Moon and Gray founded SunFarmer in 2013, with funding from their former employers and support through a Indiegogo campaign. Bayalpata now has a 12-kilowatt solar system, with battery backup, while six clinics each have 1.6-kilowatt arrays. The actual installation and maintenance work is done by local partners, with SunFarmer providing finance and technical assistance.

“If we’re going to deliver high quality health care for remote populations, we have to do energy right,” says says Duncan Maru, one of Possible’s founders. “A typical government hospital is not going to have reliable energy. That’s the reality.”


“We heard stories of midwives using flashlights between their teeth to deliver babies,” adds Moon, talking of the formerly powerless clinics. “They couldn’t access a vaccine refrigerator, and if there were complications during pregnancy, they would have to carry mothers down he mountainside to the hospital.”

For all its promise in international development, solar is not a silver bullet. It requires sizable upfront financing and regular oversight to be effective. In SunFarmer, Possible seems to have a found a partner that can deliver both. It will be interesting to see if this kind of model can prove successful elsewhere.


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.