Katja Bender and Stefanie Meilinger on the importance of a sustainable and reliable energy supply for health facilities in Ghana

Dear Prof. Bender, dear Prof. Meilinger, you are both coordinating the project “Energy Self-Sufficiency for Health Facilities in Ghana” – EnerSHelF – at Hochschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg. What are the goals of the project?

In Ghana, like in many developing countries and emerging market economies, blackouts are a common phenomenon. This is critical – especially for health facilities – as the care for patients relies on a reliable energy supply. Without electricity, operations and other procedures are not possible during the night, important instruments are malfunctioning, or the cooling circle of life-saving vaccines and medications are disrupted.

Therefore, our main goal is to contribute to the enhancement and distribution of market-based photovoltaic (PV)-solar systems as a reliable energy source for health facilities. We want to achieve that with the help of our partners from academia and industry. The interdisciplinary alignment of our project helps to apply a holistic approach and to include both technical as well as developmental economic aspects.

On the technical site, by developing new algorithms and tools we are simplifying the planning of PV-solar systems. To achieve that, we include different parameters, including meteorological forecasts and load data, to improve reliability and consider local, context-specific factors for electrification strategies of the health sector in Ghana.

Besides technical innovations, we want to highlight ways of how to enhance institutional structures of the Ghanaian energy and health sector, which are necessary for a country-wide adoption of PV solutions. We employ econometric and qualitative empirical analyses to examine barriers and drivers for a sustainable energy market. The analyses rely on comprehensive primary data collection. For this purpose, we conducted interviews with approximately 200 health facility managers. Added to this are interviews with decision-makers in politics and administration within the health and energy sector in Ghana as well as with Ghanaian and German businesses representatives to understand the political economy of PV-solar diffusion in Ghana.

Taken together, the interplay and understanding of these factors are meant to contribute to enhance the access to health services in Ghana and to make its energy supply more sustainable and reliable.

Who are the partners you are working with at EnerSHelF?

Within EnerSHelF, we are working closely with multiple partners in Ghana and Germany. The project combines the work of academia as well as of our industry partner WestfalenWIND. The University of Applied Science Bonn-Rhein-Sieg takes over the role as coordinator. In Germany, the TH Köln – University of Applied Science, the University of Augsburg and the Reiner Lemoine Insitut are part of EnerSHelF. In Ghana, the University of Development Studies, the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technologyand the West African Science Service Center on Climate Change and Adapted Land Use are involved. The European Association of Development and Training Institutes is our network and communication partner. We are funded by the Client II initiative, which is sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

EnerSHelF was established in 2019. How has the project evolved since then?

Like for many other projects, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was felt by the EnerSHelF project. However, we are happy with the project’s progress. To collect the technical data, a set of instruments and a solar container had to be installed at the study sites. Some of the instruments were installed before travel restrictions were introduced. Thanks to our partners in Ghana, it was still possible to complete open tasks at the health facilities. Despite regular failure of the instruments, they still deliver sufficient data to work with.

We were able to conduct the politico-economic data collection – at least partly – online. However, due to the pandemic, delays were inevitable. By now, the interviews at health facilities were successfully realised with the help of local enumerators. They were previously trained via an online seminar. The interviews with decision-makers in administration and politics as well as with other stakeholders in the solar and energy sector in Ghana have been completed to a large extent. Now, we are looking forward to the exciting data evaluation.

Sadly, since our first meeting with all project partners 2019 in Ghana, we haven’t been able to meet physically. Throughout monthly seminars with all work packages, we are still meeting as a team regularly. We hope that before the end of the project, a get-together with all partners will be possible again. Fortunately, our application for extension has been granted and the project will end in December 2022 instead of May. Accordingly, we still have some time and are confident that we will reach our project goals.

To what extent does energy access and access to health services influence the development of a country such as Ghana?

A stable energy supply is a cornerstone for economic and societal development and growth. Nearly all sectors of the economy – starting with the manufacturing industry up to the service sector – rely on electricity for their work. The health sector is no exception. Here, a reliable access to energy is inevitable to ensure health services for people in Ghana. Not for nothing, access to “affordable and clean energy” has been implemented in the Sustainable Development Goals. A reliable, stable, and sustainable energy supply is of great importance for development progress in Ghana.

What are the advantages of the interdisciplinary cooperation of engineers, natural and social scientists for EnerSHelF? What can be learned for other projects?

Our holistic approach is characterized by constant exchange between the disciplines. It enables us to identify synergies and to integrate them into solution processes. At the same time, the different perspectives are helpful to work on context-specific solutions. Besides the interdisciplinary cooperation, it is of great importance to us that we include local communities in the proximity of the health facilities into the project. It allows us to identify barriers, which are not easy to detect as an outsider. Then, we can work on a sustainable solution to circumvent these barriers. Due to the Covid-19 travel restrictions, this local engagement was not as intensive as planned. However, we hope to increase the level of exchange during the upcoming months.

Additionally, our working principles enable all project partners to discover new research methods and approaches, which can be applied at future projects. This approach has – compared to other less inter- or transdisciplinary projects – a higher time investment. However, we are convinced that a holistic approach is essential to reach sustainable project results.

What is the contribution of EnerSHelF to sustainable development?

The EnerSHelF project accomplishes two main things: It contributes to the enhancement of health services in Ghana as well as to a better access to sustainable energy. Thus, we are directly working on the implementation of SDG3 and SDG7 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Certainly, we don’t have a direct and comprehensive influence with our research project. However, our results will be made publicly available and can help in planning future PV-solar systems in the health sector and beyond. And not just in Ghana.

More information on EnerSHelF

The interview was conducted by Jonas Bauhof and Verena Hammes