CoolHealth: Mobile solar refrigerator improves healthcare access in Sub-Saharan Africa

Portable, solar-powered device capable of safely storing at least 100 vaccines

Launched as part of McGill’s Bicentennial celebrations, impact200 is a sustainability challenge aimed at turning student ideas into concrete projects to make the world a better, and greener, place. The objective is to address, in particular, the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals designed to protect the planet, improve lives and end poverty.

The response from McGill students was impressive: 44 teams of between three and six members submitted proposals following the original call for entries in late 2020. Of those, 10 were named as finalists this past April.

The projects focus on alleviating environmental and social problems in myriad ways. These initiatives include everything from converting harmful excess algal bloom into biomass and transforming solid waste into nutrition; to purifying contaminated water and developing a solar mobile refrigerator for clinics in remote regions. The common thread tying all impact200 finalists together is to make the world a better place.

Each finalist received funding and expert mentors to help develop a proof-of-concept during the summer. The impact200 initiative would not have been possible without the generous financial support of the Sustainability Projects Fund, the Faculty of Science, and the Faculty of Arts.

Leading up to the announcement of the winning project in December, we will feature the 10 finalists in the Reporter.

Today, we talk with the team behind CoolHealth, a team that is developing a mobile solar refrigerator to provide better access to sustainable cooling in mobile clinics globally. 

Could you describe the Sustainable Cooling project?

Burkina Faso is currently undergoing the world’s fastest-growing displacement and protection crisis. More than 1.2 million people have been displaced within the country, making every 1 in 20 Burkinabé an internally displaced person/(people(s) (IDP).

Our mission at CoolHealth is to provide a sustainable, affordable, and portable cooling device to address the urgent need for reliable and accessible healthcare in Sub-Saharan Africa. Our team proposes a solution in the form of a solar refrigerator powered by direct-drive technology, which is more environmentally conscious than typical battery-powered systems. One of the key innovative aspects of our solution is its ideal size. Our proposed solution focuses on being compact and portable, yet capable of holding at least 100 vaccines – a capacity much greater than what is found in existing portable vaccine carriers used by local health centres.

How many people are on the team?

There are currently three members of the team competing in impact200, but we’ve had an extended team of 6-8 students working on the project for the past year and a half. Our all-engineering team came together through a shared passion to apply the skills and knowledge we’ve learned in class to design sustainable solutions for the problems faced by vulnerable communities in developing countries.

impact200 team:

  • Akshara Chandrabalan (Bioresource Engineering, U3) – Research and Design
  • Leilah Sory (Civil Engineering Graduate, 2021) – Partnerships and Outreach
  • Su Su (Materials Engineering, Masters) – Materials procurement and Modelling

Extended team:

  • Juliana Xu (Bioresource Engineering, U3) – Project Management and Graphic Design
  • Jason Zhu (Civil Engineering, U3) – Project Management
  • Nogieru Eghobamien (Bioresource Engineering, U3) – Research and Implementation

Which of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) does this project address?

CoolHealth addresses the following primary SDGs: good health and well-being (SDG 3), affordable and clean energy (SDG 7), and climate action (SDG 13). By targeting healthcare centres in rural communities, we are looking to replace the current butane gas and diesel-powered refrigerators in use with an alternative cooling solution that capitalizes on the immense solar potential in Burkina Faso to provide a clean, reliable and affordable vaccine carrier that will allow clinics to deliver essential healthcare services to local communities.

In addition, we are focusing on two secondary SDGs: reduced inequalities (SDG 10) and gender equality (SDG 5). Most IDP sites are located on the outskirts, creating social inequalities as the lack of access to health services exacerbates existing vulnerabilities amongst IDPs.

Thus, by implementing our solution in mobile clinics, CoolHealth will help bridge the gap between healthcare access and remote communities to ensure healthcare for all is a reality. Women and children represent 80 per cent of the IDP population and are especially vulnerable because of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) incidents when travelling outside the settlements. Therefore, by bringing healthcare services directly to where women are located, we are looking to reduce the risk they face of SGBV.

What was the genesis of the initiative?

This initiative started more than a year ago during the summer of 2020. Our team read an article on the Sustainable Energy for All 2020 Chilling Prospects report which indicated that rural communities in Burkina Faso were in the top 10 populations out of 54 high-impact countries threatened by the lack of a cold chain for vaccines. Moreover, at the same time, Burkina Faso had been undergoing the world’s fastest-growing displacement and protection crisis.

Before this unprecedented humanitarian crisis, rural communities in the Sahel region already had limited access to essential health services due to geographic isolation and lack of financial means. The lack of access has been exacerbated by the closing of many health facilities due to growing violence, insecurity, and extreme weather in the region. Therefore, in the context of COVID-19, our team was determined to take action to help provide reliable and environmentally-friendly cooling alternatives in mobile clinics and health posts.

Could you tell us a bit about the mentorship phase of the impact200 competition? How did it work, how beneficial was it?

We were fortunate enough to be put in contact with two incredible mentors throughout the impact200 competition, Tatiana Estevez Carlucci (Founder of Permalution) and Erica Anderson (McGill Alumna and Energy Conservation Specialist). On average, our team met bi-weekly with a mentor and consistently kept them up to date on our progress with the project. It was extremely beneficial to be able to consult both mentors during all phases of the project, from research on cooling technologies, to establishing local partnerships, to prototype development. The expertise that Tatiana and Erica had to offer was instrumental in our team’s progress throughout impact200.

What are the biggest challenges the team has faced and how did you overcome them?

We experienced some difficulties at the beginning of prototype development because our team was unfamiliar with refrigeration design. However, with the guidance and expertise of our coaches and advisors in rural solar technology, we were able to develop a design that fit the local context and would be able to provide increased capacity and cold life for vaccines. Fortunately, we were also able to connect with Professor Agus Sasmito and several of his graduate students from the McGill Department of Mining and Materials Engineering, who provided invaluable support and direction regarding heat analyses, which allowed us to successfully complete the analytical models for our solution.

Where does the initiative stand at present?

As modelling and theoretical analyses for our prototype have been completed, we have obtained results from experimenting with different cooling devices on the market and identified the gaps in performance that our prototype will need to bridge. As we continue to work closely with our mentors and advisors, we will be procuring materials and finishing development of the prototype and preparing for testing in Montreal. Simultaneously, we are securing partnerships with local health organizations, training centres, and government officials in Burkina Faso to put in place the framework for field testing and implementation of our solution.

Our team is very proud of all the work we’ve done to bring the project from our initial idea a year and a half ago to where it is today, and we are excited to continue our work and fulfill our vision for sustainable and accessible cooling!

Is there anything else you would like to add?

CoolHealth will be continuing as a long-term project under Student Energy at McGill University, which is an interdisciplinary club on campus that is dedicated to providing opportunities and spaces for McGill students to get involved in the transition to a sustainable energy future. As advocates for sustainable development, we look forward to progressing the project and creating transformative change in Burkina Faso, as well as other vulnerable communities. We will be expanding our project team and welcome any interested students to reach out to us at mcgill@studentenergy.org or on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn at Student Energy at McGill for more information!

Watch the videos of all the Finalists of the impact200 Bicentennial Student Sustainability Challenge and vote for your favourite project. Winners will be announced on December 2. Vote here.

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