Solar-Powered Refrigerators on the Frontlines of Off-Grid COVID-19 Response

Refrigerators are uniquely placed to support resiliency to COVID-19 in off- and weak-grid settings. Increasing access to high-quality, energy-efficient solar-powered refrigerators can mitigate impacts of the virus within households and increase access to quality healthcare, immunizations, and a future COVID-19 vaccine.

Hannah Blair, Makena Ireri, Michael Mwangi Maina

As vulnerable off-grid communities face the health and socioeconomic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, one seemingly simple appliance is at the frontlines of household and medical responses to the crisis: the refrigerator. Off-grid solar-powered refrigerators can mitigate the virus’ impact within households and increase access to quality healthcare, immunizations, and equitable COVID-19 vaccine rollouts.

Off-Grid Refrigeration Bolsters Health and Safety During COVID-19

Over the past several years, the growth of solar home systems and mini-grids has played a key role in addressing the basic electrification needs of millions of households and small businesses. Clean energy access efforts are not only working to connect households to electricity, but to also ensure that they are able to productively use their connection through the provision of high-quality, durable, and energy-efficient off-grid appropriate appliances like televisions, fans, lighting and refrigerators.

Victor Okot, owner of a 2017 Global LEAP Awards result-based financing off-grid refrigerator in Uganda.

Sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a global reality for nearly 6 months. Billions of households are restricting movement and spending their time indoors, relying heavily on their appliances for entertainment, communication, and comfort. In the face of the pandemic, refrigerators are uniquely positioned to promote equitable public health access, ensure food system security, and bolster economic activity in vulnerable communities.

Who are off-grid refrigerator customers?

As COVID-19 spreads, refrigerators extend the supply of perishable foods and lower consumers’ risk of infection by minimizing trips to markets or shops. In developing countries where post-harvest food loss can reach 50%, refrigerators significantly reduce wastage — especially as the virus disrupts supply chains.

“I have many children, and many grandchildren. When a child is feeling thirsty, instead of buying cold water from the shop, I would have already boiled water and put it in my solar fridge,” says Namugga Proscovia. Proscovia lives in Jinja, Uganda with nine members of her family. In Jinja, inaccessibility and poor infrastructure make for frequent power cuts that can last for weeks at a time. In 2017, her family purchased a solar refrigerator, the reliability of which has helped keep her family healthy.

The Health Benefits of Refrigeration

Longer-term, refrigerators promote diversified diets linked to healthier immune systems. A household study in Nairobi, Kenya found that refrigerators owners were 30% more likely to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.

Solar refrigerator customer, Mariam Nandigira

As rural communities face some of the worst economic and social impacts of the virus, refrigerators can also be a source of much needed additional income. A recent study showed that 81% of off-grid refrigerator customers were using their products at a place of business, usually operated out of their home. In a pilot in India, 70% of refrigerator customers reported a profit increase of about $57 per month from the sale of cold beverages and dairy products.

Refrigerators store clean, cool water and fresh produce for extended periods of time during ongoing national shutdowns and lockdowns. This seemingly simple appliance represents a source of security and stability for vulnerable communities during uncertain times.

Refrigeration is Necessary for Equitable Vaccine Access

As the world turns its attention to the COVID-19 vaccine and a potential cure, the vast inequities in the health cold chain will present tremendous challenges for rollout. Prior to the pandemic, millions of children went unvaccinated against preventable diseases largely due to a lack of access to cooling infrastructure. In health facilities, refrigeration can extend and maintain stockpiles of medication and life-saving immunizations.

According to Efficiency for Access’ upcoming 2020 Off-Grid Market Survey, vaccine and blood bank refrigerators were ranked as the most important devices for health care delivery. In order to deliver the COVID-19 vaccine to 60–70% of the world’s population, representing 4.7–5.5 billion people, massive amounts of cold chain equipment will be necessary.

Without adequate funding and equipment supplies, stakeholders will have to make difficult decisions about the trade-offs between the delivery of the vaccine/cure and other temperature sensitive vaccines and medical products.

A vaccinator in a remote village outside Kinshasa, DRC, prepares for an immunisation session using a Gavi-funded Solar Direct Drive (SDD) vaccine refrigerator. Credit: Gavi Health.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that now, more than ever, the clean energy access and health sectors need to be working together. Partnerships would accelerate both of our efforts to increase access to cooling equipment in poorly electrified areas to ensure access to health services and life-saving vaccines,” claimed Dr. Karan Sagar, Head of Health System and Immunisation Strengthening at Gavi Health. Since its launch in 2000, Gavi has helped vaccinate more than 760 million children, but Dr. Sagar says there is substantial work to be done to bolster vaccine refrigeration to prepare for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

Moving the Sector Forward Together

Despite the urgent need for off-grid refrigeration in preparation for vaccine rollout and to support resilient food systems, the global market remains in the early stages of development, often leaving consumers with expensive, inefficient, and faulty products. Further investment in research and development of off-grid refrigeration can shield families from further health and economic impacts, as well as accelerate global preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic.


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