Solar Refrigerators: A huge relief for storing immunization vaccines in Matebeleland North

A functioning cold chain proves a critical component in immunization programmes in Matebeleland North Province.

Nyasha Mutizwa
Nurse in Binga
UNICEFZimbabwe/2021/Nyasha Mutizwa
17 April 2021

MATEBELELAND NORTH, Zimbabwe - Abitron Gonongono steps over a long-tattered cloth spread over a pharmacy floor. It is soaking up water dripping from a run-down refrigerator. The fridge is placed near the entrance of the hot cold-room at Binga District Hospital, located in the sweltering valleys of Zimbabwe’s Matebeleland North Province.

As a drop of sweat slides across the side of his face, the District Pharmacist fidgets with the rusty handle as he attempts to open the chiller containing dozens of damaged boxes holding vaccine medications. 

He explains that this thawing fridge was what the facility used to store medicines across the district. “Bringing the medicines themselves is just one part of the work, but if we do not have the correct storage systems in place, how can we take the drugs to the community?” Gonongono queries. 

Nurse in Vic Falls
UNICEFZimbabwe/2021/Nyasha Mutizwa
Nurses show how vaccines are organized in the new Solar Direct Drive refrigerators at the district hospital in Victoria Falls.

He quickly puts on a smile as he explains that the hospital is in a much better position with the coming in of two new Haier freezers. The district hospital is now benefitting from the country’s Solar Direct Drive (SDD) refrigerators procured by UNICEF through financial support from the Health Development Fund (HDF) to support vaccine storage for the Zimbabwe’s Expanded Programme on Immunization (ZEPI).

The management of precisely coordinated events in temperature-controlled environments to store, manage and transport vaccines, otherwise referred to as cold chains, has proven difficult in Zimbabwe.

The high cost of electricity, the country’s chronic power outages, along with the acute shortages of diesel to power standby generators, were push factors in the acquisition and installation of cold rooms, solar freezers and refrigerators valued at almost $3,500,000 under the Cold Chain Equipment Optimization Platform (CCEOP). 

The country’s Matebeleland North Province, with a previous under-1 target immunization population of 26,838 in 2020, has been allocated 92 refrigerators, with 35 placed in the more densely populated Hwange District.

“We successfully installed 80 of the 92 allocated direct drive fridges. The rest have given us problems due to road networks or infrastructural challenges at the clinics,” says Nduduzo Dhlamini, Cold Chain Technician for Matebeleland North Province. He adds: “But the ones we installed are perfectly wired to the solar array and will keep running even when there are power cuts. They also do not have batteries which can be temperamental and expensive to maintain.” 

In Matebeleland North’s more remotely located medical facilities such as Sianzundu Rural Health Centre in the Binga district, the local BaTonga community have been greatly impacted by a well-connected cold chain.

Nurses in Hwange
UNICEFZimbabwe/2021/Nyasha Mutizwa
Nurse arranging medicines at Lukosi Rural Clinic in Hwange district

“When there were power cuts, we had to transport all the vaccines to the district hospital 13 km away. It meant that the children within this area were not getting immunized in time,” shares Collia Mwembe, the centre’s Registered General Nurse (RGN). “This resulted in a knock-on effect in delays of all the stages of immunization. But with the refrigerators here, we can run our immunization campaigns smoothly,” he concludes as he points towards the 46L capacity storage freezer.

968 regrigerators have been procured through the HDF. Additionally, 63 cold chain technicians from 9 Provinces are being trained on the role of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in cold chain management.

The HDF, with funding from the United Kingdom (DFID), European Union (EU), Sida-Sweden, Irish Aid and the Global Vaccine Alliance (Gavi), continues to support the Government of Zimbabwe in strengthening coverage and equity of immunization across the country.