Michael MacHarg

For Mother’s Day: Celebrating Innovations in Maternal Health

As we look to celebrate our Moms this weekend (and frantically try to find a florist that delivers on a Sunday), let’s also take a moment to recognize the tireless social innovators that are striving to improve maternal health around the world.

Eight innovative ideas for transforming the field of maternal health are currently finalists in the online competition “Healthy Mothers, Strong World: The Next Generation of Ideas for Maternal Health” sponsored by The Maternal Health Task Force at EngenderHealth and Ashoka’s Changemakers. Anybody who visits Changemakers can vote between now and Wednesday, May 12 for the three most innovative entrepreneurial ideas. By voting, you help to identify and support a new generation of social innovators seeking to end the cycle of maternal death and disability worldwide.

I’ve recently had the chance to speak with two of the finalists: WE CARE Solar and Jacaranda Health, about their unique approaches towards improving maternal health.

In 2007, Berkeley, CA-based OB/GYN, Dr. Laura Stachel, led an investigation of emergency obstetric care in Northern Nigeria. Laura found that the most critical factors contributing to life-threatening delays in obstetric care were (1) a lack of reliable lighting, (2) the failure to locate doctors in a timely manner, and (3) the inability to utilize critical medical devices that rely on electricity.

Determined to improve such hospital conditions, Laura returned to the United States and assembled an interdisciplinary team to find solutions for the basic energy needs of maternal health facilities. Laura’s partner, solar technology trainer Hal Aronson, PhD, designed a portable solar electric system to power LED lighting, mobile communication and essential medical equipment for emergency obstetric care. The “solar suitcase” was born. Nigerian health providers have since used the suitcase-size system over the past year and are reporting significantly improved obstetric outcomes. WE CARE’s most recent prototypes of the “solar suitcase” are now being field-tested in low resource and off-grid environments in eight countries, and Laura is currently in Haiti evaluating the solar suitcase’s robustness, reliability and ease of use with Haitian obstetricians and midwives.

WE CARE Solar is the winner of the 2010 Social Impact Assessment Award of the Global Social Venture Competition, and has been accepted into the Global Social Benefit Incubator’s 2010 cohort. WE CARE Solar is currently raising a seed round of funding to continue to prototype, field test and scale production of the WE CARE Solar Suitcase.

As WE CARE Solar seeks to improve the basic infrastructure of maternal health clinics, others are working to tackle the challenge of service delivery in low resource settings. Former Acumen Fund East Africa staffer Nick Pearson has teamed up with Megan Huchko, an OB/GYN and UCSF professor working in Kenya, to launch a new social venture focused on maternity care for East Africa’s urban poor.

Based in Nairobi, Jacaranda Health is combining business and clinical innovations to launch a self-sustaining chain of clinics that provide reproductive health services to women living in slums and peri-urban areas.

The inspiration for this venture came eight months ago, when Megan described her friend’s death during childbirth in Western Kenya. Her friend’s postpartum hemorrhage could have been easily avoided with more responsive care. At the same time a friend and colleague of Nick’s at Acumen Fund, who sits on the board of India’s largest chain of maternity hospitals, was wondering why there were no maternity care ventures at scale in East Africa. The more Nick and Megan looked into it, it became clear that despite the glaring public health need, no one had taken a truly sustainable approach to addressing this problem.

Urban slums are the fastest growing areas in Africa, and women in those slums have limited options for safe birth. Most deliver at home with an unskilled birth attendant or go to a public facility where conditions are often dreadful – shared labor beds or deliveries on the floor, exacerbated by a shortage of staff and basic lifesaving supplies.

Jacaranda Health is integrating a package of interventions that have been proven to save women’s lives – from low cost obstetric technologies, to evidence-based clinical protocols, to effective referrals and emergency transport – into a business model that is highly effective yet affordable for the poor. Small midwife-staffed clinics provide deliveries, basic emergency obstetric care, and family planning. These clinics are supported by mobile outreach vans that create a direct link with patients in the slum, generating demand and healthy outcomes through antenatal care, referrals, and birth preparedness training.

Nick comments, “What makes this such a pressing issue is that we know what needs to be done: according to the World Heath Organization, mortality can be cut 75% by improving access to reproductive health services and ensuring that childbirth happens with skilled providers.”

“Jacaranda Health is focusing on sustainability so that we can fight this injustice while ensuring that this approach will scale up. We aim to reduce maternal and child mortality at a clinic level, but also create breakthroughs in cost-effectiveness so that these services and systems can be replicated by other private and public health providers.”

Jacaranda Health has developed strong partnerships in Kenya and internationally, and is currently raising funds for its first clinic and mobile unit in Nairobi. Once their first clinic is running successfully, they aim to scale it up across the region.

As Mother’s Day approaches, take a moment to reflect on the opportunities before us to improve maternal health worldwide, and take a couple of minutes out of your day to visit the Ashoka Changemakers site, to lend your voice (and vote) to a collection of innovative entrepreneurs making a difference in Mom’s lives around the world.

And then call your Mom and thank her.