From Unite for Sight: Hearing the Pitch
One of my favorite parts of this year’s Unite For Sight Global Health and Innovation Conference was attending social enterprise pitches, which consist of ideas in the early implementation or brainstorming stages. Over the weekend, I was exposed to some incredible plans with great potential for improving health outcomes, empowering poor women and creating sustainable change.
One notable presentation was “Co-Op Audio: MP3 Education for Rural Women” by Deborah Naybor, director of an organization called Both Your Hands. Naybor makes the connection between the aging MP3 players that many people in the developed world no longer use and a new way to educate women in under-developed areas. Naybor recognizes that poor women in developing countries suffer from “time poverty,” that is, they do not have enough time to complete their daily household tasks and have little access to education. In addition, women have less free time than men, higher rates of illiteracy and have limited access to education on agriculture, health and nutrition. To confront these issues, Naybor developed a program called “Co-Op Audio” which strives to educate women on issues that they have expressed interest in learning about, such as health and agriculture, while taking into account that many of these women have little free time and are illiterate.
The program works by providing women in developing countries with donated educationally-equipped MP3 players. So far, the program has been piloted in two Ugandan villages. Every month a local woman travels to an internet café where she downloads MP3 files, which are then shared among the women in the village. Naybor empowers the local women by asking them what topics they would like to learn about while fostering involvement and awareness in youth around the world by motivating them to collect MP3 players.
Luke Disney, executive director of North Star Alliance, also gave a compelling pitch about “an Industry-Driven Approach to Mobility and HIV.” In his talk he emphasized the relationship between transportation corridors and the spread and incidence of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. He noted that between 2003 and 2005, truck drivers throughout Africa suffered from above-average rates of HIV, thereby reducing the number of available drivers. Disney also observed that drivers were often stuck at border crossings for weeks or even months at a time, where they frequently engaged with sex workers and were unable to receive continuous healthcare. Since the majority of companies transporting freight do not provide health coverage for their workers, Disney emphasizes the importance of providing truck drivers with health services at the places they visit most, such as border crossings and transit towns. To achieve this vision, Disney and his organization, North Star Alliance, confront these problems by creating Roadside Wellness Centers (RWCs) at transportation ’hotspots’ and border crossings. The organization has currently established 45 RWCs in 19 countries throughout Africa, and by 2014 the organization has goals to expand to 25 countries with 100 RWCs. The hope is that creating these health centers will keep truck drivers healthy, prevent further transmission of HIV, create jobs, and help to maintain local industry and economy.
Lastly, I’d briefly like to draw your attention to two grassroots initiatives that empower and employ disenfranchised women and children through fair trade and craftsmanship. Erin Lane spoke about her organization, “Little Travelers,” which employs HIV-infected women in South Africa to make beaded dolls and jewelry. The organization relies on a number of volunteers to sell the dolls, so that 100 percent of the money raised supports the local artisans. So far over 50,000 Little Travelers dolls have been sold, 250 local South African women have been employed, and over $500,000 has been raised to support those battling HIV. The organization is unique in that it encourages artistic autonomy and creativity, leaving the design and style of the dolls up to the local craftswomen to determine. Another organization which supports local artisans and encourages autonomy and creativity is World Micro Market. World Micro Market (WMM) is an organization founded by Catherine Thomas, an undergraduate student at Yale University. WMM recognizes that college campuses provide great environments in which to sell fair-trade products. The organization currently operates two chapters, one at Yale, and one at UNC-Chapel Hill, and partners with local artisans and NGOs in many countries including Ghana, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Peru, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. WMM sells handicrafts and artwork from abroad on college campuses and is able to reimburse the artisans at higher rates by selling their products directly.
These four ideas mentioned represent a fraction of the many interesting initiatives discussed at the conference. The passion of these innovators and the variety and novelty of their approaches to some of the world’s most unrelenting problems is truly inspiring.