An MBA Student’s Social Entrepreneurship Journey in East Africa

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February 28, 2019

By: Sahar Jamal, former Jacaranda Health Summer Associate

My Kellogg MBA internship helped me achieve a life-long dream and embark on the most challenging and intellectually-stimulating work of my career. Last summer, I joined a lean, scrappy team at Jacaranda Health, a maternity health clinic and social enterprise based in the peri-urban outskirts of Nairobi.

Understanding the problem

In Kenya, maternal and infant mortality rates are a hundred times higher than Europe. My task was to develop a sustainable business model for mHealth and nurse training programs which aim to reduce these mortality rates. None of my prior experiences in consumer healthcare or the non-profit sector could compare to the challenge of building a revenue-generating business to deliver life-saving services to this impoverished population, especially in an environment where governments and NGOs can subsidize or even debilitate market-driven solutions. The added dimensions of societal impact and government or grant funding complicated every analysis of profitability.

This experience also highlighted public health challenges that could be framed as market opportunities for innovation and peaked my interest in social entrepreneurship in the global health space. In particular, I learned about the life-saving benefits of breastmilk and the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a child’s life, which can reduce the likelihood of infant death by 14 times! Unfortunately, I discovered that many mothers, who are compelled to return to work shortly after giving birth, begin to wean their baby off breast milk early and resort to substitutes like other milk, other foods, or baby formula. Only 7 percent of these moms use a breast pump to express breastmilk, compared to 75 percent in the U.S., because they lack access to appropriate products and awareness of how to use them. As a result, they are forced to choose between staying at home to feed their babies and going into work in order to be able to feed their families.

Creating a socially beneficial solution

These insights led me to develop the concept of Maziwawhich is a tailored breast pump for working mothers in low-resource settings. Unlike other breast pumps, Maziwa will address challenges like refrigeration, electricity, discreteness and affordability in its design. We will also differentiate ourselves based on last mile distribution and education by partnering with maternal and newborn health NGOs, public health groups, maternity clinics and hospitals, baby care centers, and employers. This simple intervention has the potential to make an exponential difference in a mother’s ability to prevent her infant from fatal diseases, protect her own health and sustain her family’s economic well-being.

The Kellogg MBA program was pivotal in helping me leverage international experience in consumer healthcare to drive social innovation in global health. The Medical Devices in Developing Markets class exposed me to Professor Kara Palamountain’s work to improve neonatal care with her NEST360 solution, which was awarded a $15 million MacArthur Foundation grant. My leadership roles with Kellogg’s Net Impact Club surrounded me with a community of like-minded, impact-driven business students and supported my career search in this sector. The financial support for students pursuing social impact internships allowed me intern at Jacaranda Health and gain unique exposure to the in-market realities of operating a social enterprise, informing my career endeavors in this sector. Finally, Kellogg’s Zell Fellows Program and Northwestern’s Garage Residency program for student entrepreneurs have been critical in supporting me with mentorship, funding and resources to pursue my business idea this year.

This social entrepreneurship journey can be a challenging and lonely road. However, my Kellogg experience has provided me with a robust support network to build my entrepreneurship toolkit and a strong community of fellow social entrepreneurs, which have been a catalyst for my full-time career in this space!