Freedom from risky childbirth | Zubaida Bai

Growing up in Chennai, a young Zubaida Bai wanted to study further after completing class XII. A reasonable request, except that in her family, nobody—male or female—had made it to college. The women in her family were usually married in their teens. Plus, Zubaida’s father did not have the finances to put her through college.

Undeterred, she decided to fight fate.

At 33, Zubaida Bai was the founder-CEO of ayzh (pronounced “eyes"), a low-cost women’s healthcare company based in Chennai and Colorado, US. Her biggest achievement: JANMA, a birthing kit sold and distributed through non-governmental organizations and healthcare companies.

JANMA (birth in Hindi) kits consist of six things: an apron, a sheet, a hand sanitizer, an antiseptic soap, a cord clip and a surgical blade. They meet the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines of “six cleans" during childbirth—clean hands of the attendant, clean surface, clean blade, clean cord tie, clean towels to dry the baby and wrap it, and clean cloth to wrap the mother. A jute purse in five colours contains the kit and and it can be used as a purse after delivery.

From mundane struggles with a traditional Muslim family to being a successful innovator, Zubaida Bai’s journey has been one about exercising the right to free choice although that involved selling her jewellery to get ayzh off the ground.

Soon after school, Zubaida took a year off, selling retail banking services door-to-door for ABN Amro, cold-calling customers and earning her first pay cheque when she was 17. Soon she was in college, studying mechanical engineering, and went on to become the first graduate in her entire family. After graduation, she dreamt of designing cars, but ended up at auto-parts company Sundram Fasteners. “I was the only girl on the entire floor, all I did every day was change the dimensions on a CAD design or take printouts. I was getting fat from all the thayir saadam (curd rice)," she recalls.

She was soon planning her escape. Scouring the Internet for a master’s degree, she secretly applied to various universities. After an acceptance letter for a fully funded scholarship to an M.Tech programme at Dalarna University, Sweden, arrived, she told her parents. Her father thought this was one of those infamous scams that promised you a job and ended up hiring you as domestic labour. But finally, Zubaida left home.

In the summer of her first semester in college, she took a road trip, was part of a students’ exchange programme, visited Poland and, during a period of self-discovery, she decided to start wearing the hijab, though no one in her family did.

Back in Chennai before her second semester ended and coaxed to meet a potential suitor, Habib Anwar, she feared the worst. “(But) he said that he was looking for an educated girl, who he would like to work rather than sit at home and squabble with his relatives," says Zubaida.

Anwar supported Zubaida’s plan to study further as well. Soon they were married. Much later, he would be instrumental in providing the necessary support to make ayzh a success.

We want to build a corporate entity, with a group of companies that will focus on women’s health and empowerment.

Sometime in 2009, as part of a master’s in business administration in global social and sustainable enterprises at the University of Colorado, US, Zubaida came to India to research ideas that could be developed into products. She worked with Chennai-based non-profit Rural Innovations Network (RIN), making the JS Milker, a vacuum-driven cow-milking machine, low-cost and commercially viable. In Rajasthan, she met a village dai (midwife) who had just delivered a baby with a grass-cutting sickle.

This was her a-ha moment. She started reading up on institutional childbirth. She stumbled upon a clean birth kit (CBK) while attending a tech event in Denver, US, promoted by the non-profit healthcare organization PATH. The kit had a plastic sheet, a Topaz blade, a piece of thread, a small square of soap, and a plastic coin. All this was wrapped in a box with instructions. She then travelled halfway across the world to Nepal, where a group of women was assembling the kit.

Unimpressed with the quality of the kit, she searched for more samples, but found none that matched her expectations. But she knew she was on to something, and started building her own improved version, using off-the-shelf components and assembling them.

By 2010, she had put together a rudimentary clean birthing kit called JANMA, which she tested in Bangalore, through her gynaecologist. The innovation won the Global Social Venture Competition for business plans at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad in March 2010, and followed it up by topping the Camino Real Venture Competition at the University of Texas at El Paso, US, later that month.

Zubaida Bai also received a 2010-11 fellowship related to maternal health from Ashoka, an organization which identifies and invests in social entrepreneurs. At one event, she met the who’s who of the world of maternal health. “They were folks who were shaping the future of maternal health. These are people I would have found impossible to meet, especially Wendy Graham, who does research on how clean birth kits prevent infections," she says. Her interactions confirmed her belief that a product such as JANMA would have a market.

By 2011, they had sold 2,000-3,000 JANMA kits, priced at $2-5 (now around 120-300), in India and had made some inroads into the US.

After the initial success, though, Zubaida Bai hit a wall. Ayzh needed funds for operating costs, scaling up and distribution channels. Forced to return to India after completing her course at the University of Colorado, Zubaida and Anwar had two MBAs and two children between them, and no jobs. Those were trying times.

Even as friends and family advised one of them to get a job, Zubaida and Anwar calculated that they needed $300,000 for one-and-a-half years for ayzh to get off the ground. A social impact firm assured them of $50,000 if they could raise $100,000 and $20,000 if they raised nothing. Everything hung in the balance till the end of 2012, when they were awarded the $80,000 Echoing Green fellowship. They also got a Canadian government grant for another $100,000, while an individual investor put in another $100,000.

This was the turning point. In 2013, they clocked $100,000 in revenue, and sold 50,000 kits in India, Haiti, Laos, Afghanistan and Africa.

The JANMA kit’s relevance is irrefutable. According to the UN, India’s maternal mortality ratio per 100,000 live births reduced by 65%, from 560 in 1990 to 190 in 2013. But that still means 50,000 women die every year in India while giving birth. Seventeen per cent of the women die from preventable infections. More than 300,000 infants in India die the day they are born, according to the report “Ending Newborn Deaths, Ensuring Every Baby Survives", by the non-profit Save the Children and Joy Lawn, professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK.

Zubaida’s goal for ayzh is three-pronged. She wants women to have power over their health by introducing new products for post-partum haemorrhage, a new-born kit, maternity pad and other innovations in reproductive health and family planning. Instead of creating products from scratch she wants to leverage the ayzh distribution platform to aggregate and sell products already available in the market. And, finally, she wants to launch an innovation lab for low-cost healthcare products, so that an entrepreneur with an idea does not have to go through the same grind that they did.

To realize this ambition they are currently in the process of raising $3 million in funding—a huge sum for a social enterprise selling low-cost products to bottom-of-the-pyramid customers—from social impact investors.

“We want to build a corporate entity, with a group of companies that will focus on women’s health and empowerment. Habib saw his mother struggle doing sewing and embroidery and I saw my mother struggle as well. They always brought in money, but were not appreciated and treated as an asset," says Zubaida.

Nelson Vinod Moses is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist who writes on social entrepreneurship.

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