Superheroes without capes

Muzalema Mwanza

As the country celebrates the centenary of one of the great daughters of the African soil Mama Albertina Sisulu, this women’s month NEPAD SANBio is shining a light on females who are continuously playing their part in recognising and emulating Mama Albertina’s values.

Inspired to make her community a better place to live in; Zambian entrepreneur and 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow Muzalema Mwanza has found an innovative way to improve her Siavonga District community with her sterilized and affordable baby delivery kit through her organisation Safe Motherhood Alliance.

”My passion for helping women and children stems from my own community where I see women, particularly, vulnerable to chronic poverty as they face social discrimination on a variety of levels, ranging from access to education and paid employment, institutional inequalities, to physical violence,” she said.    

Siavonga is a rural town that boasts one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, Lake Kariba. Consequently it is also home to many women and girls who face significant challenges in the maternal health sector that range from lack of access to sterile supplies and traveling long distances in order to access the nearest health facilities.

According to Unicef, in Zambia 53% of births are home delivery due to most rural communities having limited access to health care. Consequently this has a negative impact on Zambia’s maternal, new-born and childhood indicators. 

An estimated 1600 women die every day from complications associated with pregnancy or childbirth, and infection is a leading cause. Around 950,000 new-borns per year also die from infection, according to the Zambia Mission.

Mwanza saw a gap in the market and came up with a solution.

“When I fell pregnant with my first child I came face to face with these realities that many women in the developing world also faced, when I discovered that pregnant women in government hospitals & clinics in Zambia are still required to provide their own materials when delivering a baby, or they won’t be attended to by the hospital or clinic on the day of delivery as government does not provide subsidized kits for them to use unless in an emergency,” she said.

“Often pregnant women are forced to choose cheaper alternatives such as dirty rags to absorb the blood flow, or use rusty blades to cut the umbilical cord leading to a tetanus infection or other bacterial, fungal or yeast-related infections and labour complications. Combined with the lack of access to safe and affordable products is the lack of health infrastructure and medical personnel in some areas, and health facilities, which all contribute to high maternal mortality rates and neonatal mortality rates,” Mwanza explained.

Determined to tackle these problems, Safe Motherhood Alliance design, develop and distribute low-cost, maternal and new-born health products. Its flagship product called Popapila® Baby Kit (Popapila meaning “a space to give birth” in Nyanja language, promotes clean births that help poor medical institutions to implement safe birth practices and ultimately achieve critical health outcomes set by the global health community. 

The organisation also trains Traditional Birth Attendants/ TBA’s to become distribution agents, providing economic empowerment through job creation and employment. They also manufacture the maternity sanitary pads locally with the help of the TBAs, using discarded banana tree fibres.

“These products are sustainable and bio-degradable. We keep the cost of the kit low and help women have healthier lives instead of them using cloths after they give birth causing infections. We are looking to also manufacture and develop the contents of the kit locally to ensure the kit is affordable, especially in rural areas,” said Mwanza.

According to Mwanza, in many cultures in sub-Saharan Africa, unclean substances are traditionally placed on the cord stump after the birth of a baby. In Zambia for example, some traditional birth attendants use their fingers to apply pressure to the cord, or put dirt from the floor on the cord stump to prevent bleeding. To facilitate the healing process, substances such as salt, soot, juice from banana shoots, and spider webs also are placed on the umbilical stump.

These factors pose an even greater risk for infants who will be vulnerable to infections and other dangers. 
After months of testing and prototyping products at Safe Motherhood Alliance using local bio-tech materials to replace imported products which were very expensive and consulting health technicians and the Zambian Standards Board (ZABS) and the Ministry of Health, Mwanza finally launched her kit.

The kit contains all the essential tools recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure safe and sterile conditions at the time of childbirth. 

“Building on our proven model, we are exploring growth and scaling for the baby kit by building a strong manufacturing base and creating “expansion hubs” for regional marketing and production. We have a game-changing model for distributing baby delivery kits to health facilities, integrating innovative education/evaluation strategies to ensure quality, affordability, and scalability throughout our supply chain,” she explained.

“Our model also provides meaningful employment and empowerment opportunities for low-income women who package our products. This revolutionary approach has unique potential to hasten progress towards maternal health outcomes in facilities, and making significant contributions to critical research gaps surrounding the cost effectiveness of baby delivery kits and their overall potential to standardize and replicate clean birth practices on a global scale,” Mwanza concluded.

Mwanza is one of the 4 FemBioBiz Accelaration Programme Season 2, finalists for Zambia. She and the other 31 finalists from the 8 SADC countries will be pitching their innovations at this year’s SA Innovation Summit to be held in Cape Town in September, 12-13  September.

Watch her video here: