Growing up in in a middle class household in Chennai, Zubaida Bai was exposed to the typical social and economic hardships faced by women in India. She saw her mother working hard everyday. Her female cousins and friends, not given the opportunity to study, were married off early. Finances in the family were also limited. Bai, though was a rebel. She went against the grain and got an engineering degree and through sheer persistence, she snapped up a full scholarship from the Dalarna University in Sweden to do a Master’s in Mechanical Engineering (product development and design). When she was 24, she married Habib Anwar and moved to Canada.
But soon she was back in Chennai, after the company where Anwar worked, decided to set up an offshore unit in India. She joined Rural Innovations Network (RIN), a non-profit that incubates rural innovations (now known as Villgro), to work on product innovation and assisting individuals and organizations to make their product ideas commercially viable. At RIN, she saw good innovations not getting commercialized. Bai wanted to change this. Based on her extensive product innovation and Anwar’s financial expertise, the two decided to take action.
Bai had always wanted to find a way to give back to women, especially rural women. Incidentally, this resonated with Anwar, who had lost his mother and aunt to ill health and suffering. Around that time, a chance meeting with a professor in Boston, ended up with her doing MBA in Social and Sustainable Enterprises from the Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado.
During a field trip to test several products for her business plan, Bai witnessed the unclean surroundings of a hospital and unsterile instruments that were being used at the time of childbirth. For Bai, this was deja vu, she was reminded of the infection she suffered when her first child was born, that had taken her an entire year to recover. “I suggested to Habib to consider maternal health as an area of focus and in 2009, we registered ayzh in the US,” says Bai, about the decision to co-found a healthcare product company along with her husband Anwar.
Problem identification, a precious investment and the impact:
As part of her research, whilst talking to obstetricians and gynecologists, maternal health advocates and village elders, Bai and Anwar discovered an inconvenient truth- they realized that the poor couldn’t afford the cost of cleanliness and sterility. This insight led to the birth of JANMA clean birth kit, which provides women all the components recommended by the World Health Organization for a safe and hygienic birth, using environmentally friendly and culturally appealing materials. “We put in all our savings and my jewelry to an unknown path. Partnering with Kuthambakkam Village on the outskirts of Chennai, we provided employment to their women to help assemble JANMA– the clean birth kit,” reminisces Bai.
To date, with minimal marketing efforts and a small, informal sales force, ayzh has sold 50,000 kits in India, Haiti, Afghanistan, and several countries in Africa. Demand from other countries continues to grow. JANMA is sold directly to customers, and also to hospitals and health institutions.
Other than their flagship product – JANMA – Ayzh has other products under development. They include: a newborn kit to be bundled with JANMA (prototyped, 1,000 units sold); a post partum hemorrhage kit (R&D); a sanitation and hygiene solution for women (R&D); and a household water filter (prototyped, 100 units sold).
Crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo:
In August, this year, they kicked off a crowdfunding campaign on ‘Indiegogo’ to raise $50,000 to do an impact analysis of the product and to scale a mobile phone training program to educate rural healthcare workers on clean birth practices via voice messages on cell phones.
“We chose crowdfunding as a platform not only to raise funds, but also to raise awareness of a pressing global health issue. To date, ayzh has raised start-up funds primarily through social impact investors. At the time we decided to raise an additional $50,000 to fund two innovative initiatives, we wanted to try something different. With product sales and demand for our Clean Birth Kit in a Purse growing around the world, we felt the time was ripe to engage a larger audience of “change makers” and launch a global movement to give every mother and newborn a clean and safe birth,” remarks Bai.
Scaling up and looking ahead:
Founded in 2010, ayzh now has eight employees and is looking to scale operations throughout India and in Africa. In order to keep up with demand for JANMA, they are currently working to hire and train a larger sales team, improve management systems, pilot new products, secure extra office space and launch a rigorous monitoring and evaluation program. “As we scale up over the next five years, our primary focus will be on product sales and establishing additional “regional hubs” (production/distribution facilities) in India and Africa, enabling us to reach ambitious sales targets and achieve breakeven point,” points Bai.
In order to scale production and distribution, ayzh is developing a franchisee model, whereby partners will set up their own ayzh facility, employing low-income women. The products assembled will be distributed to customers in a regional market created by the ayzh sales team.
Bai’s biggest challenge is not funding or other problems that social enterprise faces. Its more to do with a lack of awareness of the problem of maternal/infant mortality due to infection at time of childbirth and lack of understanding and knowledge around the need for clean birth practices.
Does ayzh need funding?
ayzh’s primary source of revenue is through its product offering of simple, low cost, high quality technology for which both its customers and women target beneficiaries are willing to pay. With approximately 20 million births each year in India, the company has predictable revenue with affordable products sold to a large market. But in order to scale, they are also close to closing a second round of investment funding by end of 2014.
Looking back and ahead:
Bai has a big goal of bringing five million products to the market over the next 5 years, and impacting approximately 25 million lives by 2018.
“Looking back, I feel the impact of all our hard work is just beginning to show as more and more women, families and health care practitioners realizing the need for cleanliness and sterility after having used the kit and spoken to one of ayzh team member… but there is still a lot of work yet to be done and it reminds me of the famous last para from Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost: The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep,” remarks Bai.