Imagine giving birth without the help of sterile tools, a doctor, nurse or midwife. This is the experience of nearly half of women giving birth in low-income countries — and many are at high risk of infection. With limited access to antibiotics, these infections often prove fatal.

One woman is trying to change that.  

Zubaida Bai, founder and CEO of ayzh, speaking at USAID's Partnering to End Extreme Poverty and Achieve the Global Goals event. / USAID

Zubaida Bai, founder and CEO of ayzh, speaking at USAID’s Partnering to End Extreme Poverty and Achieve the Global Goals event. / USAID

Zubaida Bai is the co-founder of ayzh, an organization providing women’s health resources to underserved women globally.  The venture’s first product is a clean birthing kit that includes all the items recommended by the World Health Organization to prevent infection at birth.

Infections at birth affect more than 6 million women annually. Even worse, poor hygiene and sanitation during birth is directly linked to the preventable deaths of more than 1 million women and newborns each year.

In celebrating International Women’s Day earlier this month, we recognize women like Zubaida who are revolutionizing their field and making history with their achievements. With the support of USAID and other organizations, Zubaida’s work establishing ayzh has saved the lives of women and newborns on a global scale.

Zubaida posing with the clean birthing kit. / Ayzh

Zubaida posing with the clean birthing kit. / Ayzh

This is her story: After earning her engineering degree, Zubaida Bai decided to go back to India to serve the women she had seen suffer her whole life from health and financial hardship.

She worked in India for four years developing technology appropriate for low-resource settings, before she decided to spin off on her own. Both Zubaida and her husband Habib were passionate about helping women, so they started looking for opportunities to design for this underserved population.

On a field visit to a rural village, Zubaida discovered that some midwives used a sickle — normally used for cutting grass — to cut the umbilical cord. This was an “aha” moment for her.

Reflecting on the infection she contracted when her first child was born in one of the best facilities in India, she thought, “If I had everything and had to suffer an infection, what would women in these villages be facing?” This is the moment that launched Zubaida into a whole new world of maternal health.

“It made me very determined to make my childhood dream come true – to improve the lives of women,” she said in a blog for TED.

In 2007, Zubaida and her husband participated in MIT’s International Development Design Summit, a program that brings together people from across the globe to collaborate and build projects that address issues faced by the world’s poorest communities.  The program exposes participants to practical design for development.

Zubaida and other IDDS participants in morning circle, the way that summits start their days with team building exercises, announcements, and appreciations. / IDIN

Zubaida and other IDDS participants in morning circle, the way that summits start their days with team building exercises, announcements, and appreciations. / IDIN

After studying how to best succeed in markets in developing countries, Zubaida founded ayzh in 2009 and a year later launched the clean birth kit. She called it “janma,” which means “birth” in Sanskrit. The $3 purse comes with six items to ensure a safe and sterile delivery at half the cost of comparable birth kits.

Ayzh hires local Indian women to assemble the packages, allowing them to develop a stable income. Since 2010, about 250,000 kits have been sold in India, Afghanistan, Gambia, Laos, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Zambia, and Haiti — reaching 500,000 mothers and babies.

Ayzh plans to reach 6 million women over the next five years, improving maternal health and breaking the cycle of poverty one woman at a time.

With support from USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) through MIT’s International Development Innovation Network, ayzh is developing a similar kit for newborns. It will provide the tools necessary to make transitions for new mothers and their babies as smooth and healthy as possible.  

Through HESN, USAID is empowering entrepreneurs and researchers at universities so that people like Zubaida can get the funding and mentoring they need to jump start their ventures.

Zubaida Bai and ayzh intern Kelly Brennan iterating on potential impact metrics they can use when communicating with their stakeholders during a workshop in Chennai, India. / Kyle Munn, SEAD

Zubaida Bai and ayzh intern Kelly Brennan iterating on potential impact metrics they can use when communicating with their stakeholders during a workshop in Chennai, India. / Kyle Munn, SEAD

Last year, ayzh was selected to be a part of a cohort of innovators at the Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator at Duke  — another HESN partner — to receive mentorship and capacity building to expand their global reach and impact. The Evidence Lab at Duke is providing support to ayzh to find the best ways to measure and communicate its impact.

With the support of USAID and other organizations, we hope this venture and others like it will continue to improve the health of women around the world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Danielle Somers is a communications analyst for the U.S. Global Development Lab’s Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN). Emily Jablonski is a virtual intern for HESN and student at the University of Michigan.