Empowering African Women To Take Control Of Their Health: A Kellogg MBA’s Mission

The Maziwa breast pump was specifically designed for marketing in developing parts of East Africa. The company was launched by Sahar Jamal, who graduated in the MBA Class of 2019 at Northwestern Kellogg, where she worked on the business. Courtesy photo

Breastfeeding is vitally important to infant welfare. Babies who aren’t breastfed for at least the first six months are 14 times more likely to die than those who are, according to the World Health Organization. A 2016 study in The Lancet declared that 800,000 infant deaths worldwide could be avoided, and billions of dollars in international aid saved, by increasing breastfeeding in developing nations.

The problem is financial. In Africa, and particularly East Africa, lack of resources compounds the financial demands on many new mothers, giving them a difficult choice: Stay at home to feed their babies or return to work to support their family. In these circumstances, 81% of mothers are forced to stop breastfeeding prematurely so they can carry a greater part of the household financial burden.

Sahar Jamal has spent years thinking about this problem. She believes she has the solution.

Her company, Maziwa, which means “milk” in Swahili, makes the only breast pump specifically designed for working mothers in developing markets — “the first ever custom-made breast pump for East Africa,” Jamal, a 2019 Northwestern Kellogg MBA, says. “We believe that the local concept is something that will resonate with women and hopefully make them feel like they’re important enough to justify their own innovations and companies investing in them.”

A PASSION FOR WOMEN’S HEALTH

Sahar Jamal. Courtesy photo

During Jamal’s time at Northwestern Kellogg, she formed and grew a business plan for Maziwa, then nurtured her concept through pitch competitions and incubators. Kellogg helped her lay the groundwork for what she hopes to be an imminent explosion in business: The first Maziwa products launch this May, and in the next five years Jamal expects to equip 140,000 women with the Maziwa breast pump and reach half a million with education and social media campaigns.

“We want to empower mothers to feel like they can balance both breastfeeding and work,” she says. “We want them to feel like they don’t have to choose between their career and their family.”

Jamal was born in Vancouver, Canada; her parents were raised in Tanzania and India. “Growing up, I always had a deep connection to emerging markets and specifically women’s health in these regions,” she says.

After completing her undergraduate degree in commerce at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, she began working in healthcare. For nearly four years, she focused on consumer healthcare at Johnson & Johnson — both in Canada and the UK — and led the company’s corporate social responsibility initiatives. She learned about J&J’s maternal and newborn efforts in Asia and Africa, volunteering on some of the company’s development projects.

Inspired, she decided it was time to make some changes.

“I realized I loved this work more than my day job, so I left to get an MBA at Kellogg and transition into the global health and social entrepreneurship space,” she tells Poets&Quants.

WHY KELLOGG?

Jamal was drawn to an MBA program in the United States for a few reasons: She wanted an international perspective, and she wanted a program with a strong record in social impact. Northwestern Kellogg felt like the right choice.

As she prepared to go back to school, she didn’t think about starting her own company. But she liked the entrepreneurial feel of Kellogg’s culture.

“It felt like the focus on making an impact — whether that be through the public sector, nonprofit sector, or even just within a corporate job — was an important feature of the program,” she says.

Kellogg’s high-impact, low-ego mandate appealed to Jamal.

“I had been working in the corporate world for quite a while and I was looking for a more meaningful, impactful career,” she says. “This seemed like the place to do it.”

THE INTERNSHIP THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING

Between her first and second years, Jamal applied to a summer internship through the Kellogg job board. After considering different internship opportunities, she felt drawn to working at a smaller organization in the global healthcare sector after her time with Johnson & Johnson. She landed a role as a business development associate at an organization called Jacaranda Health in Nairobi, Kenya, an experience that changed everything for her.

At Jacaranda, Jamal developed a revenue model for nurse development and mHealth programs, or mobile-based programs, and she initiated contracts with private hospitals and corporate partners. She was also in charge of supporting some of the efforts around breastfeeding research.

“I learned that one of the biggest barriers for women to breastfeed optimally is the return to work,” she says. “Many women are working in informal environments where it’s very difficult to express breast milk.”

Despite public policies in place that mandated lactation rooms, Jamal says that only 40 companies across the country actually adhere to this guideline. “Public policy and employer support wasn’t going to cut it; I realized we needed to put the power back into women’s hands.”

Why are there so few lactation rooms? Jamal explains that many employers don’t have the capacity.

“I talked to a flower farm in Naivasha where there’s about 2,000 working women,” she says. “Normally, only about five are breastfeeding and working at the same time. So even though there’s a ton of women, the timing of their pregnancies isn’t always lined up. If you scale that down to an employer with 10 employees who are both men and women, justifying an entire room for that may be difficult.” One Maziwa breast pump that can be shared by a company’s employees is a more affordable solution than building a lactation room, Jamal says.

Besides providing women with a sense of pride and empowerment around their bodies, she hopes that Maziwa can encourage employers to support breastfeeding employees more easily.

“We want women to feel like they can both nourish their baby and support their family,” she says.

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