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Alumna’s Startup Gives Babies a Healthy Start

Sahar Jamal is creating a battery-powered breast pump so new mothers in East Africa can return to work.

Image: © 2017 Ima Mfon

Fall 2019
2 Responses

During an internship at Jacaranda Health, a maternity clinic and nonprofit outside Nairobi, Kenya, in 2018, Sahar Jamal began to notice barriers to breastfeeding faced by middle-income new mothers. Many had to make the difficult decision to either stop working — often financially infeasible — or give up nursing their newborns, which can have dire health implications.

In developing countries, the risk of infant death is 14 times higher for babies who are not breastfed than for those who are breastfed exclusively for the first six months. “This is especially challenging for mothers who need to return to work as early as one month postpartum and resort to substitutes like baby formula with tea or cow’s milk, which pose major health risks for both mum and baby,” says Jamal ’19 MBA.

Jamal, who spent time in maternal and newborn health-related work at Johnson & Johnson before attending the Kellogg School of Management, sought a solution.

Though only 7% of new mothers in Kenya use a breast pump, Jamal found in focus groups that women would be willing to pay for a more convenient, discreet, battery-powered model built for developing markets. “They’re already spending almost $250 over six months on baby formula, so this could be more affordable and effective at providing critical nutrients for their baby,” explains Jamal, who launched Maziwa Breast Pump while at Kellogg.

Maziwa’s design includes a rechargeable battery-powered cooler and pump so that women can collect and store breast milk even if they have no access to electricity or refrigeration — say on a worksite or in a factory restroom. The pump’s sleek, compact design also allows women to pump more discreetly.

Jamal worked with a team of Northwestern biomedical and mechanical engineers to develop a basic prototype out of “tubes and funnels” at The Garage. She returned to Nairobi several times with the help of Kellogg’s Zell Fellows Program to market test different designs. Shortly before earning her MBA last June, she received Kellogg’s Social Entrepreneurship Grant, which provided $70,000 in seed funding. Jamal also won the Audience Favorite award at Northwestern’s VentureCat competition.

Jamal, whose parents are from Tanzania and India, is working with Mark Fisher, clinical associate professor of biomedical engineering, to refine the prototype and develop the final design. She moved to Kenya full time in October to continue her market research and develop partnerships with local clinics, NGOs and distributors.

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Reader Responses

  • Hi Michael, Thanks for your feedback! I'd be interested to learn more about your experiences in Africa that have led to this perspective.
    From my experience, basic hand pumps haven't succeeded in driving behavior change in Kenya and allowing mums to balance working and breastfeeding, since mothers would still need to find a private place to pump and a fridge to keep their breast milk cool throughout the day. That said, a discreet pump that comes with milk storage could come closer to addressing their needs. In terms of its battery-operation, women would just to plug in a basic USB charger which many are already using to charge their mobile phones. This would allow for much more efficient pumping sessions (15 to 20 minutes vs. 45 minutess) and reduced interruptions to their workday.
    Please feel free to reach out to you'd like chat more!

    Sahar Jamal ’19 MBA, Nairobi, Kenya, via Northwestern Magazine

  • Much is made of the invention of a battery-powered breast pump in "Alumna’s Startup Gives Babies a Healthy Start," with specific references to its use in Africa.
    This seems to me to be a misdirected effort, suggesting the use of a pump that requires the purchase of batteries or of recharging in places which often have no electricity.
    There are numerous hand-operated breast pumps available and promoting the use of an electrical pump seems to me to be of a kind with the promotion of the use of infant formula in places where there is no clean water.

    Michael Steinitz ’70 PhD, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada, via Northwestern Magazine

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