A chance online encounter between American tech entrepreneur, Thomas Lauzon, and Malawian mathematician, Eugene Maseya, could start saving the lives of children in sub-Saharan Africa where, even today, 1 in 26 children still die before their fifth birthday.*
Eugene and Thomas met online when they responded to a call for tenders from UNICEF for drone projects to transport blood samples.
They didn’t win the contract, but a friendship started that led to the creation of MamaBird, a drone logistics company for delivering medicines, therapeutic food and baby bedding to pregnant women, mothers and children living in remote areas, starting with a pilot scheme in Malawi.
UNICEF Malawi / Andrew Brown
Using drone technology to deliver life-saving supplies to remote communities
Around 80% of the 18 million population in Malawi live in rural areas and infant mortality rates are around three times the global average.
Even if a pregnant woman can travel to a town, typically by bike or on foot, it is hard to be seen by one of the country’s estimated 600 doctors.
Initially Thomas and Eugene wanted to deliver nutrition bars by drone to help reduce malnutrition rates but once they visited remote villages to speak to the people directly, it became much clearer their focus needed to be on maternal health and childcare, a critical situation very few were focusing on.
“In Malawi, this can mean the difference between life or death. The people have no cars, there isn’t even network of roads,” said Eugene. “Many pregnant women have their babies in their home village, in very poor hygienic conditions. Malawi has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. Many children are malnourished. We hope MamaBird can help change all this.”
When Thomas visited Malawi, he saw the desperate situation of the local families. “In Malawi up to 20 people would share two small huts and I heard how women were losing their children due to the bad conditions. To see their tears, that crushed me completely. I thought we must do something.”
Witnessing the distressing situation for families spurred the entrepreneurs into action and sparked the idea for MamaBird.
“Ever since we met, we have always been thinking about how to use drone technology for a good cause,” said Eugene.
“We started from the technical standpoint thinking that we have this knowledge about how to use and operate drones. Then in a second step we came up with this hypothesis that drones could be used to solve a social problem, like for example malnutrition of newborn babies, as well as childbirth itself,” added Thomas.
Both felt there might be resistance to drone transportation in a developing market, an inherent fear factor of such alien cutting edge technology, which caused them to think long and hard about the right name for their company.
“Drones tend to have scary or just very technical names, for example The Hawk, WHX-12 or Falcon X, so we felt we should go for something more warm,” said Eugene.
“Everybody loves their moms and people are going to be able to relate to that. Plus, Eugene and I listen to a lot of hip-hop music where singers do tend to sing a lot about their mamas,” Thomas reminisced. And thus MamaBird was born.
The birth of MamaBird supported by Vodafone’s ‘F-Lane’ accelerator
To turn their dreams into reality, Eugene and Thomas participated in a programme run by the Vodafone Institute, a think tank exploring the beneficial potential of digital technologies for society.
The Institute’s ‘F-Lane’ accelerator in Germany focuses on developing ventures that support women and welcomed Mamabird onto one of its programmes.
Photo credit: (l-r) Thomas Lauzon and Eugene Maseya. Photo credit: Vodafone Institute
Inger Paus, Managing Director of the Vodafone Institute, fondly remembers the two entrepreneurs:
“Thomas and Eugene are really energetic guys who are driven to change the way women engage with drone technology in Africa. They have a clear vision of the good that Mamabird can do,” she said.
Mamabird’s prototype and business model includes three packages that can be delivered by drone to expectant mothers.
The first is a ‘clean birth kit’, which includes equipment needed to achieve the ‘six cleans’ recommended by the World Health Organization: clean hands, clean perineum, clean delivery surface, clean cord cutting implement, clean cord tying and clean cord care.
The second is a package of therapeutic foods, designed to combat malnutrition in the mother and baby.
The last package contains a Finnish-inspired basic cot to ensure the baby sleeps in a clean environment.
Thomas and Eugene are now seeking funding to do their first trials. They are already in talks with UNICEF to fly in their drone testing corridor, and in the future plan multiple daily flights, training female drone pilots and eventually extending to other African countries.
Changing attitudes and developing long-term tech solutions for women
Both Eugene and Thomas don’t want to just develop technology to solve a female problem, they want to create a mindset change to help women in Malawi and other countries embrace and use technology themselves, developing a more sustainable solution for their future.
“What if we not only solve a problem for women but also have the women work with the application?” said Eugene.
“For example, a woman has a tablet and calls for a drone, the drone lands and she takes the package off the drone and sends the drone back on its way again. This is something that has never been heard of in remote areas of Malawi, or other countries in Africa for that matter. We feel that we can actually create a whole ecosystem that says women can be at the forefront of a technology that is created for them, that is solving their problem.”
They want to train women to use the drones themselves and plan to provide participating women with smartphones or a tablets equipped with how-to videos on how to fly drones.
“We want to encourage society in Malawi to help their daughters engage with technology,” said Thomas.
“We are excited by the idea that MamaBird drones will eventually deliver real sustainable benefits to women across Africa,” enthused Eugene.
* UNICEF, 2018, Under-five mortality. March. Available here: https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-survival/under-five-mortality/