Sochai: Improving the Health of Women and Their Newborn

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Young minds are driven. Intensifying scenarios get the best out of the youth. Such were the motivations of these four youngsters Bonita Sharma, Neha Malla, Aasutosh Dhoj Karki, and Manjita Sharma when they first entered an international competition. Little did they know that they would be changing the lives of thousands.
This is the story of the Social Changemakers and innovators (SOCHAI), who beat the world to solve problems with their economical yet efficient product. Read below to know more about their products, developments, and plans. 

1. How did SOCHAI come into being?
It began in November 2016, when we won the 3rd High-Level Meeting – Asia Pacific Youth Innovation Challenge, organized by UNICEF, Tandemic and Government of Malaysia for our idea of ‘Nutrition bracelet – Nutribeads’. As a winner, we were awarded a seed grant of $5000 and mentorship support from UNICEF. We used the funds to develop a wearable product (Nutribeads bracelet) based on the customer feedback we received for our prototype. Then we recruited, trained and mobilized youth volunteers from Kathmandu, who were studying in fields like Public health, Nursing, Pharmacy, Social work, etc to help with our mission to tackle the problem of malnutrition in our communities.

2. What was your inspiration behind developing the product?
Our Co-founder and CEO, Bonita Sharma loves children and has been working on the issues of Public Health for the past six years. She came across a woman in Lubhu who had lost her newborn when she fed him some cashew nut paste that was not grounded fine enough. 

This struck Bonita as she wondered why a child living inside the Kathmandu Valley, where facilities are available and people are educated, had to lose a life. Then she realized it was the lack of awareness in the community about appropriate breastfeeding and child feeding. A child should not be fed anything except breast milk for the first six months however, many mothers are unaware of this.

Neha Malla, our other co-founder also had similar experiences with a mother named Anita Shrestha (name changed) who was living inside a tin shed with her family after the 2015 Nepal earthquake. She gave birth to triplets just 10 days after the earthquake struck Kathmandu. When Neha saw the triplets, she could see they were stunted. Her children were not adequately breastfed and hence they were malnourished. 

This heart-wrenching realities of women and children in our community inspired us to come up with a simple solution, a low tech wearable educational tool that would assist mothers to learn about appropriate breastfeeding, complementary feeding and including the diverse food groups in the daily diet to make it balanced and nutritious.

“Har Ek Baar Khana Char! (Eat four food groups every day)”, we focused on this nation-wide famous slogan of the government while developing our product. Our product also aligns with the maternal and child feeding guideline implemented by the Nepal government in the national nutrition program.

3. Can you please elaborate and explain your product?
The time period from conception until the child reaches two years of age i.e. the first 1000 days is a golden opportunity for laying the foundation for maternal and child health as 80% of a child’s development takes place during this window. 

Hence, our product – Nutribeads bracelet is focused on informing mothers about the importance of breastfeeding and complementary feeding during these 1000 days. 

The Nutribeads bracelet has an array of 21 different colored beads. The black beads are marked with numbers- 0, 6, 9,12 and 24, which represent a child’s age in months. Apart from these, there are four other colored beads- Brown, Yellow, Green, and Blue. They stand for:

  • Brown represents the energy giving foods such as rice, wheat, barley, and tubers like potato and sweet potatoes.
  • Yellow, represents legumes and pulses, daals, which we consume in our daily diet.
  • Green represents leafy vegetables or vegetables and fruits, sources of vitamins and minerals.
  • Blue represents an animal source of protein such as milk, dairy products, eggs, and meat.

In-between the 0 and the 6 numbered beads, there is a white colored bead. These stand for exclusive breastfeeding from birth until the first six months of the child’s life. It supplies all the macronutrients and micronutrients required for the child’s optimal growth. Colostrum milk (first thick breast milk) is also considered the first vaccination that provides immunity to the child.

After six months 4 other colors, brown, yellow, green and blue beads are added along with white which indicates that, after six months, along with breastmilk, semi-solid food must be fed to the child. The food must include all 4 colors to make it a complete balanced diet. We provide counseling using the Nutribeads bracelet accompanied by Infocard to deliver vital nutrition information in the communities.

4. What does SOCHAI identify themselves as?
We identify ourselves as a youth-led Non-profit organization that is focused on improving overall health and nutrition through education, innovation, and social entrepreneurship. Currently, we have 7 members on the board. So far, we have successfully reached out to about 1000+ mothers, 300+ community health workers, 3000 adolescents in 8 districts by engaging 25+ youth volunteers. We are also creating income-generating opportunities for local artisans by engaging them in the bracelet making job.

5. Let’s talk about your team members. What is each of their roles towards the organization?
At the moment, Bonita Sharma, oversees the entire program and management, Neha looks after community outreach program and research, Ashutosh is the in charge of the audio/visual content and designing. We have some new addition to our team as well. Eva Gyawali, with her expertise in instructional design and business, is looking after our product development whereas Anuj Bhandary is managing our social media. 

6. Are any of the team members involved in the making of the bracelet?
We are not directly involved in making the bracelet bead-by-bead. However, as a team, we do implement a human-centered design approach to develop blueprint/designs for our bracelets. Currently, we have partnered with a local handicraft who makes the bracelets for us. In the coming months, we will be implementing bracelet making workshops and training for women from marginalized groups to help them find a way out of poverty and malnutrition through bracelet making the job. This way, it will be a win-win situation for both of us. This also directly aligns with what we want to achieve through SOCHAI  – empower women and girls through innovation, education, and entrepreneurship.

7. What kind of problems did you face while running an organization?
Being a non-profit company, the biggest challenge for SOCHAI was to have a sustainable business. However, we are working on new business avenues for sustainable revenue generation besides our existing product (low tech bracelets).
Initially, we also faced setbacks in the overall management of the company because growing up, we were never taught to be innovators, entrepreneurs, and changemakers. We are never told about the ‘must know’ things for running a business at school or colleges unless we choose a business stream. Since most of our co-founders are from health/social background, we faced quite a few challenges at the beginning. Also, being a young team, sometimes people don’t take our idea/work seriously until they see the validation in the media.
Now, talking from the program perspective, working with the community itself was a challenge because changing mindset and behavior takes a lot of time. So, we cannot measure the impact of our work immediately.

8. Tell us about the new product your company has launched. Also, how many products have you given out yet?
Last year in May, we launched our second product in the market on the occasion of menstrual hygiene day. The product is called the “Red cycle” or “Menstruation bracelet” which is similar to the concept of our previous product ‘Nutribeads’. This product is primarily designed for adolescent girls who are about to have their menstruation or have started menstruating just recently. 
The concept revolves around the average monthly cycle of a woman and the bracelet consists of 28 beads altogether with different colors and markings. This bracelet helps women and girls in understanding and accepting the natural biological process which is mostly seen as ‘sinful’ or ‘impure’. The bracelet also has elephant charms which helps a woman in tracking the bleeding phase, ovulation phase, fertile window and premenstrual syndrome phase throughout the 28 days indicated in the Red cycle bracelet.
We have been implementing the Buy One Give One model through which we have given out 1500 products and implemented 35+ community based learning programs and several promotional programs in 8 districts.
Recently, we won the Lead 2030 Challenge organized by One Young World and supported by RB Group from over 1200 participants from 100 countries. We now have the support to amplify the impact that we are making to break the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition.

9. So who would be your target customers as per the new model?
It’s a secret! But what I can tell you is, we will be taking our product and services hand in hand in both rural and urban areas. Besides the mothers and adolescents, we will be focusing on educational institutions, community groups, health centers, and local organizations as well.    

11. While developing multiple services and products, how do you plan on balancing both?
SOCHAI is all about teamwork. We have a diverse team skilled in different fields of expertise. So hopefully we’ll work it out.

12. In terms of your plans, what do you see yourself doing in the next year?
We want to make sure that we are selling our products outside Kathmandu as well while exploring the market outside Nepal. We also aim to reach the most underserved communities with our programs, especially impacting the health and nutrition of mothers, children, women, and girls and creating more impact.

13. What are the new areas that you have discovered which you didn’t in the first 2 years of your operations? Any comments you’d like to add to the article?
Initially, we were selling our products free of cost as our target customers were community people, who weren’t able to afford to buy the bracelet. Then, when we moved to the urban area with our products where people could easily afford it. We also brought in the Buy One Give One model, which attracted more people to support our social business.

We have learned that for young innovators and entrepreneurs like us, support from every sector is very crucial for our growth. After being featured across various online and offline media platforms in the past few months, we have received opportunities to promote our work and get connected with supporters and partners like never before. We are thankful to everyone who has helped us in our journey of learning, failing and then getting back again. We have also realized that hard work and dedication takes you a long way so we encourage all the young startups to never give up on your dreams.  

For more information about SOCHAI, please connect with them on Facebook here or check out their blog here.

Interviewed by Thryza Dow.