2010s: Better Birth

Zubaida Bai and Ayzh employees seated on stairs
Zubaida Bai, seated, works with employees of her company in Chennai, India. She earned her M.B.A. from CSU in 2010 and is a Ted Fellow. Watch her TED Talk at col.st/kIVzz. Photo submitted by Zubaida Bai.

Hygenic childbirth kit is born of personal experience and global need

Zubaida Bai’s grandmother died in India after giving birth to a son, Bai’s uncle. Two generations later, Bai delivered her first son in her home country, and she suffered a yearlong infection that she ascribes to poor medical care.

Then, as Bai sought ways to improve women’s livelihoods in developing nations, an Indian midwife showed Bai the agricultural tool she used to snip newborns’ umbilical cords. It was a sickle meant for cutting grass. “That was the aha moment,” Bai said. “I was disturbed for a long time afterward and was prompted to look into the issue.”

She met a Colorado State University faculty member at a conference in Boston and enrolled with her husband, Habib Anwar, in CSU’s Master of Business Administration program focused on global social and sustainable enterprise. They developed a company called ayzh, which launched in 2012. Its first product – the Janma Clean Birth Kit in a Purse – is designed to provide more sanitary conditions for mothers and their newborns in Bai’s native India and other developing nations.

The need is clear: More than 800 women die each day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, according to the World Health Organization, and 99 percent of maternal deaths occur in developing countries.

As she learned about maternal health issues in India, Bai realized she might reduce risks by improving the crude childbirth kit used by some doctors and nurses there. The kit was not always available, and the items included were not well-suited for many women. For instance, some mothers were averse to using the kit’s razor to cut umbilical cords because it was like the one their husbands used to shave. A mere thread was provided to tie umbilical cords, and the kit’s plastic delivery sheet smeared, rather than absorbing, blood and fluid.

“Someone told me recently that they used those plastic sheets and razor blades to deliver goats in remote areas,” Bai said. “There’s just been such a lack of respect and dignity toward the process of childbirth.”

She set out to improve the kit by looking at it through Indian women’s eyes, or “ayzh,” and the concept inspired her company’s name. Bai replaced the razor with a surgical scalpel, the plastic sheet with an absorbent one, and the thread with a plastic cord clamp. She added medicated soap, gloves, a cloth to clean the baby, and illustrated instructions, all wrapped in a reusable, environmentally friendly package resembling a small purse. Its distinctive look is meant to spark conversations that spread the word about the kit and its purpose.

Initially, Bai tried selling the kit directly to expectant mothers; that was a “big-time failure,” she said, because the kit didn’t look like traditional medical products and was met with skepticism. So Bai instead began marketing kits to doctors, nurses, and midwives.

Her approach has resulted in steady growth; ayzh has sold nearly 400,000 kits priced at $3 each, which is $1 more than the previous version. The childbirth kits are sold in India and are exported from there to 19 other developing countries. About 90 percent are used in medical facilities.

The company has leveraged innovative partnerships, funding, and increased sales to expand its product line to other areas of women’s reproductive health, including postpartum and menstrual hygiene, newborn health, and breast-feeding. Its primary distribution center is in Chennai, India, and it employs 35 people.

“I think people are in awe of everything we do, but from our perspective, what we’ve done is less than a drop in the bucket,” said Bai, who lives in Fort Collins and frequently travels internationally for business. “The need is so huge. We need to do a lot more.”

She paused and recalled her father talking about growing up without a mom.

“I remember conversations about the importance of that, and how privileged he felt that he had healthy children and that my mom was fine,” Bai said. “I think a lot of pieces of the puzzle came together when the maternal health issue showed up in my world. I feel like it’s serendipity, like I’ve come full circle.”

Zubaida Bai
Zubaida Bai, founder and chief executive officer of ayzh, talks about funding for companies focused on issues of social justice. Photo by John Eisele / Colorado State University