A baby box aims to save infant and maternal lives

Karima Ladhani, SM ’13, (right) conducts a focus group with mothers and community health workers in a village in Gadag, Karnataka, India.

September 14, 2015 — Under a new student-led nonprofit aimed at reducing infant and maternal mortality in South Asia, expectant mothers would receive a free box full of newborn essentials like baby clothes, diapers, and wipes, as well as health-related items such as a clean delivery kit and oral rehydration salts. The caveat: Women would only get the box—which doubles as a portable basket in which babies can sleep or play—if they agree to a prenatal checkup.

The “Barakat Bundle” project (“Barakat” means “blessing” in several languages), based on a similar box developed in Finland decades earlier, has had an award-winning start. In April, Barakat Bundle took home the $25,000 prize for runner-up in the social enterprise track at the Harvard Business School New Venture Competition, and was also chosen crowd favorite. Barakat Bundle is also a 2015 finalist at MassChallenge, one of the world’s largest accelerator programs for startups.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health doctoral student Karima Ladhani, SM ’13, developed the project last spring in Harvard Chan Professor Gordon Bloom’s Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Lab for US & Global Health course. She came up with the idea after reading an article about the Finnish Baby Box, which has been given free to mothers-to-be in Finland since the 1930s, also with the requirement of prenatal care. Distributed at first only to those with financial need, the box is now offered to all expectant mothers and is credited with helping reduce infant mortality in Finland from 65 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1938 to 2 deaths per 1,000 in 2013.

Ladhani thinks that a similar box could be used in South Asia, where every year roughly 1.7 million infants and 750,000 mothers die—even though most of those deaths are preventable through relatively inexpensive public health interventions.

“I think the idea of using this sort of box as a delivery mechanism for public health interventions in South Asia and beyond—places where maternal and child health is of critical concern—is a real opportunity,” said Ladhani.

Stellar startup

Ladhani and her team—including fellow Harvard Chan student Jyoti Ramakrishna, MPH ’15, as well as recent graduates from the Harvard Divinity School and Harvard College—worked with neonatologists to choose the best health-related items to include in the box, such as a folic acid supplements, a thermal infant cap, and information on breastfeeding. The goal is to include low-cost items that target causes of infant and maternal mortality in South Asia, that have been proven effective in reducing such mortality, and that can be easily administered by mothers. Although some of these items are already available to mothers in South Asia, Ladhani said that the real innovation is bundling them all together and including new baby essentials such as items that create consumer demand and items that stimulate cognitive development.

She and her team are refining the business plan for Barakat Bundle at the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-Lab), and are working on prototype design with the help of another i-Lab startup, design firm Agenda28. “We’ve had the opportunity for a mutually beneficial partnership,” said Ladhani.

To figure out which box design is most preferred, and which maternal and baby care items to include in the box, Ladhani and her colleagues are traveling in India this September to conduct market research with focus groups of rural mothers. They are also meeting with government officials and representatives from nongovernmental organizations to discuss their plans to distribute Barakat Bundles in India. They plan to conduct a proof-of-concept pilot next year.

Sweet spot

For Ladhani—who was initially headed for a career in finance—it’s been satisfying to work on a project that brings together her business expertise with her passion for public health. She hopes Barakat Bundle will generate interest among a variety of groups, such as government officials and public health advocates who want to improve maternal and child health, businesses that hope to promote their products, and mothers-to-be. “I’d been on the lookout for an opportunity for some synergies between all of the different things I’ve studied,” she said. “Working on Barakat Bundle has been such an opportunity.”

Karen Feldscher

Learn more

Read a Washington Post article about Ladhani’s work

photo courtesy Mitul Daiyan, MTS ’15