The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that newborns start breastfeeding within one hour of birth and be exclusively breastfed for the first six months. Exclusive breastfeeding guards against gastrointestinal infections, provides vital nutrients for physical and cognitive development, and reduces the risk of infant mortality. But despite its proven and well-known benefits, breastfeeding's practical application is not as straightforward.
During her years of experience in the health sector, Canadian entrepreneur Sahar Jamal witnessed first-hand the challenges new mothers encounter regarding breastfeeding, with work taking the lead. In Kenya, specifically, the limited options make it difficult for new mothers to strike a balance between work and breastfeeding, often forcing them to choose between the two. Only 19% of women continue to exclusively breastfeed their newborns when returning to work.
For lower-class urban women, casual roles leave them with minimal financial security and no maternity leave, forcing them to return to work shortly after childbirth. Middle-income women encounter workplace challenges, including the absence of breastfeeding facilities and insufficient support for expressing breast milk. Meanwhile, women in rural settings, whether employed in casual farm labor or tending to their own farms, face prolonged absences from their babies and long journeys to access basic necessities like water.
Sahar is on a mission to transform this panorama. She is the founder of Maziwa, a Kenyan startup revolutionizing maternal health through their breast pump Wema, specifically designed to enable new mothers to provide the best care for their babies without sacrificing their professional development and financial responsibilities.
Understanding the need
Sahar has always been driven to make a meaningful impact in people's lives, particularly in the health niche. Her professional career began as a brand manager at consumer healthcare companies like Reckitt and Johnson & Johnson. Starting in Canada, she eventually moved to a senior role at Johnson & Johnson's UK office. Most recently, she worked as a Senior Brand Manager at Nicorette, a prominent nicotine replacement brand. For her, helping people conquer addiction was a great transition into the work she is doing today. "It was really good training in terms of just transitioning, not only from a business management and marketing point of view, but also understanding people deeply and driving behavior change in challenging areas," Sahar explains.
Her venture into the maternal health sector began in 2018 when she started working in business development at the social enterprise Jacaranda Health. "One of the projects we were working on was related to breastfeeding. And we essentially had to go into the communities and speak with moms and try and encourage them to continue breastfeeding exclusively," she recalls.
Her initial, first-hand exposure to the problem made Sahar aware of the challenges of working mothers. She discovered that two scenarios would frequently arise: either mothers would try to deflect the issue by claiming they were exclusively breastfeeding when they weren't, or they would openly express their struggles.
"So it just felt really tough for us to be in a position where we are trying to give advice to moms on something that they can't really take action on. You know, we're telling them things like, 'Oh, this could be fatal for your child, or they could face serious illnesses.' And ultimately, we know that at least 65% of the moms we talked to are unable to follow our advice because they're working."
This led Sahar to seek a deeper understanding of the issue and investigate its underlying causes. She wanted to discover why mothers in her community were not utilizing breast pump technology as commonly seen elsewhere. "I learned a few things. One, only 7% of moms in Kenya have ever used a breast pump. So, the technology just wasn't familiar to a lot of mothers. Then two, probably the reason for this, is the work environments that many women face. So many women are working as nannies, cooks, or cleaners. All these types of environments are very different from a typical office, and as a result, the breast pumps created for the Western world are not suitable [for] this demographic," said Sahar.
With a diverse upbringing, Sahar had always been interested in different cultures. Her father comes from Tanzania, and her mother is from India. East Africa and India, with similar challenges, were on her radar while she explored work possibilities abroad. "I ended up moving to Kenya because of the available opportunities and some of the network I had there. I still would hope to expand into Tanzania and India in the future," she says.
While starting a company was not in Sahar's original plans, her direct exposure to this issue prompted her to take action, partially inspired by her father's example during her childhood: "When I was ten years old, my dad changed careers, and he was a full-time accountant with three degrees and owned two businesses, and he decided to switch his career completely. His career change was formative for me in my early years and made me realize that, even though I was initially working in the corporate world, it wasn't too late to try something different."
Nurturing her vision
While considering her move to Kenya, she was studying for an MBA at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, where she received the 2019 Kellogg Social Entrepreneurship award and several prizes at the VentureCat pitch competition. This provided Sahar with the initial funding and safety net necessary to fully commit to her entrepreneurial endeavor. Additionally, she actively participated in the school's Zell Fellows Entrepreneurship program and served as the Co-Chair of the Net Impact Club, allowing her to test her business idea and benefit from many of the school's offerings related to social impact initiatives. "I was able to get support to actually fly back to Kenya twice that year just to conduct more research and to understand the problem better," she said.
Sahar's research focused on ensuring that she addressed a relevant problem, provided a real solution, and confirmed an actual product-market fit. Most of her work involved guaranteeing that the solution was genuinely beneficial and serving her intended audience.
During her efforts, Sahar encountered women whose stories deeply resonated with her mission. Among them was Isabel, a first-time mother juggling the demands of breastfeeding with her role as a construction worker: "She told me [about] the experience of having her first child and having to go back to work. Of course, as you can imagine, construction sites don't have any private lactation rooms, they don't have refrigeration or storage for breast milk. Often, there's no electricity set up because the sites are still being built, and there's hardly even a bathroom for privacy. So there was just no way for her to express her breast milk, and even if she decided to go home early to feed her child, she was getting chastised for taking breaks by her coworkers (who were mainly male) on the construction site. Just a very extreme situation and I realized that the available technology just wouldn't work for someone like this," Sahar recalls.
Though her vision was clear, bringing the company to life was not simple. Sahar initially faced one major challenge: funding.
"I started the organization in 2019, and then six months later, COVID hit. So, for the first year or so, we had just the funding that we had raised to start the company, which was from my Graduate School, and that was all that we were going off of. It wasn't until the end of 2020 that we were able to raise the next batch of capital. So in the early days, I didn't have a team even around product development and research; we didn't have a lot of resources."
The circumstances of the pandemic posed challenges beyond just funding. Remote work settings added a layer of complexity, making it harder for Sahar to gather feedback and specific insights from the ground. "Sometimes, when you're there in person, it can be a lot easier to understand what they're going through and get very honest feedback, whereas, during COVID, I had to rely a lot on research agencies to do that," she said.
Sahar eventually moved back to Kenya in early 2021: "I'd raised some money in 2020, so we hired our first employees, and that was great, to have a little bit more support and a little bit more proximity to the challenges."
With the help of the initial funding, in August 2021, she launched the Wema breast pump: "We were still working with prototypes, still doing research, just trying to understand better how we could solve the problem. And then once that funding came in, in addition to hiring the team, we were able to launch and get the regulatory approvals that we needed, manufacture the products, and bring them into the market."
A holistic approach
The Wema breast pump is a discrete, wireless, and portable solution that can be used in any work environment. It is designed explicitly for mothers like Isabel, who have unique work environments. Furthermore, Maziwa stands out in its field by offering a holistic support mechanism, extending beyond the product to establish a network of lactation educators assisting mothers along their product journey. Unlike competitors that target higher income brackets, Maziwa was established as an affordable, inclusive, and accessible solution, ensuring availability to a broader market.
Breastfeeding is a profoundly personal journey. Despite significant technological advancements, no breast pump can mimic the unique and specific act of a baby suckling. Breast pump usage also comes with unique challenges; some mothers can experience difficulties using it correctly. Maziwa precisely integrated its holistic support mechanism to address these concerns, prioritizing education and customer service and offering a complimentary lactation consultation to all purchasers. "Because only 7% of moms have ever used a breast pump, we have launched a network of community breastfeeding ambassadors that provide hands-on lactation support and act as essentially like pseudo-lactation consultants in their space to bring much-needed support to communities where that kind of expertise is just not available right now," says Sahar.
The reception for Maziwa has been overwhelmingly positive, marked by substantial organic growth. To keep up with their quality standards, the company surveys every mom who uses their product, revealing heartening and encouraging results. Recent research shows that 93% of women have managed to successfully attain a balance between breastfeeding and work thanks to the Wema pump. Maziwa's educational initiatives have also received great feedback. The company has transformed the lives of over 16,000 mothers and children to date.
"A lot of the testimonials are driving additional sales, and people are coming to us saying that they recognize the brand and are interested in it. And for a brand that's quite small and early stage compared to some of the bigger names out there, that's really impressive," Sahar states proudly.
With its portable and wireless capacities, the Wema pump effectively addresses the major challenges the average Kenyan mother faces: "One woman mentioned that her power went out, and so she was able to use the breast pump while the power was out. This is a common occurrence in Kenya."
Maziwa also received positive feedback from mothers who had experienced difficulties with other brands of pumps, citing Wema as more portable and easier to use in the workplace: "I think about 78% of women who've tried our product have preferred it to any other breast pump that they've tried."
Stories and testimonials like these continue to fuel Sahar's dedication to empowering Kenyan women. "We get these testimonials all the time, and it's always really powerful to see. Some of these anecdotal things make me feel like this is really working for people and making a meaningful difference in the lives of mothers," she says.
Expanding Maziwa's reach
Revolutionizing maternal health is not a one-woman task; it requires collaborative work to create a substantial and lasting impact. In Sahar's opinion, maternal health represents a crucial commitment for Kenya. It is one of the top priorities within the government's healthcare agenda. Nevertheless, she identifies a gap in the support system, particularly for women with unconventional or informal working conditions: "Healthcare is partially private, partially public, but the government certainly has a big role in the public sector health. I recognize that a lot of women are falling through the cracks per se as it relates to public policy."
Taking her vision a step further, she collaborates with the Ministry of Health and the government in Kenya to expand the geographic reach of her initiatives and address these challenges on a broader scale. Maziwa recruits health workers and mothers in the community through strategic partnerships with NGOs and County Government bodies and trains them to become Community Breastfeeding Ambassadors (CBAs).
"We train them through a 3-day in-person program. They then provide tailored lactation support through health talks and support groups for women in their communities. We measure our impact through pre- and post-surveys with our ambassadors and mothers. Our participants have given our trainings a 9.7/10 rating on average. We are also launching an in-depth impact measurement study of this program in the next 12 months. Partnerships allow us to expand our geographic reach more easily and efficiently. We have recently signed MoUs* with two new county governments in Kenya to support this effort."
"The hardest part of working with governments is that everyone's budgets are strained. So if you're coming with an idea and not funding, that doesn't always resonate. We've been lucky to have both and can bring that to the table," says Sahar.
The road ahead
Recognizing the significant opportunities and pressing needs within the African mothers' community, combined with the astounding support received, Sahar is optimistic about the prospects for future expansion: "The type of support we've gotten from not only mothers and partners but also grant funders and the people who are willing to support our work through investment, has been powerful, so now I know that we have the runway to continue growing and scaling, which is also very exciting."
Sahar hopes to reach approximately half a million mothers by 2028. However, when it comes to expansion, she is not just thinking locally; she envisions further growth and scaling across global markets while also potentially introducing other products. She says, "We're assessing a few different markets to see their potential. We'll also become a multi-product brand, which means that we will have breast pumps and a variety of other products that working mothers might need, including but not limited to accessories and parts. Also, other products that might be useful to moms in their journey." By that stage, she anticipates achieving an annual target revenue of about 10 million.
A clear purpose
Before starting Maziwa, Sahar deeply understood her target audience and their issues. Being well acquainted with her customers' struggles is crucial to developing the most effective solutions. Her success is rooted in her hands-on experience engaging with mothers and genuinely listening to their needs, and this approach has been a fundamental pillar in her journey.
"My advice is always to try and get in the market, get in front of customers, talk to people, and try to understand the problem very deeply before trying to create a solution. So, product-market fit is the most important thing. It's then very easy to try — like small cheap tests where you can put something out there that is just some kind of prototype or some kind of example of what you might do — to test whether your idea has any mirror," she says.
Her message to women entrepreneurs is to leave behind their imposter syndrome and take the leap: "I think we just need to try and shed that. Most entrepreneurs, when they start and maybe even when they continue, don't really know whether they're what they're doing is going to work. Most of us are just figuring it out as we go."
Sahar is indeed figuring out the steps as she goes. Still, her purpose continues to be as transparent as it was on day one. "The future I envision is that we recognize that, as a society, women have both maternal and financial responsibilities to their families. I envision one [a future] where women don't have to make that trade-off between breastfeeding and working, or breastfeeding and raising their child."
*Memorandum of Understanding. A non-binding agreement between parties outlining a common understanding or intent for collaboration without creating a formal, legally enforceable contract. It establishes the framework for cooperation and may serve as a precursor to more comprehensive agreements.