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Broken in the Warm Heart of Africa


My hardest months were spent watching my newborn daughter cling to life. Had she been born in Africa, she would not have survived.

In 2006, Rebecca Richards-Kortum and I traveled to Malawi and met pediatrician Liz Molyneux, who was training local doctors using donated technologies. Those technologies were not designed to work in the hot, dusty hospitals of Malawi and quickly failed. I saw a room full of unusable equipment and my heart broke for the mothers who could not access the tools that saved my daughter.

Rebecca and I saw many gaps during that trip: babies with jaundice, babies who struggled to breathe. It wasn’t that the doctors didn’t know how to treat the babies; they simply lacked the appropriate technologies. Working alongside Liz and her colleagues in Malawi, we brought these problems to Rice and Malawi Polytechnic, where our engineering students, many of them young women, clamored to work on problems of such profound consequence.

Today, our rugged, simple technologies have saved lives in over 20 African countries. Our team has grown to encompass many clinicians, as well as world experts in neonatal health, entrepreneurship, and manufacturing. We have established partnerships with universities and ministries of health. We developed a suite of technologies called NEST that, combined with clinical training, addresses 85 percent of the causes of newborn death in Africa. When the call for 100&Change came out, we knew this was our chance to put our plan into action. Delivered at scale in Africa, NEST could save the lives of 750,000 babies every year.

Liz confessed to us once that she wasn’t sure we’d return after that first visit. But what began in Malawi, the “warm heart” of Africa, can change lives well beyond its borders. Every day in Africa, mothers watch their newborns cling to life, and far too many of them do not get to celebrate, as I did, a happy outcome.

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