Every morning I wake up to a cacophony of Matatu horns and birds from the Savanah (holdovers from pre-colonial times), step outside my host family’s apartment, and am greeted by the curious smile of our Askari, Moses, asking me where I am headed today. Even though my answer was pretty much the same each time, I always smiled and thought about how fortunate I was to be spending the summer as a Rashell Young Fellow with Jacaranda Health in Kenya.

Jacaranda Health is a maternal health organization dedicated to providing high-quality, low-cost maternity care in Kenya, which, despite rapid development, still has a maternal mortality rate in the bottom twenty globally. Jacaranda consists of two organizations—a mid-sized maternity hospital based in peri-urban areas on the outskirts of Nairobi, and a non-profit organization that works with public hospitals to scale best practices in maternity care across Kenya.

My experience

During my time at Berkeley I’ve studied how innovative healthcare delivery models can improve healthcare quality and access. I’ve become especially interested in how technology can help achieve these goals, and how to apply/adapt learnings across healthcare systems and geographies to improve care. My fellowship with Rashell Young and my work with Jacaranda over the summer enabled me to further explore this interest while making an immediate difference at an impactful organization.

When I first landed in Nairobi and met with the head of Jacaranda, he told me whatever I do, at the end of my project, do not give him a PowerPoint deck (this was a bit jarring for a former management consultant who had already prepared a PowerPoint deck for our meeting). Instead, he asked me to focus on implementing something, and teaching his team skills that they could apply in the future.

Every week in Kenya I crisscrossed Nairobi–from tiny maternity wards in small dusty towns, overflowing hospitals in Nairobi’s largest slums, and pharmacy companies in the heart of Nairobi’s booming districts, I interviewed pregnant moms and nurses, and pursued opportunities to pilot Jacaranda’s programs with partners. I’ll never forget walking through Mathare slum and visiting the medical director of Huruma Hospital. On our way to the hospital we were greeted by curious but warm stares, and hushed whispers of ‘muzungu’. We also found a bustling city unfolding between shacks in desperate conditions. When we got to the hospital we found an overflowing waiting room and nurses who looked like they had been working for 3 days straight. We sat down with the medical director, who greeted us with an obligatory habari and a masala chai. As we started telling him about our organization, he cut us off and said: ‘stop–just tell me what you can do for my patients’. I’ll never forget how incredibly sharp and passionate he was, and how his organization managed to provide so much care with so few resources.

When I wasn’t in the field I worked closely with Jacaranda’s team in Kahawa West, a fast-growing, peri-urban neighborhood on the outskirts of Nairobi. I focused on designing (and coming up with ways to test) new business models for their mobile health offering, and developing tools they would need to manage their program scale. As I got to know the team better, they started asking me how to do different things in excel. By the time I left, this grew into daily data analysis and excel lessons. I’ll never forget how my teammates would anxiously wait for me at the office in the morning, making a few hurried changes to their spreadsheets, and always offering to trade me a Swahili word of the day for a new excel tip.

Lasting Impact

When I got off the plane in Oakland, CA, I knew that I would never forget the experiences I had in Kenya, and that the perspective I gained working at Jacaranda would impact me (professionally and personally) forever. I am continuing to work with Jacaranda’s founder to explore ways to apply lessons from Jacaranda to improve maternal care in underserved U.S. communities. I also still speak with my host family weekly, always assuring Kiyan (my five-year old Kenyan best friend) that I will be back to visit him soon. And, I found out earlier this month that Jacaranda will be launching pilots with three partner organizations I established relationships with in Kenya (including Huruma Medical Center), and my star excel student is designing a new dashboard for Jacaranda.