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Rwanda:Meet The Medical Student Using Technology To Transform Maternal Healthcare

December 19, 2021

By Samuel Ouma [caption id="attachment_91734" align="alignnone" width="998"] Marie Chantal Umunyana, a medical student and internet entrepreneur, is the brain behind Umubyeyi Elevate, a digital health platform transforming maternal healthcare in Rwanda[/caption] Marie Chantal Umunyana, a medical student and internet entrepreneur, is the brain behind Umubyeyi Elevate, a digital health platform that provides information on maternal health, child health, and parenting to the people of Rwanda. Umunyana and her staff accompany parents on their prenatal, postnatal, and parenting journeys, providing them with all of the necessary knowledge to keep them healthy and informed. She was one of 19 Rwandan start-up entrepreneurs chosen by MASHAV, Israel's agency for international development cooperation, to participate in a start-up accelerator program on innovation business ecosystem in October. In a Q and A with Pan African Visions, Marie Chantal Ununyana sheds like on her ground breaking work, its impact on the healthcare sector in Rwanda, growing recognitions and more. Please tell us more about Umubyeyi Elevate, and what solutions it is adding to Rwanda’s health sector?  First and foremost, I would like to introduce myself and share a little bit of the story that inspired me to start Umubyeyi Elevate. My name is UMUNYANA Marie Chantal, a final year medical student at the university of Rwanda, passionate about Maternal health and women empowerment. I am the founder and CEO of UMUBYEYI ELEVATE, a start-up social enterprise dedicated to help young mothers, pregnant women, and prospective parents to improve their well-being by providing essential health information from a verified and trusted source. We offer vital support and accessible health services at the right time. UMUBYEYI is a Kinyarwanda word meaning ‘mother’ . We hold their hands every step of the way Eight years ago, the number of women who died during pregnancy or immediately after giving birth in Rwanda was around three in every 10 women. Today, the good news is that this number has declined up to approximately one out of every ten women. However, these deaths are still quite depressing. Motherhood is a beautiful journey. No woman should die while giving life. As a woman, a future doctor, a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, and a friend, I was motivated to come up with a solution that literally holds the hands of women in this reproductive health journey. Indeed, it is a natural journey, but they need someone to provide the much-needed technical support. My desire is to see women living, thriving and bringing up their children and families in a happy space in the community. Umubyeyi Elevate is a startup that aims to make maternal, child health and parenting information accessible to all. We intend to make information accessible through using community engagement methods and using the biggest tool that the world has been blessed with in the 21st century, the internet.  As a community and health support start-up, why did you choose to focus on maternal health education? Part of the reasons why I choose maternal health education is my motherhood experience and the other part is discovering how much of a burden it is for mothers or couples to access information on maternal health or parenting. As aforementioned, throughout my journey of becoming a mother I faced a lot of challenges, a lot of questions which couldn’t be answered and too many uncertainties. I challenged myself to understand how big of a challenge this might be to fellow mothers where I reached out to family members, friends and read some research where I discovered that it was quite an issue. At Umubyeyi Elevate we found that tackling the journey of motherhood from; preparation, pregnancy itself and the journey after pregnancy including parenting will lighten the burden faced by mothers and couples at large. Do you have any plans to scale up to other countries in East Africa or across Africa? Yes, our target population is East Africa initially, but we look forward to scaling up to the rest of the African region. What key lessons did you learn from the 4th edition of the Galien Forum Africa which ended last week? As a young innovator the key lesson i learned from the 4th edition of the Galien forum Africa is that: AFRICA needs many young innovators with different innovations working hard to strengthen research and sustainable development to face the major public health issues. I also learned that women shouldn’t be left behind when talking about research and science that Africa need I want to borrow the wise words of NASA Ambassador, Nichelle Nichols, “Science is not a boy’s game, it’s not a girls’ game. It’s everyone’s game! It’s about where we are and where we’re going,” For us to respond timely and correctly to health issue that Africa has we need gender diversity without leaving anyone behind. What role do you see entrepreneurship playing in the future of Rwanda’s health sector? Entrepreneurship fosters innovation and competition. With much innovation in the health sector, the Rwandan population is going to gain access to; new solutions, old services/products in easy ways or products/services with better quality. It is easier to think that with innovation comes a huge price to pay but with the spirit of entrepreneurship competition will lead to getting better accessible solutions at a good price. I firmly believe that Entrepreneurship and Innovation are key to the health sector. How can more girls and women in Africa overcome hinderances to successful entrepreneurship? African girls should benefit from their right to Education and equal access to opportunities. Many African girls are still facing problems of the 19th century yet we are in the 21st century. Girls can’t go to school in some communities, women are only meant for domestic chores and much are issues that African girls are still fighting. I call upon African governments, African parliaments, African civil society, the African Union, the United Nations and fellow empowered women to stand up for the right to Education for every woman on the continent as it is their biggest tool to realise their dreams including Entrepreneurship. Being an innovator while still studying must be challenging much as it has enabled you attain amazing opportunities like the recent award. Please share some key challenges you’ve face in your entrepreneurship journey and how you’ve managed to overcome them. Being an innovator is a challenging journey. Combining it with Medical school and motherhood makes it even more difficult. I faced many constraints on this journey. My number one constraint was juggling all the responsibilities: of keeping up and excelling at my studies, meeting different stakeholders and going back home to my family. It was really difficult and challenging at times but having schedules, prioritising some items on the schedule and sticking to my plans though difficult have helped me manage these demanding responsibilities although some not entirely. Starting up Umubyeyi Elevate I had little knowledge on entrepreneurship, networking, and strategic planning all of which are key for a start-up. I used the internet to search for information on different incubators, I learned about a lot of them and applied to some. I got accepted to some and from them I got the knowledge necessary to navigate the business world. Going beyond the culture norms that women too can be innovators is a barrier I face every day. But through this award, the tide is changing. I am confident that the next generation of young girls who dream of being innovators in Africa will have a guided path to exploit their ideas beyond these traditional barriers. But having a firm grip on what I wanted and why I wanted it kept me going and I will forever be indebted to different platforms that empowered me and nurtured the confidence in me, including Digital opportunity trust, MASHAV, Launch lab and AWE Rwanda. I was also motivated by the great work of my mentors who always encouraged me to explore new ideas. I cannot forget the immense motivation from my husband FURAHA ESPOIR who pushes me daily to be the best and encourages me to boldly explore opportunities in medicine and science to improve the lives of women, children and by extension, the community. I am a testimony of mentorship having walked on the shoulders of giants. I would like to appreciate the great support offered by IFPMA and Speak Up Africa under the Women Innovators for Health Award program that has enabled me to bring my idea to life. Any success tips for entrepreneurs in Rwanda and in Africa at large? I won’t give many tips, I will share a few which worked for me and which I believe others could build upon; ● Know why you are doing what you are doing, have reasons for your work, that way you will stand still in the face of challenges. ● Giving up is the only mistake you can make, otherwise failure is part of a success journey. Don’t be afraid to fail or be discouraged by failure. ● Never let the environment underestimate your ability, you are capable of becoming any best version you’d like to be, you can be anything, you only have to dare.    

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