From mosquitoes to tiny bracelets, meet innovators with bold ideas for improving health around the world

Mar 29 · 7 min read

Over the last few decades, the discovery and development of new drugs, game-changing technologies and innovative approaches to prevent and treat disease have enabled considerable progress in reducing rates of mortality and increasing life expectancies globally. However, a critical gap in access to quality health care persists, particularly for the most vulnerable populations.

The global community has committed to an ambitious set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through 2030 — including SDG3 — “to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.”

To achieve this goal, countries must meet targets that include drastic reductions in maternal mortality, an end to preventable deaths of newborns and children under age 5, and elimination of the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases. Yet recent estimates suggest that we are not on track to reach those targets. We will require significantly more innovation — from breakthroughs in medical technology to reimagined service delivery platforms — all supported by improved models of health financing.

To spur new thinking and bold ideas, USAID and its partners, through programs like the Grand Challenges for Development, have tapped into the passion and creativity of some of the world’s best and brightest minds across sectors and geographies to develop and test new or improved approaches that have the potential to address the most urgent health needs.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month and reinvigorate a call to action for more gender-balance at all levels of society, we seek to recognize women around the world who are dedicated to accelerating our progress in achieving health targets through their contributions to science, technology and innovation.

These women are as diverse as their experiences and the communities they serve, but they have a shared vision of a future in which every woman and girl can access quality health services and lead a healthy life, enabling her to reach her full potential, define her value on her own terms and uplift those around her.

Meet eight inspiring women pushing the boundaries of their respective fields to solve the world’s toughest challenges, while paving the way for the next generation of female scientists, policy makers, change agents and entrepreneurs.

1. Mona Sharma, Head of Design and Customer Research, Bempu Health, Bangalore, India

Mona Sharma / Photo courtesy Mona Sharma

“I believe every life, no matter where it is born, is equally precious and deserves to be treated with utmost respect and care. However, this is a dreamy expectation and does not hold true in the real world for many babies and mothers. This drives me and I want to do things in my capacity to make the world move closer to the dream of equal care and respect for every life.”

In her role at Bempu, Mona Sharma helped create the award-winning and life-saving Bempu TempWatch, a newborn temperature-monitoring wristband that alerts caregivers if their newborn’s temperature falls too low, enabling intervention well before potentially fatal complications can occur. A product designer at heart, she combines science, engineering and a human-centered design approach to solve problems, increase access and improve the quality of life, in order to give everyone an equal chance within and across communities.

2. Beth Kolko, CEO and Co-founder, Shift Labs, Washington, USA

Beth Kolko / Photo courtesy Beth Kolko

“I’m passionate about global health, for the same reason I’m passionate about healthcare access and equity everywhere. All people deserve quality care.”

Beth Kolko is a professor of human-centered design and engineering at the University of Washington, and the co-founder and CEO of Shift Labs, a medical device company that develops rugged, simple devices capable of functioning in any setting. She has always believed that all people deserve equal access to quality health care, a sentiment that remains at the core of Shift Labs’ mission. When developing new solutions aimed at generating health impact in both the United States, as well as in emerging markets, Beth and her team inform their product development with insights from a diverse range of stakeholders ranging from end users to experts outside of the health care field.

3. Monica Oguttu, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Kisumu Medical & Education Trust (KMET), Kisumu, Kenya

Monica Oguttu / Photo courtesy Monica Oguttu

“I am passionate about global health because it offers an opportunity to be innovative in improving quality healthcare and achieving equity — coming up with local solutions, testing life-saving interventions, starting in a small scale then scaling-up best practices reaching the unreachable.”

A nurse by training, Monica is a tireless champion for girls’ and women’s health throughout Kenya and the African continent. She co-founded KMET, an indigenous organization committed to promoting health and education among underserved communities by changing practices and policies, implementing interventions to address the leading causes of maternal mortality, and developing culturally appropriate messages with communities, health care workers and policy makers to improve the quality of health services for girls and women.

4. Krista Donaldson, CEO, D-Rev, California, USA

Krista Donaldson / Photo courtesy Krista Donaldson

“Improving health, particularly of children, young people, and women opens the promise for a life of full potential: healthy relationships and families, education, productive and fulfilling work, more peaceful communities, and a healthier planet. I do what I do because as a global society we have the skills and know-how to solve most critical health issues now.”

When Krista Donaldson, an engineer and product designer by training, and her team at D-Rev are developing new technologies, they start with the problem. She and her team seek to understand people’s needs and behavior, take a system-level perspective to tackle health challenges ranging from neonatal jaundice to immobility, and then design devices that are tailored for the context. Krista is driven by the idea that when great design occurs in global health everyone — from health care workers to maintenance staff, distributors, donors and governments — is equipped to tackle and solve complex health challenges.

5. Rositsa Zaimova, Associate Partner and Co-Founder, Dalberg Data Insights, Brussels, Belgium

Rositsa Zaimova / Photo courtesy Rositsa Zaimova

“I am passionate about the use of technology to address some of the biggest challenges we are facing today, including problems in global health.”

Rositsa Zaimova and her team at Dalberg Data Insights create tools that use data to help decision makers better target interventions, allocate resources, and assess the impact of their actions. Over the past few years, they have combined several streams of information, including data on long-distance mobility of people, disease incidence, weather and vector locations to predict the spread of infectious diseases. Her hope is that these types of models will help predict risks of epidemic outbreaks and help countries prioritize the allocation of limited resources.

6. Dr. Queen Dube, Clinical Head of Pediatrics & Child Health, Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH), Blantyre, Malawi

Queen Dube / Photo courtesy Queen Dube

“I’ve spent the last decade fighting for the newborn. One of the ways we’ve been able to do that is through innovation.”

Pediatrician Queen Dube is identifying challenges in neonatal care and implementing contextually appropriate solutions at QECH, the largest tertiary hospital in Malawi. Until recently, Queen was one of only eight pediatricians in the country, and she now continues to advise medical students, conducts research, consults for other hospitals, and is leading efforts to drastically reduce newborn deaths through the development and implementation of innovative technologies and training models for low-resource settings.

7. Erica Layer, CEO, D-tree International, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Erica Layer / Photo courtesy Erica Layer

“I am passionate about global health because improving health of families — especially women and children — is the foundation for building healthy, productive and prosperous societies.”

Erica Layer is driven by the belief that advances in technology have an important role to play in improving the way that health care is delivered and strengthening health systems that deliver that care. As CEO, Erica leads D-tree’s work with governments, donors and implementing partners to pave the way towards scale-up of effective technology and best practices designed for the local context to improve program quality and efficiency to achieve lasting health impact.

8. Patricia Arbeláez, Epidemiology Coordinator, World Mosquito Program, Medellin, Colombia

Patricia Arbeláez / Photo courtesy Patricia Arbeláez

“My hope for women around the world is that they have improved access to education, as education promotes self-confidence and contributes to equity, the most important condition for human wellbeing.”

Patricia Arabeláez is a physician and epidemiologist who specializes in infectious diseases, with a particular focus on the transmission dynamics of tuberculosis. She currently serves as the Colombian Epidemiology Coordinator with the World Mosquito Program, a not-for-profit initiative that works to protect the global community from mosquito-borne diseases such as Zika, dengue and chikungunya by releasing mosquitoes containing a natural bacteria called Wolbachia, which reduces their ability to transmit these viruses.

About the Authors

Avery Waite is an Associate Innovation Advisor in USAID’s Center for Innovation and Impact and manages the Fighting Ebola and Combating Zika and Future Threats Grand Challenges. Sofia Stafford is a Program Analyst in the same office and manages the Saving Lives at Birth Grand Challenge. Follow their work at @CIIimpact.

U.S. Agency for International Development

Stories of USAID’s Work from Around the World


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Stories of USAID’s Work from Around the World

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