Maternova: Birthways Cultural Catalogue Proposal


After much research and consideration… and some long and fascinating research describing the incredible variety of birth rituals, superstitions, and practices around the world, I decided that an interactive online cultural catalogue would likely prove to be an invaluable resource for innovators, field workers, governments, and organizations interested in doing their part to curb the maternal mortality rate.

Some cultural practices were simply supportive of mothers, or described the role various people should play during the birth. Other cultural practices limited the rights of women before, during, or after birth. Some practices endangered the child – particularly umbilical cord practices such as treating the cord stump with ash or dung. Some practices endnagered the mother, like requiring that she give birth away from the home. In Nepal many women give birth in the cow shed. There are many unique practices that may support, endanger, or enhance the journey from pregnancy to motherhood, and if we are to effectively address the problem of maternal mortality, we must understand what birth means around the world, and we must understand what is important to the families and the mothers of the children yet to be born.

The Birthways Cultural Catalogue would provide users with a carefully structured platform upon which to exchange stories about pregnancy, birth, and post-natal practices around the world. Not only would Maternova be providing access to technology that was previously inaccessible – Maternova would be providing access to cultural knowledge that was previously trapped as well. The combination of these two would support the creation of new solutions.


Field workers going to a new country could research and know what to expect upon attending a birth. Innovators could refer to unique cultural norms or practices, and take them into account during their problem solving and ideation processes. Governments could better gauge how to assist their own people, and people from other countries, if they knew more about their way of life. Organizations like Maternova would have a chance to better acquaint themselves with their greatest stakeholder: the pregnant mother.

Cultural practices related to birth are some of the most specific and important. Birth is the way we all came into the world… and if there is a sacred moment in life, it is the moment of our beginning. By providing deeper understanding around the idiosyncrasies of birth worldwide, we can gain a deeper understand of how to accommodate a healthy birth holistically… how to effectively get a mother to a doctor, how to effectively problem solve when faced with unfamiliar scenarios. If we truly want to help, we must understand who we are helping, and tailor our efforts to their way of life, and choose our spice such that it enhances the flavor of their lives.


Maternova: Clean Birth Kits & Baby Carriers

I began my journey considering textile shortages, baby carriers, and clean birth kits.

Over time, I had spoken with Maternova about textile shortages, packaging for goods, strategies for compiling clean birth kits, and the potential of designing baby carriers for women in developing countries who didn’t have easy access to textiles. As this had come up more than once, I decided to begin my journey by considering these issues, and to see what I could come up with.

A clean birth kit is a minimal medical kit that provides the tools necessary for a woman to give birth either in a clinical setting or at home such that she and the child have a greater chance of remaining free from infection or disease.
birth kit 2

As I researched variation among clean birth kits around the world I quickly realized that there was a great deal of diversity when it came to the nature of these kits. Content, style, and structure varied depending on their origin and destination. The process of creating the kits varied, too. Some kits were made in the US and shipped abroad. Some were put together in the same country that would use them. This saved cost. Some included fabric and some did not. Some included gloves and some did not. Some included single odd unique items that were necessary to make the kit effective in a certain location, in a certain culture.

That was the case with this kit from Nepal, seen below. In Nepal t is common tradition to cut the umbilical cord of the infant over a rupee for good fortune. But this practice contaminated the newly cut umbilical cord, and could potentially lead to tetanus, which meant a quick and painful infant death shortly after birth. A plastic rupee was added to the kit so that families could cut their newborn baby’s cord on a clean surface and still observe the spirit of their tradition. This led me to consider the importance of cultural understanding and the effect presence or lack of it might have on the maternal mortality cause.

birth kit 3But this was not the only thing that led me to consider the importance of cultural understanding in relation to this issue. As I began to research infant carriers, the same concern became apparent. I couldn’t comfortable design a baby carrier for  the whole world when each individual and established culture had its own way of carrying children. In many ancient, very rooted cultures, all women carry their children the same way. It is a deep part of their culture and identity, and introducing a foreign and different baby carrier was not likely to be very productive or respectful of their cultural background.

Once again, I was faced with knowledge of the limitations culture could place on design, as well as the opportunity to design in a way that showed respect for these beautiful, strong, and established cultures that are so prominent in developing countries.

Here is an example of some of the variations one can find around the world in infant carrying methods:


After a great deal of research, consideration, and various attempts to design universal life-saving products for women and infants in developing countries, I realized that the design process – and the resulting product – must be appropriate for the culture in which it is to be used. And in order for a product to be culturally appropriate and effective, there needed to be a way for designers, engineers, and health care workers to learn about specific pregnancy, birth, and post-partum practices around the world.

Not suprisingly, the ritual of birth is very different across the seas, in the deserts, in the depths of an ancient culture… in distant cultures, individuals are surviving and relating to one another on very different terms, and they give birth on very different terms as well.

Maternova: Seeking Opportunity

Our case studies finished, as a studio we all began another part of our semester long journey, this time, either as groups or individuals. We searched for opportunities to design on behalf of our ventures.

In my case, I began to design and brainstorm on behalf of Maternova. I searched for opportunities for growth, improvement, and/or expansion both directly related to Maternova, and directly related to the predicament of maternal mortality.

Maternova is a wildly successful venture for it’s young age, so at first this task was an intimidating one.  How might I improve Maternova? Maternova has already received great acclaim via awards from the UN, Bloomberg, and Palo Alto Software. Maternova has done just about as well as any venture might hope to do in its first few years. Knowing very little about business or maternal health, I wondered what opportunities I might find that Meg and Allyson had not already considered and/or implemented.

I started my brainstorming journey with various possibilities in mind.

Meg and Allyson had expressed interest in growing or innovating in the following areas:

  • Creation of an expanded clean birth kit with an infant carrier and extra cloth for use in locations where access to textiles is scarce.
  • Branding for the new nonprofit, Maternova Research
  • Revamped package design
  • Clearly telling the story of Maternova. According to Allyson, “people have a hard time understanding what we do”.
  • Creating empathy. Many westerners are unaware of the magnitude of the maternal mortality cause.

My first thought, independent of Meg and Allyson’s list of opportunities, was that Maternova could potentially be more proactive in their marketing. Via connection with related organizations, partners, and professionals, perhaps Maternova could reach out to potential new clients, rather than clients reaching out to them. I considered the creation of a network that might increase awareness among pregnant mothers-to-be in developed countries. Maybe if we share information in the right way at the right time we could increase awareness. Maybe if we reached out to travelers who were going to some of the countries that were most direly in need of help, they could take goods to clinics or villages in need. Perhaps obstetrician’s offices in the developed world would be interested in posting awareness flyers. Maybe if more people were aware of the magnitude of the problem, and aware that Maternova exists to alleviate the problem, new opportunities for growth would arise, and more lives would be saved.

This is where my search for opportunity started.

The Story of Maternova: SEEED Conference


After a great deal of research and dialogue with Meg Wirth and Allyson Cote of Maternova… as well as a great deal of thinking and drafting… David Eisenberg, Stephanie Roh, and I created an illustrated description of Maternova’s founding and function.

This poster was printed and mounted as a 30″ x 40″ display and was featured in the Crystal Room of the Alumnae Building at Brown University on April 26th during the 2013 SEEED Conference.

Details: Hand-drawn illustrations (Liz Holland) / Digital color, text, and formatting (Liz Holland, David Eisenberg, Stephanie Roh)

Maternova: Mission & System


In the beginning, Maternova functioned based on 2 elements:

  • The Innovation Network
  • The Obstetric Kit

These elements – one a network, and one a product – directly addressed 2 basic problems that if alleviated, could curb the maternal mortality rate:

  • Lack of access to information about products and systems that support safe childbirth
  • Lack of access to products that support safe childbirth

The innovation network provided users with information about relevant tools, products, and systems that were either existing or in development. The obstetric kit was affordable and available online, so anyone anywhere in the world had access to it.

Over time, Maternova expanded into a three-tier system rather than a single network / product based system. This is the Maternova of today. The three tiers are as follows:

  • The Innovation Network: Provides information about new and upcoming innovations, products, and systems
  • The E-Commerce Marketplace: Provides 29 maternal and infant care products for international purchase and shipping
  • The Collaboration Network: Provides a base for discussion, exchange, and connection around maternal mortality and tools that save mothers’ lives

You can see in the diagram below that each component of Maternova’s system – which functions through Maternova’s website – has various subcomponents. All together, these create a system that has made Maternova one of the most effective and well-known organizations working toward curbing the maternal mortality rate.



Maternova: Providing Access to Life Saving Innovations


Prior to the founding of Maternova, many life saving tools and devices existed and were affordable, but remained unknown or unattainable from a developing country’s perspective.

Organizations, health care workers, governments, innovators, hospitals, midwives, obstetricians, designers, and engineers often worked within separate bubbles that didn’t overlap much – even if they were attending to the same predicament. Communication was inadequate all the way around. No one was stepping in to bridge the gap… until Meg Wirth founded Maternova.

The idea seems so simple now: Let the people who need the innovations know about the innovations. Let the people who want to help know that there are tools out there they can use to make a difference, then give those people access to those tools.

Meg Wirth started out with an idea, a dream, an inkling. Something had to be done. She had seen firsthand the perils of birth in the developing world, and she knew how penetrable the barriers were. So Meg set out to break down the unecessary barriers that stood between knowledge and those who were in a position to apply it in the name of saving mothers’ lives.

In 2009 Maternova was born in the name of breaking down the barriers that stood between hundreds of thousands of mothers… and the safe birth of their child.

Maternal Mortality: A Worldwide Predicament


Here in the west, most of us don’t realize what women in developing countries must go through in order to successfully give birth to a healthy child. Rather, we don’t realize how many women are justifiably terrified that giving birth will kill them, their child-to-be, or both.

The statistics are heartening and shocking. In most developing countries health care services are inadequate or inaccessible. Basic tools that could save lives are often unattainable, and even if the tools and services are available, many families are unable to either afford them or to reach them in time to take advantage of them. Distances are great, poverty is the norm, sanitation is poor, and in many cases, cultural practices create barriers to a mother receiving the care she needs. Sometimes, seeking out care may break social code and threaten a family’s reputation.

In 2000 the United Nations deemed reducing maternal mortality ratio by 75% as one of its 8 Millenium Development Goals. The goal was set to be met by 2015, only two years from now. Since the goal was established, the maternal mortality rate has decreased by 47%. This is a great accomplishment – one made possible by organizations like Maternova – but maternal mortality is still a terrible problem. There is so much more to be done.