An Award-Winning Project to Improve Women’s Health in Bangladesh

A Fletcher School student entrepreneur is helping workers in garment factories. Plus, three more startups set to make a positive social impact
Illustration of Bangladeshi woman who works in the garment industry. A Fletcher School student entrepreneur is helping workers in garment factories in that country.
“Retailers can be held accountable for the well-being of workers through their supply chain,” said Farah Momen, F20. “They’re the ones that have the ability to actually do it.” Illustration: Adriana Bellet
July 9, 2019

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Thanks to $25,000 in seed money from two Tufts competitions, Farah Momen, F20, is piloting a project this summer to aid Bangladeshi women who work in the garment industry. Her venture, called The Now Exchange, will provide free contraceptives at a Dhaka factory as the first step toward improving women’s health there.

Momen and Giulia Bova, a friend from her undergraduate years at McGill University, won the Fletcher D-Prize Poverty Venture Solution Competition in March. The accolade came with $10,000 to pilot the program this summer. In April, the two women also won first place in the social impact track of the Tufts $100K New Ventures Competition through the Gordon Institute, which gave them an additional $15,000. Both prizes also offer in-kind support.

The D-Prize has strict criteria focusing on the “D,” which stands for “distribution” and emphasizes the need to spread innovative ideas widely, said Marilyn Davison, entrepreneurial coach in residence at The Fletcher School, who mentored Momen through the competition. “Farah’s proposal always was very strong on satisfying that criteria,” Davison said. “She and her partner Giulia also have very strong on-the-ground knowledge and experience, both in Bangladesh and in the field of family-planning initiatives.”

Momen and Bova intend to start their project this summer by offering free injections of Sayana Press, a hormonal contraceptive, via an already existing in-factory health clinic. Over time, they plan to expand to more clinics and other aspects of women’s health, such as menstrual hygiene and domestic violence education. Their goal is to have the services funded by international companies that sell clothes made in Bangladesh.

“Retailers can be held accountable for the well-being of workers through their supply chain,” Momen said. “They’re the ones that have the ability to actually do it.”

Momen, who is Bangladeshi-American, traces her inspiration for this organization to her late uncle, who owned a garment factory and generously invested in his community. Women often make up 80 percent of the workforce in such factories, so the legally required on-site clinics offer a good avenue to reach them, she said. “Because women are working such long hours, they’re not necessarily going to go stand in line” at an overcrowded public clinic after work, she said.

Momen developed some of the strategy for The Now Exchange in a Fletcher class, Managing NGOs and Social Enterprises, with Professor Alnoor Ebrahim. The course challenges students to figure out what they can do well and how to scale it to make a bigger impact.

“This forces a team to get a lot of clarity on what they want to achieve and how they are going to do it and how they are going to hold their own feet to the fire for it,” Ebrahim said.

This summer, Momen and Bova, who is earning a master’s degree in international development policy at the Korbel School of the University of Denver, will work on the project in Bangladesh. They will identify a pilot factory, hire a business development director and health trainers, and teach health care workers how to administer the contraceptive and address broader issues of women’s health. Next year, they hope to add two or three more factories, each with about 300 workers.

Ebrahim, for one, is confident about The Now Exchange’s prospects.

“Farah and her team have been very clear and systematic in thinking this through,” he said. “I’m optimistic, both because of their clear thinking and because Farah is incredibly motivated.”

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu. Jim Sojourner, F20, contributed to this article.

GETTING THEIR START IN BUSINESS

Fletcher students excel in entrepreneurial contests because they are “very well-traveled and they are keenly aware of the granularity of the lives people live in different parts of the world, of the bottlenecks on the ground, sometimes logistical, sometimes cultural, and sometimes political,” said Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at Fletcher and executive director of the school’s Institute for Business in the Global Context. Student start-up groups “tap into the insights students have based on past experiences and past travels to solve complex problems.”

Beyond The Now Exchange, here are three Fletcher student projects that won awards this spring.

KISAAN

AWARD: $5K Second place, Social Impact Track, Tufts $100K New Ventures Competition.

TEAM MEMBERS: Aesclinn Donohue, F20; Mohammad Uzairi, F20.

MISSION: Kisaan (“Farmer”) is an asset-based microfinance product for farmers with small operations in Pakistan. It features flexible repayment schedules and allows participants to share the risk of new investments. It also complies with Islamic financial norms.

INDIAN SMART SOLAR MUNI+ FUND

AWARD: Finalist, Kellogg-Morgan Stanley Sustainable Investing Challenge.

TEAM MEMBERS: Joseph Craven, F19; Rob Fitzgerald, F19; Shrinal Sheth, F19; Arkady Ho, A07, F19.

MISSION: This leveraged private equity fund was designed to help improve air quality and increase renewable energy use by bundling municipal debt earmarked for solar projects.

SUSTAG4ALL

AWARDS: $5K Third place, Social Impact Track, Tufts $100K New Ventures Competition; Second place, 2019 Tufts Food and Entrepreneurship Competition.

TEAM MEMBERS: Cesar Diaz; Natalia Estrada; Jacquie Kay; Cyrena Thibodeau, N20; Luis Villegas, F19; Jacob Weiss, N20; Rockford Weitz, F02, F08, director and entrepreneurship coach of Fletcher Maritime Studies program.

MISSION: By providing access to knowledge, markets, and credit, SustAg4All helps avocado farmers in Colombia profit from sustainable agriculture practices.