It's my business to think up ways to put new technology to good use. When everybody wanted an email account and websites were rare, it seemed logical to me and my brothers that everyone would also soon want a website. We initially thought about creating a web design service but were turned off by the idea that we would have to build websites for people one by one. It was really hard to imagine how that could scale up. So we took a different approach and instead built a DIY product called webs.com that made it easy for everyone to create their own website. That product struck a chord and today over 50 million people have created websites on our platform.
A society cannot advance if half of its population lacks education, health care, legal rights, or other benefits long available to men.
Several other tech products followed that, and I'm now working on investing in and helping scale up promising consumer web and mobile startups. The companies and products I get involved in tend to share two common characteristics: they address the root causes of a problem, and they can scale rapidly. And while my focus has been primarily on technology companies, I've been spending a lot of time recently thinking about one of the lowest-tech problems around: maternal and infant mortality.
My mother is Turkish and my father is Afghan. They met at the University of Maryland, and went to Afghanistan to build a life together after they got married. Things were going well until my mother gave birth to her second child. The doctor who delivered the baby failed to use sterile scissors to cut the umbilical cord and the baby girl died of an infection weeks later.
She was an older sister I never got to meet. My mother vowed never to have another child in Afghanistan, and my other siblings and I were born safely elsewhere. But that loss still haunts me. Such a simple thing, clean scissors – and only one of many low-tech shortfalls that have made Afghanistan one of the worst places on earth to be a mother or a newborn baby.
Similar inadequacies, mostly in the developing world kill some 287,000 women per year - 800 per day - and almost five million newborns every year: lack of electricity, lack of clean water, lack of caregivers trained to spot emergencies, and doctors equipped to treat them. And those dilemmas arise only if there is an operating and accessible clinic nearby, and only if the woman can get to that clinic over roads that are unreliable and distances that are often treacherous.
These deaths are horrible in and of themselves, but are also connected to a broad range of health, economic and political issues in the developing world. In fact, the infant mortality rate is one of the best predictors of state failure. There are countless approaches to improving maternal health and infant mortality rates including better sanitation, access to clean drinking water, and immunization against infectious diseases. . But as I studied the issue, I found that one of the most effective approaches is often the least discussed.
As it happens, one of the best ways to reduce maternal and infant mortality is to simply empower girls and women to control when they become pregnant through voluntary family planning. While some people may think of family planning as too controversial to be viable at scale, the truth of the matter is that an estimated 220 million women worldwide already want access to contraceptives but can't get them, largely because of barriers to production and distribution.
Meeting this need for voluntary family planning would result in 79,000 fewer pregnan¬cy-related deaths and 1.1 million fewer infant deaths per year. Family planning allows younger women to delay having children until their bodies are more mature, it allows families to space their children, and to limit their total number of births, conferring all sorts of benefits including improved maternal and child health, increased education, women's social empowerment, more financially secure families, and even the economic growth of nations. I saw this impact firsthand on a recent trip to Uganda where I met a woman who - as a direct result of spacing her children – was able to spend significantly more time cultivating her land. Within a short period of time she was selling a variety of crops, and had not only improved the standard of living for her family, but had also earned enough money to send her two eldest children to good boarding schools.
From an ROI perspective, investment in family planning is extremely efficient. Every $1 invested in improving women's access to family planning services saves up to $4 that would otherwise be spent treating complications arising from unplanned pregnancies, as well as other development costs, including an average of $2.64 in education, $0.25 in immunization, $1.02 in water and sanitation, and $1.68 in maternal health. Given this incredible opportunity one would expect an outpouring of support for global access to contraception. But donor assistance dedicated to family planning has dropped dramatically in absolute dollars since the mid-1990s, and many countries are simply not investing enough to support the family planning needs of their people.
Entrepreneurs are problem solvers at their core. We like challenges and often experience them as opportunities. The developing world is full of such challenges and offers the opportunity to dramatically improve the lives of millions of people. Perhaps one of the most scalable, efficient, and impactful starting points is to target the field of voluntary family planning services. If we can make a serious dent in just this one problem, we will see a tremendous impact on the wellbeing of current and future generations of people all over the world. Let's get started.
Haroon Mokhtarzada, a member of the United Nations Foundation's Global Entrepreneurs Council, is CEO and Co-Founder of Webs, and Vice President of Digital Products at VistaPrint.