Eugene: Hungry, eager to learn, conscientious.
Thomas: Inventive, warm and confident.
How did you come up with the idea for your company? What inspired you?
Thomas: It all started with us meeting a few years back and interestingly, I met Eugene online actually. There was a call for a project from UNICEF. They were trying to transport blood samples by drones. I was really interested and created a questionnaire asking „Hey, who wants to help me? I’d like to send in a proposal for this project.“ and sent this questionnaire out to the world. Eugene replied. That’s how we met and we’ve been working on drone applications together since then. In 2016, UNICEF announced that they were opening a drone testing corridor in Malawi, which is Eugene’s home country. We started thinking about what we could do with this drone corridor and we had a very practical apporach: We thought in Malawi there are a lot of children – maybe we could do something around children and drones and create an application. We did not have a proper idea yet. However, at the same time, Eugene told me there’s a lot of problems with malnutrition and giving birth out in remote areas of the country. We felt this was a problem nobody was really thinking about and we realized, there’s a lot of women who could benefit from drone technology. And they’re not being addressed.
When was the idea of MamaBird actually born? Was there a certain moment when you said: This is it! This is something we can actually turn into a project?
Eugene: Ever since we met, we have always been thinking about what we can do with an application to use drone technology for a good cause. Early 2017, we then started talking about our „children and drone idea“ but we actually only came up with the formulation of what we want to do for the women and children in Malawi a few months later around September 2017.
You both come from a tech background. Did that help you in the process of coming up with a technical solution to something that is actually a social problem?
Thomas: That’s correct. We started from the technical standpoint thinking that we have this knowledge about how to use and operate drones. And then in a second step we came up with this hypotheses that drones could be used for a good cause, solving a social problem, like for example malnutrition of newborn babies as well as childbirth itself. In a next step, we wanted to see what the reaction would be with people. We decided to go to different Social Entrepreneurship events around Washington D.C. and we found out that there is a lot of women working and engaging in this sector. I would even say it was an eye opener for us when we realized that in the Caring Sector there is mostly women. Meeting these women was not only a great inspiration for us but they started introducing us to a lot more of – let me call them – women’s issues that we weren’t even aware of.
You said that there is mostly women working in the care or healthcare sector. Do you feel that you could actually become some sort of male ambassadors to bringing more Technical Solutions into female dominated industries, such as the care sector?
Thomas: Definitely. And I don’t think it is limited to healthcare. I think it’s actually open to any space were women are not being taken into consideration as well as it should be. I remember reading maybe a year or two ago that in the gaming industry, where a lot of the designers of games are males, they are desiging their games towards males only. And they are missing out on all the games that women or girls girls would love to be playing. It is a huge market that was completely untapped just because the designers are males even though women are just as likely to enjoy games. And that is just one example of many.
The initial start of your project was going out to lots of events, getting a lot of ideas and inspirations. How did you actually start working on MamaBird and what were the first steps since September?
Eugene: The first steps would have been meeting up with organizations that work in that sector like Save the Children or UNICEF and finding out if they feel like our solution would be effective to some of the problems they try to address. And, of course, if it would be something that they would value. Bascially, we were saying that we have a solution we can develop as a service and asking them how they felt about it. Save the Children were particularly excited and are willing to do a pilot with us sometime this year. Because the problem of how to reach certain areas in Malawi is a big one and they feel like if a solution is innovative and cutting edge and solving a problem like that, they’d be willing to test it. We really appreciate that there are organisations that are open minded to new approaches to solve old problems. This is an amazing opportunity for new innovations from small companies like us.
Thomas: Also, the starting point for us was to making up a list of skills that we have concerning drones. Eugene and I both have our own previous or current businesses that we run parallel to developing MamaBird. Eugene is operating drones in Malawi for mapping applications and I’m on the manufacturing side making software and hardware for drones. I don’t want to get into too many technical details here. Building this list of skills helped us realizing that we already have a good set of both building the drones and the operational part. What we’ve been doing since September is making sure that we can build a technology, that there’s some first traction and what we’re working on is actually interesting for the beneficiaries out there in the remote areas.
There is one question I have to ask since you are an all male team at the moment. Do you plan on bringing women on board as a co-founder or how are you going to structure your team to obviously become a more diverse team, especially since you are catering to an all-female audience?
Eugene: One of the things that I’ve seen at home in Malawi when I’m flying drones is that the perception of science and technology, especially emerging technologies like drones, are seen as male driven. One time I was flying drones with my cousin, he is an engineer, and he brought his two daughters at the age of 5 and 3. His wife was there as well and she was saying: „Wow, these girls are so excited, if they were boys I would immediatly buy them toy drones.“ And I was just thinking why they had to be boys? Why couldn’t she buy her daughters a drone to play with? She is a very educated woman and you can probably imagine this situation happening in rural areas. Now we are of course asking ourselves: What if we create a solution to not only solve a problem for women but also have the women work with the application? For example: A woman has a tablet and calls for a drone, the drone lands and she takes the package off the drone and sends the drone back on its way again. This is something that has never been heard of in remote areas of Malawi, or other countries in Africa for that matter. We feel that we can actually create a whole ecosystem that says: Women can be in the forefront of a technology that is created for them, that is solving their problem. That’s what we had in the back of our mind since. And it goes even further: When girls in the villages see their Moms working with drones bringing things to the villages this has the potential of changing the mindset of a whole generation: If my mom who didn’t go to school can intercact with this technology that is changing our lives, then we can do it as well. That opens their horizons. We are looking at both aspects, delivering the solution on the one hand but also changing the mindsets. And it shouldn’t be a bunch of guys to do the latter, it has to be steered by women. And we are circeling around the answer: Yes, we definitely have plans to bring women on board so that we can also push this side of it.
Thomas: And there is also definitely some things that we as men are not capable of seeing and by bringing a woman on the team we feel like this will really help compensate for the skills we don’t have.
You have actually already answered my next question with your answer. I was going to ask what your project is doing for female empowerment.
Eugene: Our project is, of course, delivering a solution to solve a female problem but we also want to help women in Malawi and other countries around the world to educate young girls and women to not be afraid of technology tools. And also educate parents in terms of „You don’t have to buy drones only for boys when girls most likely would be interested in playing with them as well?“
What would be your advice for other men to support female empowerment?
Thomas: We see it as obvious that we need to include everybody because women count for 50% of the population. If you’re ignoring women you are missing out on a lot of opportunities, you are closing yourself up. Everybody bringS something different to the table and I think it’s important to include all points of view.
Eugene: And for us, being part of this specific accelerator, we are getting the female perspective on impact, on our business model and many other things we wouldn’t have known about from our previous businesses and our past experience. It is really opening our eyes.
What are the next steps?
Thomas: Our next steps for MamaBird is testing out a prototype over in Malawi going to the UNICEF drone testing Corridor hopefully starting a small service within the corridor. That would mean multiple drones flying everyday. But also getting some operational feedback, seeing what we need to improve technically and operationally, the people we need to get in contact with over there. How we get to spread the word out and then hopefully expand to the rest of Malawi. We think with maybe 10 to 20 centers in Malawi we can cover the whole country so that’s going to be what we will be focusing on in the in the coming months and in the coming years.
Eugene: We see what we plan to do now as a starting point with the nutrition package and the birth kits. But we already feel we are just scratching the surface and there is a lot more we can do. Things that we don’t even know about right now. We are constantly learning. For example, at an event someone told us that Finland hast he lowest birth rate in the world because they invented the baby box. There are a lot of solutions out there, most of them are local and the key is to bring them out to the world. There is a lot of possibilities. We are keeping our eyes open.
One last question – how did you come up with the name MamaBird? Was it a long brainstorming process or did it just occur to you at one moment?
Thomas: We did think about it for a while. But we realized everybody loves their moms and people are going to be able to relate to that. Plus, Eugene and I listen to a lot of of Hip-Hop music and singers do sing a lot about mama in that kind of music. We felt that it had this universal appeal of somewhat comforting. And we thought that we are bringing this strange technology with propellers, it’s flying, it looks a little dangerous perhaps – so we wanted something a little bit more reassuring. That is basically the thought behind MamaBird.
Eugene: Also, drones tend to have scary or just very technical names, for example „The Hawk“, „WHX-12“ or „Falcon X“ so we felt we should go for something more warm. We thought about moms and how they make us feel comfortable.
Thank you very much for your time!
The interview was conducted by Christina Richter from FIELFALT, the community and blogazine for female empowerment. FIELFALT wants to encourage women to leave their comfort zones to dare something and to achieve their goals and realize their dreams.