For SOCHAI’s Bonita Sharma, satisfaction isn’t just winning awards and earning accolades; it’s seeing new mothers wearing their Nutribeads, and girls breaking the silence around menstruation by donning their Redcycle bracelets
Mention the word "innovation" and images of cutting edge technology and the latest advancements in artificial intelligence immediately come to mind.
But Bonita Sharma, a 28-year old social entrepreneur and innovator from Kathmandu, has shown that innovation need not always be driven by top-notch technology; that, sometimes, a simple yet creative idea can have an equally meaningful impact.
Bonita's non-profit organization, Social Changemakers and Innovators (SOCHAI), which she runs with her fellow young volunteers, has recently come into the limelight for creating innovative educational tools. One such device is their Nutribeads bracelet (or Poshan Maala in Nepali) which, through its colored beads, reminds new mums about what to feed their babies in the first two years of their lives – all in an attractive and fun way.
Likewise, another menstrual bracelet called Redcycle the non-profit has designed helps adolescent girls understand and track their monthly periods. It’s a novel idea in a country where menstruation is still a social and religious taboo.
Bonita designed these informative and affordable tools with her fellow co-founders Neha Malla, Manjita Rajpadhyay and Aasutosh Dhoj Karki at SOCHAI, and together they have proved how a low-cost and low-tech wearable device can be used effectively to educate and improve the health of women, adolescent girls and new-born children, at the grass-roots level.
These noteworthy interventions, coupled with her tireless activism to end the devastating consequences of malnutrition in the country, have not only brought Bonita national recognition, but also earned her international renown. Last month she was named among the 100 inspiring and influential women from around the world for 2019 by the BBC for "driving change on behalf of women everywhere."
So who (or what) was the main driving force behind Bonita's extraordinary achievement?
The young innovator simply says that her mother's unwavering resolve to obtain higher education despite social barriers and hardships was what taught her the value of education. It inspired her to help educate and empower women and girls in Nepal through youth-led advocacy, innovation and social entrepreneurship.
However, it was really the tragic story of a mother accused of murdering her own child that she heard about while working with local women in Lubhu, Lalitpur, that made her realize the disturbing consequences of poor knowledge about proper nutrition, health and hygiene. These problems abound in various communities in the country, and Bonita felt the urgent need to come up with fresh and creative solutions to resolve them.
According to the local women, a young mother in their locality had mistakenly fed her two month old baby boy cashew nut paste, hoping it would make him healthier. Unfortunately, the paste got stuck in his throat, and the baby died soon after. The mother was entirely blamed for the tragedy by her family. She was labeled a murderer, forced out of her own home and remains ostracized by the community.
"I was really distressed by the story,” says Bonita, who has a Masters' Degree in Food and Nutrition from Tribhuvan University. “I thought about the lack of awareness about proper child feeding and nutrition that still prevails in Nepal in this day and age. And if this was so close to the capital, what’s the situation like in remote areas of the country?”
For Bonita, this incident was a clarion call to her team; it prodded her to devise a novel solution to enhance knowledge about nutrition in rural communities. Then, after much deliberation, Bonita and her friends came up with the idea of bracelets to raise awareness about the importance of nutritious food for newborn babies, as well as about the significance of menstrual health.
In Nepal, 37 percent of children under 5 years suffer from chronic malnutrition which results in stunting. Bonita wants to change the appalling situation of extreme malnutrition that remains a major public health concern through her activism, in line with Sustainable Development Goal 2- Zero Hunger, which aims to end all forms of hunger and malnutrition by 2030.
"We at SOCHAI are trying to end the irreversible and inter-generational cycle of malnutrition by helping improve the overall health of women, children and adolescent girls. And we are complimenting this effort of ours by further supporting them to develop income generating skills in small scale agriculture, handicraft and local food production," she says, a spark of determination in her eyes.
Besides the recognition from the BBC, the idea of Nutribeads has also won the Asia Pacific Youth Innovation Challenge organized by UNICEF in 2016. The educational programmes Bonita now runs in rural communities—where she actively markets the bracelets—have been awarded funding from the UNESCO Malala Fund for Girls' Right to Education. In 2019, SOCHAI was declared the winner of the Lead 2030 Challenge for Sustainable Development Goal 2 - Zero Hunger, and chosen as one of the most impactful youth-led solutions from among 1200 applicants from 100 countries.
But more than the prizes, awards and accolades, Bonita says that it is when she goes to rural communities and sees new mums wearing Nutribeads bracelets to adopt proper child feeding practices, and finds adolescent girls sporting Redcycle to break the silence around menstruation, that she gets real satisfaction and pleasure. That what she and her team have done has indeed made a real difference in the lives of marginalized women and communities.