Anna Cecilia Frellse: Much More than an Entrepreneur
Maternal mortality is one of the greatest health inequalities in the world. 99 % of the 800 women, who die every day of causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, live in low and middle-income countries. In addition, 14000 babies also lose their lives before, during or soon after birth. However, this global tragedy of maternal and newborn mortality can actually – in the vast majority of cases – be prevented. And it is not necessarily just about medical equipment and building big hospitals. The key to preventing maternal mortality is simple: The woman has a skilled birth attendant by her side when she gives birth. With the vision of “no woman should die giving life,” Maternity Foundation focuses on training midwives and other skilled birth attendants on how to handle life-threatening complications. Led by Anna Cecilia Frellse, CEO of the company, Maternity Foundation aims to reduce maternal and newborn mortality in low-and middle income countries.
A long Road
Anna joined Maternity Foundation in 2013, and her main focus has been on expanding Maternity Foundation’s global reach and impact by using innovation and technology as a driving force. It has been a transition for Anna, from a more traditional NGO working on the ground in Ethiopia to a global digital program across sub Saharan Africa and SE Asia.
Anna believes that their greatest challenge – which is probably also their greatest achievement – is finding the right model for Maternity Foundation in terms of how to bring our programmatic know-how to scale. “Our focus is on how to most effectively implement digital maternal and newborn health tools such as our Safe Delivery App into existing health programs. We work primarily through partners rather than setting up offices with our own staff in each of our priority countries – and this makes us exponentially able to reach many more skilled birth attendants with our trainings. So in many ways we have disrupted the traditional NGO way of operating,” Anna said. She also thinks working with multiple partners – including large NGOs, ministries of health, the UN etc. – in almost 20 different countries can obviously be challenging at times, for example in terms of striking the right balance between standardizing their services on a global level and adapting to the national guidelines and needs in their partner countries.
With every problem that anyone battles and wins, comes the achievement moment to cherish. For Anna, her greatest organizational achievement is probably building a strong team of almost 40 colleagues in Denmark, Ethiopia and the US. Also, she is proud of how they have established Maternity Foundation as a global player within the maternal and newborn health field. “This has been quite a journey! The first time we went to the UN General Assembly in New York five years ago we had to knock on many doors to get ourselves invited to meetings and events. This year, we were asked to present at UNFPA’s campaign event,” she added.
Focusing on Capacity Building
“While nearly every country and region have improved maternal and newborn health over the last two decades, girls and women – particularly in developing countries – continue to face significant risks during pregnancy and childbirth. Giving childbirth should NEVER be with the risk of losing your own life. That is a basic human right. That is why Maternity Foundation aims to ensure that no women and their newborns should risk their lives during pregnancy and childbirth regardless of where in the world they are,” shared Anna on the mission of Maternity Foundation.
Maternity Foundation’s approach is to focus on capacity building of health workers and midwives in developing countries – and to use innovative approaches and technologies to have the strongest possible outreach and impact. It has been working in Ethiopia for more than 10 years, building capacity of health workers and midwives and empowering women and their communities to seek skilled care during pregnancy and childbirth.
Implementing digital health tools
About five years ago, Anna and her team started exploring how to use the mobile revolution to reach even more skilled birth attendants – even in the most remote areas. It is her experience that at many health centers across low- and middle-income countries, there may not be electricity or running water, but the health worker will often have a mobile phone in his or her hand. “Hence, building on our programmatic expertise, we developed the Safe Delivery App in partnership with Copenhagen University and University of Southern Denmark. The Safe Delivery App includes simple, intuitive animated instructions that guide the health worker in how to handle childbirth emergencies. It includes quizzes, a description of practical procedures and drug lists that midwives and health workers can always refer to – either on the job, in their spare time or as part of their training,” Anna further added.
Today, the app has been downloaded over 55,000 times and is being used in more than 40 different countries, with Ethiopia, India, Ghana, Laos and Myanmar being some of Maternity Foundation’s focus countries. The team has also started working in emergency and refugee settings, currently in Ethiopia and Somalia.
Working Towards a Goal
Anna has a business background with an MBA from IESE, seven years as a consultant at Mckinsey & Company as well as the CEO of a startup. Anna’s competencies are broad and strategic rather than within a specific area of expertise. However, her team of Maternity Foundation is made of a group of very smart specialists – within medical and clinical areas, global health, development programs, communication and IT. Her role is to make sure that all these different areas of expertise work together to contribute to the same goal, which is to ensure a safer childbirth for mothers and newborns.
When asked how she manages to balance between professional and personal life, Anna answered, “That is always a tough one that I think most of us struggle with. For me the most important criteria is flexibility and that I get more energy out of my work than vice versa. In many ways my work place is global. Many meetings are Skype and I travel quite a bit, but when I am home, I prioritize to work from home at least one day a week and take many calls from home. This flexibility reflects the working culture at Maternity, where many of us have families and smaller children.”
Digital Learning will be the Key!
Going into next year, Anna believes digital learning holds a lot for the future in terms of tapping into the next generation of digital innovations, including VR, AR, AI etc. Furthermore, she considers herself proud to be a part of Maternity Foundation. Anna concluded by saying, “we have a huge potential in changing the way that health workers are training and how they can become better at handling emergencies during childbirth.”