Dusting Off My Inner Nerd

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By: Seth Cochran, Young Champion of Maternal Health

This blog post was contributed by Seth Cochran, one of the fifteen Young Champions of Maternal Health chosen by Ashoka and the Maternal Health Task Force at EngenderHealth. He will be blogging about her experience every month, and you can learn more about him, the other Young Champions, and the program here.

Like most engineers, I spent my youth either taking household electronics apart or playing with legos. Both activities exhibit a fascination with the simple pieces that make up more complex objects.

Surrounded by naked circuit boards, I no longer posses the desire to destroy a radio in search of understanding its components. In a former life as a finance guy, I let my inner nerd trade in the bucket of legos for a copy of Excel with every costing function you can imagine.

My name is Seth, and I’m a costing nerd.

Nothing can teach you more about a system than understanding the economics that make it tick. Not only can you see which parts of the system consume the most resources, but you can also determine where subsets of the system might have standalone viability.

This month of my placement has been about gathering up all I know about the EHAS network deployments and building a costing model that is dynamic enough to estimate a variety of new installations. In doing so, I have rounded out my technical knowledge of what makes an EHAS communications network. Broadly speaking we are talking towers, power and antennas. (For the record, I wish I knew a word for antenna that rhymed with power.)

In addition to scoping out what a network in the mountains might cost compared to one in the jungle, we can now see where we should focus our effort on cost reductions or in-kind donations of equipment. Every dollar we save in network costs is a dollar closer we are to building a network where health posts have no access to communications.

By understanding all the pieces, we also open up the possibility of extending the EHAS system to places where communications capability already exists. Why would someone need a communications network if they already have one? They don’t. But just because a hospital is within reach of a cell tower doesn’t mean they have electricity. In fact, one of the winners of the Healthy Mothers Strong World competition, WE CARE Solar, has developed an ingenious suitcase solar power system to specifically address the unmet need for power and they can’t fill orders fast enough.

While EHAS is in the business of communications, the brilliant engineering team has developed a clever solar power system to make their antennas work. But, the electricity this system creates could also be used to power head lamps or incubators or whatever else a rural hospital might need – just like WE CARE Solar but on a larger scale to meet higher power demands. So by fully embracing our cost nerdiness, we now have a firm grasp on the economics of the power portion of the EHAS system and can judge if it might work strategically on a standalone basis. This has direct relevance to places with limited electrical networks, but high mobile phone coverage (i.e. Africa).

Besides managing a $160 million budget and fully understanding costing, my former finance life also required me to think of creative ways to finance projects and transactions. So when Andres handed me a booklet on financing structures for social businesses and asked me to start working on a capital structure strategy to support EHAS growth, another part of my old self came out of hibernation.

This month has required me to dust off lots of my old private sector skills. Funny thing is that applying these skills to extend healthcare to people in need is much more exciting than making anonymous shareholders richer.