This International Women’s Day 2021 we’re celebrating the achievements and contributions of women working in health and care innovation, and helping increase their visibility across the sector.

Naomi Mwasambili, Co-founder and Chief Executive of Chanua, a healthcare innovation organisation aimed at improving outcomes in mental health through human-centred approaches complemented by technology, discusses her experiences as a Black female leader, the role of supportive mentors to break into the sector, and the importance of being open about personal experiences to help address health inequalities.

Chanua’s flagship programme, Neuro Champions, uses games and technology to create preventative and early intervention services for children and young people aged between eight and 25, which has been supported by the Innovation Agency, the AHSN for the North West Coast.

“I’ve been working in a wide range of areas across health and social care for over 14 years, and in most of my roles I’ve been working to drive innovation and service improvement. It’s challenging at times, but taking an idea and seeing it used and supporting people is the most rewarding experience.

“At Chanua we work on a range of health and care innovation projects and the diversity of the work means we continue to learn and share through our products. I enjoy that I’m able to work with like-minded people. When we see a challenge or problem we can rapidly come together to work on a solution. I’ve been able to travel the world to meet with other innovators and take part in projects where I have developed my skills, networks and contacts.”

Chanua’s latest innovation, Neuro Love, an online platform to help young people in care to manage anxiety and low mood while staying connected socially was recently awarded funding from the TechForce19 Challenge.

Supported by the AHSN Network, Techforce19 was set up during the first wave of the pandemic to support technology that could help vulnerable people isolated by COVID-19. Chanua was awarded £25,000 plus support from the Innovation Agency. The platform has recently expanded to support university students through the pandemic.

Meaningful initiatives

“It’s great to be able to work on challenges that are personal to us. Our collaboration with Inc Arts Minds has allowed us to provide culturally appropriate group therapy and mental health support to people who have experienced race related trauma in the arts and creative sector.

“Another project we lead through Chanua is the UK chapter of Hacking Health, where we run hackathons bringing healthcare innovators together to rapidly build digital solutions. We’re excited to be partnering with Love of the Game for a hackathon bringing sports professionals together to create solutions that prevent, diagnose and treat head injuries and concussion within sports.”

Breaking into the sector

“I would say to anyone wanting to get into health care innovation to go and find some supportive mentors who work in your area of interest, keep an open mind and take up any opportunity to learn.

“I am slightly frustrated with the ownership we take as women around being an impostor and imposter syndrome. You deserve to be where you are, and you have a lot to contribute. Believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who can bring enriching experiences into your life.”

Drawing on personal experiences

“Racism and sexism are real experiences and alongside my Chanua Co-founder, Megan Charles, and as two Black female leaders, it has been good to acknowledge and work through some of the challenges we have faced together.

“On a personal note, I recently went through a preterm pregnancy where I lost my son at 25 weeks. I experienced first-hand that care in the UK and in Tanzania (I was born in the UK of Tanzanian and Jamaican decent) needs innovation in this area. In the UK statistics show that Black women are five times more likely to die in child birth and 15% more likely to have a preterm birth. In Tanzania infant mortality is still at a high with resources including equipment, medicines and patient care needing innovation. I think it’s important for leaders to be open about their experiences and for me it is important to practice what I preach in relation to my own mental health and wellbeing. From my experience I set up Kimelo neonatal fund in memory of my son to support maternal and neonatal care and innovation in low income countries.”

Find out more about Naomi and how Chanua is addressing health inequalities in the first edition of the AHSN Network’s Diversity and Innovation magazine.