By Sambridhi Pandey
Not a lot of youth choose to invest their time in improving the daily lives of people in their local communities. The number is modest and among those modest names is Bonita Sharma from Nepal, whose story I am highlighting today.
Bonita is the co-founder and CEO of Social Changemakers and Innovators (SOCHAI). SOCHAI is a youth- led non-profit organization focused on improving health and nutrition of people, particularly women, children and girls through education, innovation and entrepreneurship. I recently came to know about the organization and was surprised and glad to find out such a young face behind the program.
SOCHAI is also a proud creator of two of its innovative products: Nutribeads (Nutrition bracelet) and Red Cycle (Menstruation bracelet). These are “low-tech wearable educational tools” that educates a mother or an adolescent girl about nutrition and menstruation. Through SOCHAI’s Buy One Give One Campaign every bracelet that you buy from the team will help them provide free bracelet and counseling to mothers and girls in rural communities.
Bonita’s journey towards this organization and her work began after she joined an undergraduate program in public health. She says her choice of this degree “opened her eyes to the realities she had never imagined”. Furthermore, traveling to different parts of Nepal made her understand the realities of the country, how people face challenges people to get access to something as basic as health and nutrition.
One particular incident ignited a fire in her. “While working in this sector, I found out about a mother who had lost her 2-month-old child because she did not know about appropriate timing for breastfeeding an infant. She was labeled a murderer and then forced to leave her own home. This incident hit me hard! I constantly thought about what life would have been like for both the mother and child had she known proper child feeding practices”.
After that, there was no turning back for Bonita. She was motivated to gather a young team to develop an idea to educate people about appropriate child feeding practices, a simple innovation called the Nutribeads bracelet. “When our simple idea started receiving amazing response, we got encouraged to reach out to hundreds more mothers and children, and then we formalized SOCHAI – Youth for Nutrition in January 2017.”
Many promising and hardworking non-profits hard find it tough to keep going in the long run and that is also one of SOCHAI’s major challenges. Bonita experienced similar situations and emphasized what she and the team are doing to tackle them. “Initially, we also faced setbacks in overall management of the company because growing up, we were never taught to be innovators, entrepreneurs and changemakers. We are never told about the ‘must know’ things for running a business at school or colleges unless we choose a business stream. Since most of our co-founders are from health/social background, we faced quite a few challenges at the beginning. Also, being a young team, sometimes people don’t take our idea/work seriously until they see the validation in the media.” Additionally, Bonita understands how working with the community itself is a challenge for SOCHAI because changing mindset and behavior takes time and the results are not immediately measurable.
From my personal research on the organization, I could see SOCHAI catering to women and young girls to strengthen their life and wellness. I am specifically dedicated to this topic and I asked Bonita what SOCHAI is doing in terms of helping Nepalese women especially in the marginalized areas to improve their situation. They lead interactive learning programs using various innovative tools for pregnant and lactating mothers at local health centers. Along with that, the non-profit is committed to running nutrition camps for school children and adolescent clubs. “We also conduct nutrition workshops for mothers’ groups and community health workers.”
In regards to what impacts has SOCHAI made so far, Bonita answered, “I am extremely proud to see the innovative and leadership skills come out from young minds in different nooks and corners of our country. I am very proud to see a mother feeding her baby correctly and father, mother-in law supporting in the process.” She added, “by informing and engaging women, children, girls and elderly to improve their nutrition we are getting a step closer to our mission to break the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition.”
Now SOCHAI looks like a non-profit that can go a long way and keep bringing promising impacts, so I was curious to know if SOCHAI has long term strategic plans. When I asked Bonita, she gave a zestful reply. “Of course, we do!” That is relieving to learn. “We will be taking our product and services hand in hand in both rural and urban areas and establish a sustainable business model. Secondly, we will create a platform for young people to engage meaningfully. We will also be working with various community groups for overall socio-economic development. These are just a few things that I mentioned. We have a lot more in the pipeline.”
As a Nepali young citizen, myself, I was inspired to learn what Bonita is doing. The fact that she knows what she is doing is even more impressive because many young people are still indecisive of their life choices. Meanwhile, Bonita challenges the status quo by leading an organization like SOCHAI and putting all the efforts to build a better community. I wondered what working towards creating an impact is like and how one keeps going when you do not get accounted for what you do, especially speaking from the context of Nepal.
To give away my curiosity, I asked her the question, what inspires her to keep going. She said, “the thing that inspires me immensely is the small positive changes that I see in the community. It is heartwarming to see people making an effort to change their behavior regarding their health and nutrition after attending out community-based learning programs. A mother wearing the Nutribeads bracelet and feeding her baby accurately is inspiring for me. A young adolescent girl speaking up against menstrual taboos is inspiring!”
She also added, “besides this, the encouragement and recognition that I have been receiving motivates me to keep doing what I do. Winning 2 international competitions (UNICEF Asia Pacific Youth Innovation Challenge and Lead 2030 Challenge) and the constant support from my mentors, friends, family are icing on the cake.”
Simply getting to know Bonita’s story evokes a sense of responsibility in us, majority of the youth, the future of Nepal. It prompts us that change occurs from each one of us no matter how small steps we take and we are responsible. Thus, we should start looking into the kind of future we imagine for ourselves, the next generation and the nation itself while taking a step forward towards that vision in our own unique ways.