Idea seeks to nourish families worldwide

Western students Harnoor Minhas, Michelle Gao, Pranavi Cheemakurti and Linda Bao have worked together to create MilkyWay, a social enterprise focusing on providing affordable and accessible breast milk to marginalized communities in an attempt to eliminate infant mortality and empower families.

Paul Mayne // Western NewsWestern students Harnoor Minhas, Michelle Gao, Pranavi Cheemakurti and Linda Bao have worked together to create MilkyWay, a social enterprise focusing on providing affordable and accessible breast milk to marginalized communities in an attempt to eliminate infant mortality and empower families.

Led by a team of Western students, a new social enterprise focused on providing affordable and accessible breast milk to mothers and children in need hopes to improve infant mortality rates and empower families worldwide, according to the organization’s founders.

MilkyWay – created by Social Science students Harnoor Minhas, Michelle Gao, Pranavi Cheemakurti and Linda Bao – seeks breast milk donations from women across North America and then distributes the milk to those mothers and children who need it the most.

While the company has yet to ship its first batch, MilkyWay has gained traction in the last three months having taken part in a Hult Prize competition in San Francisco, participated in a W5 entrepreneurial pitch contest and worked with Propel Entrepreneurship, as well as spoken with venture capitalists, non-governmental organizations and Enactus Western.

“The more we worked on it, the more we found it was almost globally applicable to launch, with refugees in so many communities around the world,” Cheemakurti said. “There is a lot of leg work to be done before we send that first batch out; we are in the process of figuring out the partnerships and financing to get started.”

While a handful of breast milk donation programs exist in some Canadian hospitals, it is not a mainstream concept, Cheemakurti stressed.

“They’re not having much of an impact with lack of funding,” the Bachelor of Management and Organizational Studies student added. “So, by starting milk banks separate from the hospitals, we want to be able to help those who need it – Canada or around the world.”

The most challenging part of the initiative was not convincing people to donate, but the cultural stigma in some developing communities around religion or culture. “That has been the most time-consuming, to get people to accept the donated breast milk,” Cheemakurti said. “By partnering with non-governmental organizations, they give us credibility.”

While certain non-governmental organizations are currently helping marginalized communities through the distribution of infant formula, MilkyWay is working on substituting the formula with the donated breast milk, packaged in Tetra Paks, allowing for a six-month shelf life.

The use of unsanitary or unsafe water supplies to make the formula in some developing countries is another potential problem MilkyWay can address through using the donated breast milk.

“The biggest thing for us was getting the facts as to why breast milk is better than infant formula. Once we did this, and explained it to those we pitched to, they understood the need for our product,” said Minhas, a first-year Political Science student. “Over the last century or so there has been a shift from breast milk to formula, especially in developing counties. It’s a big social norm we are tackling – a lot has to do with developing world women thinking formula is better.”

The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding as the best choice for babies, helping to defend against infections, prevent allergies and protect against a number of chronic conditions. It is suggested babies breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and, beyond that, continue until at least two years or longer, if mother and baby are willing.

“With the nongovernmental organizations providing the formula, they may be perpetuating the idea that formula is good. So, we hope to change that to a more natural process for them.”

Milky Way has grown beyond its initial social enterprise competition pitch into something the students realize is needed to help those who can’t speak for themselves – the infants.

“We’ve spent so much time on this, we’ve developed a passion and an attachment to it, and we want to actualize in real life, beyond competitions, on our own,” said Bao, a first-year Economics student. “We’re now looking for partners and a possible pilot study here in London. We have the intention of keeping this going and we’re excited to see what will happen as the opportunities continue to grow.”