Can Vending Machines Make Healthier Babies?

An innovative program in India aims to find out.

A shipment of multivitamins is loaded into a Stargazers vending machine. (Photo: Stargazers Foundation)

Jul 29, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Danielle Beurteaux is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, American Profile, Health, and CNN.

Put some coins in the slot, get something you want: The vending machine is an ingeniously simple way to distribute everything from Cokes to iPods. No salespeople or even stores required. So why not use the same gadgets to distribute medicine in places with no doctors?

That was the inspiration that struck Miniya Chatterji, an Indian-born former hedge fund manager who founded The Stargazers Foundation, a nonprofit focusing on women’s health and education. Countless remote Indian villages lack both health care workers and medicines, says Chatterji. “There are government programs which are supposed to provide doctors [for rural communities], but nobody actually comes,” she says.

On a trip to the state of Andhra Pradesh in 2011, Chatterji was shocked by the sorry state of the community centers for women’s health built by the government in the 1970s. They were crumbling, with paint peeling off the walls, and empty of the promised medical and educational resources. Chatterji saw an opportunity: With funding from RLabs, a South African nonprofit, she launched a program to renovate some of the centers and use them as a home for her vending machines.

The first of the machines was installed in February in a renovated center in Nizambad, in south-central India. Each machine is solar-powered—critical because electricity is unreliable at best in the villages—and comes equipped with a telemetric chip that alerts suppliers when products run low.

The products are basic but crucial: multivitamins, sanitary napkins, and condoms. Why vitamins? Because they don’t require a prescription but can help with a major health problem: anemia in pregnant women. Almost 60 pregnant of pregnant women in India suffer from anemia, which is caused by a lack of iron and folic acid, according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The condition can lead to premature births and low birth weights—which can in turn result in babies dying before their first birthday.

The vitamins are free—Bafna Pharmaceuticals, India’s largest drug company, provides them to Stargazers at cost. The sanitary napkins and condoms are sold for a nominal fee. “In these villages, your reproductive life is not in your hands,” says Chatterji. “This way women are in control of when they want to get pregnant.”

Dr. Dileep Mavalankar, director of the Indian Institute of Public Health–Gandhinagar, believes the machines could make a difference but says they could also fall victim to India’s hot, dusty climate. An earlier government initiative to provide condoms via vending machines failed, he says, because the machines weren’t maintained. There’s also the hurdle of convincing women to take the supplements, he says, because many don’t think they need them.

Stargazers has so far installed machines in four community centers and says around 80 women are using them each day. The foundation is working on a biometric system for fingerprint identification to control dosage, but for now the machines are on an honor system. Chatterji says it’s working well. “We’ve created this system which is completely automated," she says. If her pilot program succeeds, better maternal health could become as easy to get as a candy bar.