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How wooden boxes are improving childcare in South Africa

Childcare in South AfricaPoor urban merchants set up open-air stalls on sidewalks and unused motorways in the lively urban center of Durban, South Africa. Their offerings range from cooked bovine heads to traditional indigenous medicines. Over half of these nearly 25,000 merchants are women; many have children or infants who spend their days alongside their working mothers. A simple convertible wooden box is easing the strains of childcare in South Africa for these street-vending mothers. They are balancing myriad responsibilities in an often chaotic environment.

Working Mothers

Mothers with newborn babies are among the most vulnerable of these working women. Street vendors are informally self-employed, so they do not receive paid maternity leave. They must bring their children to work with them if they want to subsist financially. However, this working environment includes hot stoves and endless flows of passing city-goers, among other safety hazards. The noise and pollution of the bustling urban street market disrupt activities like breastfeeding and putting children down for naps. Few spaces are safe for these children to spend time as their parent works.

Some mothers began to use their storage crates, customarily filled with their vending supplies during the night but empty during the day, as a place to rest their babies. This sparked an ingenious idea of alleviating the difficulties that mothers working on the street face. 

The Umzanyana

The organization Asiye eTafuleni, a South African non-profit that focuses on inclusive planning and design, took this use of the storage box one step further. The organization partnered with these women to design a convertible wooden box that met many of their needs as vendors and as mothers throughout the day. The storage box can transform to serve as a tabletop, a playpen, a changing station, or a crib. It includes padding, sheets, and even a mobile for the baby to engage with. It can provide privacy, shade, and noise reduction for the baby while maintaining its operationality as a tool for selling goods. 

The box was dubbed an “Umzanyana,” which translates from isiZulu to “umbilical cord.” This is quite fitting, as an umbilical cord and the box both serve as something that connects mother and baby, allowing the mother to provide for the child’s needs.

Technology and Poverty

Seemingly small innovations like this can make a massive difference in the daily lived experiences of impoverished communities. A few tweaks to a wooden box improved childcare in South Africa for both parent and child.

The Umzanyana solves convenience problems, making it easier for mothers to maintain their income while keeping their babies safely near them. Research shows that when mothers and babies can be together all day long, it leads to better sleep and breastfeeding for the baby and increased confidence for new mothers. The Umzanyana improves the lives of not only the mother but the child as well.

Organizations like Asiye eTafuleni continue to work alongside these communities, utilizing their unique insights to improve the lives of the most vulnerable through technology and urban design.

– Grace Ramsey
Photo: Flickr