What I learned from… A Box of Birth Control

A guest post from Kristen Sissener, @kristensissener of Paired Air.

On a frosty January morning in 2013, I was sitting at a cafe in Berkeley, California discussing the fate of a box of donated birth control over a very early breakfast. After many months of outreach, networking and proposal submissions, we had succeeded in securing a donation from an organization in Europe for a small independent clinic in Nicaragua. The paperwork was all ready to go, and now the only thing left to do was get the box from Amsterdam to a small village outside of Managua, Nicaragua. Simple enough.

The course of the conversation is probably familiar to most anyone working in aid or development:

-Our next outbound crate isn’t scheduled for another 3-4 months at least.

-The expiration date clock is tick tick ticking. Can’t wait that long.

-The shipment size is not large enough to qualify for logistics support from other organizations.

-FedEx/DHL, right? Nixed by the donor as (understandably) too risky. Also: expensive.

-Funds currently are not available to purchase the supplies in this quantity from other distributors/manufacturers.

-And oh-by-the-way, it’s really important that we get these to the clinic ASAP, please and thank you.

And there we were. With our coffee, eggs, and a box of vital, valuable donated medication stuck in Amsterdam.

We live at a moment in time characterized by the relentless development of new technologies: medical technologies, communication technologies, clean energy technologies. The list goes on, and grows longer by the day if not the hour. But all of these well-intentioned technologies – simple or complex, high-cost or inexpensive, fail if we can’t get them to the people that need them most (for a more in depth, if not critical, read on this subject, see Hugh Whalan’s 2014 article in Fast Company). It’s true that the real challenge of remote delivery often involves the so called “last mile”, and to anyone working in field locations this is an all too familiar reality. But what if we can’t even get the product into the country, safely, securely and cost-effectively?

At a time when we are inundated by technological advancements, the solution that occurred to me that morning was incredibly simple in all of its analog glory: people. Over 2 million people travel by plane to international destinations every day. Assuming conservatively one checked bag each per passenger, that’s a potential 2 million “packages”, or 40 million kg of potential cargo space that could be used to carry these urgent supplies and donations…every single day. The practice of packing aid supplies and donations in extra luggage space is already widely practiced. What if we could somehow network the greater world of humanitarian (and other) travelers to help offset this expensive and debilitating shipping burden facing organizations working around the world?

PairedAirAlmost a year after that breakfast meeting I received a call from a contact at a pharmaceutical distributor. He had over $100,000 of medications expiring in 6 months that he could not resell, and did I know of any organizations that could use them? It took about 4 weeks, but I found a recipient, and after a number of back and forths and long email threads, we came to discover that the medications had already been destroyed by the manufacturer. Faced with all of the potentially messy complications of shipping, receiving, customs, etc, they decided it was cheaper and easier to simply destroy the medication rather than trying to donate and redistribute. It was crystal clear to me in that moment that it was time to create a better solution.

What I learned from that box of birth control on that frosty morning two years ago is that sometimes all of the technology and all of the science in the world is nothing compared to the power of people. Twitter, Uber, Airbnb, D.Light and others…these brilliant technologies are nothing without the people behind them.  Paired Air, our shipment exchange platform, is the product of that profound realization I had that morning. Yes we are in the business of developing a piece of technology, few companies today are not. But ultimately our mission is cultivate the power of people, bringing us all together with the intention of making the world a better place. Yes we are just getting started, and yes there are still problems that need solutions, solutions that all the technology in the world can’t solve…but people can. And we will.


KristenKristen is the founder of Paired Air, an online platform designed to connect humanitarian travelers with aid organizations to help facilitate the delivery of vital supplies to areas of crisis and need. She previously served as an advisor for Clinica Verde, a sustainable clinic for women and children in rural Nicaragua. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, with dual degrees in Molecular Biology and English Literature. You can read more about Paired Air here, on PIN.

To contribute to the “What I learned from…” PIN Blog Series, just send 3-500 words to us at practicalinitiatives@gmail.com, include a photograph of yourself, or if you’d prefer to remain anonymous, send us a topical photo you’ve taken. Include any useful links and we’ll get back to you. You can read more about the series here: Call for Contributions!


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