In Kenya, just like many other Sub-Saharan African countries, pregnant mothers face the grim reality of losing their babies due to a lack of proper transportation to health facilities. Salome, a 27-year-old mother is one such case. On the 23rd of May at around midnight she started experiencing labour pains and her water broke at home. Having lost her first baby, she was determined to deliver her second baby safely so she dialed 1196 and Wheels for Life sent a taxi to take her to Huruma Nursing Home.

At Huruma Nursing Home, Salome’s labour was progressing poorly, Dr. “Jane” from Wheels for Life made a call to Rescue.co at 2.04 am requesting an ambulance to transfer Salome to Pumwani Maternity Hospital. The ambulance was dispatched four minutes later and completed her transfer in 17 minutes. Rescue.co had notified Pumwani of Salome’s condition and when she arrived she underwent an emergency cesarean section which saved both their lives. 

Speaking after her delivery, Salome credited the Wheels for Life initiative for her health and that of her baby, saying, “Were it not for this initiative, I would have walked to the hospital and am not sure the baby and I would have been fine. God bless the work of your hands that you may continue to help those in need.”

The Wheels for Life initiative is a collaboration between Rescue.co, the Ministry of Health Kenya, AMREF, Bolt, Pharmaccess Foundation,  Kenya Healthcare Federation, and Telesky that seeks to get expectant mothers to the hospital during curfew hours. As part of the initiative, a call centre managed by TeleSky has been set up that routes emergency calls to volunteer physicians. Calls that require an ambulance are directed to Rescue.co’s dispatch centre while those that can be handled by a taxi are dispatched to a Bolt taxi. 

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges women face to deliver their children. In Makueni County alone, there has been an increase in maternal mortality by a factor of 14,  with four deaths in one-week post-curfew versus 15 deaths in the previous year. The high numbers in mortality rates can be attributed to poor transportation and health facilities being reassigned for COVID-19 response, with some major public hospitals converting their maternity wards into Infectious Disease Units.

Since the Wheels for Life initiative began on April 28th, 2020, the team has fielded 3,714  calls, dispatched 198 taxis, and 60 ambulances. All of the women who have used this service have survived, and dozens of babies have been born. The calls have ranged in severity, with the most extreme ones being related to cord prolapses, hypertension, reduced fetal movement and distress, preterm labor, and severe bleeding pre and post-delivery. Their fast response rates have helped save the lives of an average of 8 mothers every night.

Caitlin Dolkart, Rescue.co Co-founder said the partnership with Villgro Kenya has given them the necessary support they need to continue saving lives.

 “We are thrilled to be working with Villgro to extend our Rescue.co services to those most in need. The grant will provide us funding to serve over 150 more mothers, and welcome 150 more babies into this world. This is one of those obvious solutions with unbelievable clear impact, and we will also use this funding to galvanise funding support from donors, the private sector, and the government.”

While the effects of the coronavirus pandemic are sure to remain with us for a long time, measures like the Wheels for Life initiative promise mothers the hope that regardless of the new normal they have a partner during their journey.

Digital innovations have shown their ability to provide quality, effective, and affordable health outcomes in the wake of the novel coronavirus. The power of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has been manifested in 3D printing technology for personal protective equipment (PPE), affordable ventilators built across the world from open-source platforms, and telemedicine, just to name a few.

In countries where innovation systems continue to remain fragile, there is a growing need to protect science, technology, and innovative products during and after COVID-19, as they have long-term implications for development strategies.

As a key ecosystem player, this is what Villgro Kenya and our incubatees are doing to contribute towards fighting the COVID-19 pandemic:

Our portfolio companies have not been left out in the fight against COVID-19:

Now more than ever, innovative startups need support to scale their products to ensure more people get access to quality healthcare. As Villgro Kenya, we continue to pledge our commitment to addressing the lack of access to quality and affordable health services and technologies in Africa.

With the COVID-19 pandemic running into the 2nd month since the first case was announced in Kenya, there has been a shift in the operations of startups and Small and Medium Enterprises. The rising cases coupled with government imposed restrictions on movement should however not spell gloom and doom to entrepreneurs.

While some businesses have been forced to shut down others have since pivoted their business models and operations to best suit the current times. The COVID-19 challenge has revealed a crop of new innovators who are designing solutions to meet the unexpected needs that have risen from the pandemic. This is a trend we can hope to see in the coming months with more innovations emerging within the healthcare, logistics, remote working solutions and productivity software sectors. For impact investors, this is an opportunity to acquire a new pipeline while continuing to provide technical assistance to entrepreneurs.

Even as the virus continues to spread startups can ensure they come out of the crisis stronger. To begin with they have to leverage their board of directors, advisors and mentors who may have been through past downturns and have seen various strategies that best work in these times. They can help the team think through various scenarios they can take to ensure the business survives.

As companies are re-evaluating their operations to reduce costs, salaries may have been the first item on the list. It is important for companies to reduce their cash-burn and increase their runway as much as possible. In the case where employees have been asked to take pay cuts, startups can consider trading cash for equity in the company. This will motivate the team as they feel they have a stake and believe in the vision for the company in the future.

Keep a lookout for opportunities your company can explore during this time. If there is a way you can pivot or change some of your core business to be part of a solution to the COVID-19 pandemic, grab the opportunity and do it. This will diversify your operations and provide a source of income. A good example is Kijenzi, a 3D printing company with a focus on hospital equipment that has taken to producing social distancing aids like touchless door openers and face shields among other PPE’s.

As you monitor the situation, there are numerous resources that are available for companies with solutions to the COVID-19 virus. Take advantage of this time to position your company as part of the solution and raise money towards fighting COVID-19. Startups can survive a time like this and if they are wise enough they can come out at the top. Ensure the safety of your employees and continue to follow government directives on social distancing and safety measures.

The Innovators Forum held on 28th February 2020 at the 7th Sankalp Africa Summit drew participants from Academia, policymakers, R&D funders, regulators, investors and entrepreneurs under the theme Harnessing the 4th Industrial Revolution (Hardware Innovations) to drive UHC in Africa.

The session hosted by Villgro Kenya focused on building a vibrant community and ecosystem for medical devices and diagnostics innovation and manufacturing in the region.

Fadhili Chacha CEO & founder Enzi Health (an on demand health service) and Stephen Tashobya CEO & Founder Wekebere (a prenatal diagnostic device) shared their innovation journey and how various partners helped move them to the next level to scale.

Participants were then encouraged and facilitated to reflect on their needs/goals, identify partnership opportunities that are immediately actionable and to network and pitch these opportunities.

The general consensus from the forum was that if we are to achieve UHC in Africa, we have to assess the immense potential the 4th Industrial Revolution has to drive it home and embrace partnerships as an avenue to accelerate our progress.

Villgro Kenya aims to impact not only innovative health start-ups but also grow the ecosystem in terms of growth in investments. In the second part of an interview with Paul Belknap, we gain insights on the need for more homegrown angel investments to catapult innovations within the ecosystem.

90% of capital injected into startups in East Africa comes from the West. While we have successful entrepreneurs within our borders they are wary to invest in start-ups and instead choose to invest in other sectors like real estate. This is majorly due to the lack of strong regulatory measures, unpredictable timelines and their traditional understanding of investment which makes investing in the innovations seem like throwing money into a hole.

Undoubtedly Kenya has been named as a frontier for innovations in Africa however, we still need to do more to show homegrown investors the value the world sees in innovation and convince them to put more money in the ecosystem to move the innovations to the next stage.

Q: Villgro Kenya has contributed to the health innovation ecosystem largely through its investments into early-stage companies and incubation programs. However, there is a gap in funding startups to scale, what can be done to mitigate this?

P: We can’t solve this problem by ourselves but one of the things that we saw in India was that there were so many more complementary sources of funding available for early-stage entrepreneurs. Government grants, angel investors and other grant funding/more investors with an early stage appetite, we need more of that.

One of the things Villgro Kenya has identified that we need to be able to fund startups to a greater extent in their journey than we needed to in India because there is a lack of complementary funding. On the order of $150k would help those companies move to the plate where they would start to match up with some of the investors that are more active in the ecosystem, some would come in the form of co-investment with early-stage investors as well.

Increasing our ability to fund companies and invest in companies is important but we can’t do it all by ourselves. If you look at things that Kenya & Uganda needs to work on, the government can play a role in terms of doing investments/grants into early-stage companies.

I don’t know that any government is great at investing in early-stage companies. The more successful ones have done a funds approach where they are allocated a set of resources and they pick management to do those investments for them.

There is a real need for more angel investment into startups in the ecosystem. Angel investment or the same individuals can consider investing in funds interested in tackling the pre-seed stage of funding under $150k- 500k.

I've talked to a few people who are frustrated with investors seeing real estate as the safe bet. Getting people excited into investing in entrepreneurship particularly the health sector seems to be lagging which is contributed by the fact that there have been very few successes in the health sector making people more cautious in investing into it.