The panelists included representation from various players along the innovation value chain (from inventor to funder to innovation support organisations to end user) and included Emmanuel Kamuhire (CEO and Founder of A-Lite), Nicholas Colloff (Executive Director of the Argidius Foundation), Naom Monari (Founder and CEO of Benacare), Lubyayi George (Orthopaedic Officer at Wellspring Children’s Medical Centre), Wilfred Njagi (Co-Founder and CEO of Villgro Africa), and David Higgins (Investment Lead at J&J Impact Ventures). They were led by moderator Watau Gaita (Senior Manager New Business Development - Africa, BroadReach Group).
The panel gathered to discuss the challenges faced by healthcare systems in Africa, as well as solutions that can be implemented to address them. The audience was asked what barriers they face in their own countries when it comes to accessing healthcare and identified lack of funding, long queues and follow-ups, poor data quality, lack of price transparency between insurance and providers, and affordability of quality care.
The challenges faced in the African health sector can be found both on the customer side as well as the supplier side. Patients have challenges accessing healthcare and, simultaneously, practitioners and healthcare innovators often face barriers when it comes to providing quality care to the populations they are trying to reach.
“Healthcare is not accessible if it’s not affordable, even if it’s next door.” – Noam Monari
On the patient side, Wilfred Njagi spoke about the three common delays to accessing healthcare. The first is deciding to get care, which can be hindered by financial issues or a lack of income. The second is the distance between where a patient is and where they can actually receive healthcare. The third delay happens when a patient arrives at a facility and discovers that the necessary equipment, supplies, medications, etc. are not available. Each of these delays can lead to serious adverse outcomes. There are many things in life that can benefit from a delay or break, but healthcare is not one of them.
On the supply side, the panel discussed the need for regulatory standardisation across national borders, especially in relation to the invention and manufacturing of medical devices (such as A-Lite's work). Villgro Africa has supported our incubation companies by mapping out the regulatory landscape to provide a roadmap for each individual country. Villgro can also play a role as a convener and aggregator to bring different stakeholders together to harmonise regulations, although this is a more long-term effort.
Naom Monari spoke about the challenges related to ensuring the health workers who are supplying home care as a part of BenaCare's work have good bedside manner and other soft skills. Although the nurses they hire are well-equipped with technical skills, home-based care is incredibly personal and soft skills are often not included in the curricula of nursing and medical schools.
Both Benacare and A-Lite are offering services that increase access to affordable, quality healthcare. Benacare is bringing quality healthcare into people's homes. A-Lite has developed a non-invasive, affordable hardware device that helps clinicians access veins for intravenous cannulation. End users, like Lubyayi George's clinic, will benefit from devices like these. These types of innovations present exciting opportunities for both end users and funders.
When it comes to innovations that get financial support, funders are looking for ventures that will have a return on investment (that return will be either financial, impact related, or both depending on the type of funder). In the case of J&J, David Higgins shared that they want to invest in offerings that have sustainable business models, including a price point that is accessible to underserved populations, and businesses that have a high calibre and quality team.
“I come from Europe and we have what I would regard as bloated health systems that are not always the most efficient. I think I’ve seen and spoken to entrepreneurs in this continent that are developing solutions that I think are going to deliver solutions within this continent but they’re also going to deliver solutions that are going to be effective globally. I would love to think that are people in this room who are going to be spearheading the technology and solutions to delivery of healthcare that’s going to make a difference globally. I really think that’s going to happen.” – David Higgins
There are also ways to support emerging businesses to grow and develop over time with non-financial support. Over the past 10 years, Argidius has been identifying the key characteristics of effective business development services. The panel highlighted the importance of having business support organisations in the innovation ecosystem, including more focused support for particular sectors like health, where regulations are especially rigorous and specific.
Nicholas Colloff stressed the importance of never overestimating the knowledge of your customers. He suggested that it is crucial to be clear on who your audience is, to try to understand them, and then to ultimately assume that there is still much more to learn about them.
It was also identified that, while locally made products and innovative implementation models are often mistrusted (for example, many people assume that an imported product will be higher quality and may be uneasy about services such as home-based care instead of visiting a traditional clinic or hospital), even one significant success story can move the needle and make a significant difference.
Finally, while long-term systems change is important, it is also vital that innovative solutions solutions move forward in spite of systems that don't support them. Systems change often happens from "above" (government policy, for example), but also requires models that grow from "below" (i.e., the market).
"Though thinking about systems change is very important, I also think it's very important to keep doing what it is you love and understand and can do to make your best contribution to that system even if some aspects of the system are weighted against you. They will change and they'll change partly because you've been able to navigate your way through in spite of the system as well as because of it." – Nicholas Colloff
Finally, the issue of collaboration was stressed as one of the most useful and essential aspects of sustainable success. Partnerships that capitalise on each other's strengths expand the capacity and impact of each partner without adding the unnecessary burden of building further capacity.