Social Innovation

How social innovators in Africa can be supported to build inclusive health solutions

Through mobile and digital technologies, social entrepreneurs are solving medical problems and creating jobs through innovative solutions.

Through mobile and digital technologies, social entrepreneurs are solving medical problems and creating jobs through innovative solutions. Image: Getty Images

Monika Lessl
Executive Director, Bayer Foundation
Francois Bonnici
Director, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship; Head of Foundations, World Economic Forum
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SDG 03: Good Health and Well-Being

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  • The lack of access to inclusive medical health services in rural Africa is not only a medical issue – it’s a social issue.
  • Data-driven, community-based social entrepreneurs have an important role to play in closing the gap.
  • Enabling social entrepreneurs to bring their innovations to healthcare-deprived communities will lead to the creation of a long-lasting inclusive ecosystem.

Imagine living in a remote village in Ogun State, Nigeria. You suffer from hypertension, arthritis, and poor eyesight. You are dependent on medication, but the nearest pharmacy is in Lagos – a complicated bus ride away. In a country of 200 million inhabitants, where there are only 5,000 pharmacies, you are not alone. In comparison, France has a population of 66.5 million people and has more than 22,000 pharmacies.

As a result of this lack of access, like many other Nigerians, you end up buying your medication from an unlicensed place. This is not without its risks: The World Health Organization estimates that one in 10 medical products in low- and middle-income countries are substandard or falsified.

Social entrepreneurs are rising to bridge the gap

Nigerian serial entrepreneur, Abimbola Adebakin, found a tech-based solution for this problem. She started myMedicines, an online medicine ordering platform for Nigerians, which brings together licensed pharmacies with people in need of quality, affordable medicines. With the medicines crowdsourced from pharmacies nationwide, the platform helps solve access and ease of purchase for users while ensuring the safety of drugs.

What does this mean for the villager who desperately needed her medicines? “We leveraged our network of pharmacies and were able to deliver the medicines at her doorstep within a day,” says Abimbola Adebakin.

Adebakin is one of many social entrepreneurs to have come up with inclusive healthcare solutions. In Uganda, social entrepreneur Angela Kyomugisha is co-founder of Kaaro Health which deploys telehealth-enabled container clinics to rural and peri-urban communities. These clinics are run by women entrepreneur nurses and powered by solar panels.

Kyomugisha says that “Social factors like class, race, gender identity and region tend to exclude large groups of people from even the most basic healthcare services, as they don’t have the support system and financial means to get medical attention,” adding that “In Uganda, a big portion of the population falls within this category.” Having previously worked in the financial sector, Kyomugisha decided to put her finance skills to use to help address this issue.

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Building an enabling ecosystem to scale solutions

Through mobile and digital technologies, social entrepreneurs like Kyomugisha and Adebakin are solving medical problems and creating jobs through innovative solutions. Pradeep Kakkattil, Director of the Programme Partnerships and Fundraising at UNAIDS, says that: “The health sector can be a significant employer for young people in Africa. Female-led social enterprises have a high return on investment, both socially and financially.”

Despite their increasingly important role in providing healthcare services, social enterprises (especially women-run organizations) face enormous financial, legal and logistical barriers. These barriers prevent them from scaling their solutions, according to Dr François Bonnici, Head of Social Innovation, World Economic Forum and Director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship which hosts the Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship. Emphasizing this, Dr Monika Lessl, Executive Director of the Bayer Foundation adds that, “A radical shift is needed in how health systems and models are built and financed.”

Turning power structures to drive change

PATH, a healthcare organization, found in a recent study that many African governments prefer to invest locally when sourcing digital vendors to support public health systems. The organization equips a growing community of local technology implementers to build, own, and scale digital community health tools.

Social entrepreneurs are turning power structures to drive change in Uganda
Social entrepreneurs are turning power structures to drive change in Uganda Image: Christien van den Brink/Bayer Foundation

To link governments to these implementers, PATH and Medic, with initial funding from Bayer Foundation, launched the Digital Health Ecosystem project to expand the use of digital tools for community health. “What sets this project apart is in the shift in how digital tools are built for community health. It unites a global network of local entrepreneurs who are collectively building on a common open-source platform,” says Leah Ekbladh, Senior Strategy Manager at the Centre for Digital and Data Excellence at PATH.

Medic’s Community Health Toolkit (CHT) is a digitally based public good that empowers community health workers to collaborate on providing efficient, equitable and quality care. The CHT includes open-source software (OSS) frameworks and applications, with resources for entrepreneurs to design and deploy localized digital tools for care teams. These are easy-to-use, reliable health tools that can be customized to suit local contexts.

“This approach can invert current power structures so that entrepreneurs and local governments can drive digital public goods development. This would change digital public goods from being donor-driven to being stakeholder-driven,” says Ekbladh.

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What is the Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship?

To further enable social entrepreneurs, investors must understand why it is worth investing in these models. “Capital infusion in local businesses and incubation is crucial to help these effectively compete for global development financing,” according to Ekbladh. This kind of awareness is one of the key objectives of the Global Alliance, adds Dr Bonnici.

In 2022, the Global Alliance and Bayer Foundation will work together to develop a Report on Actionable Insights and Solutions. “It will identify barriers to inclusive health that have emerged or exacerbated during the pandemic in Sub-Saharan Africa and provide evidence on how entrepreneurial solutions help to close barriers,” says Dr Lessl.

“Social entrepreneurs are showing us the way forward – we must ensure that they get the opportunity to scale. We must support them to build a strong evidence base,” concludes Dr Bonnici.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Social InnovationHealth and Healthcare Systems
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