Davos Agenda

These social entrepreneurs are advancing health equity in Sub-Saharan Africa

Health equity is a societal goal.

Sub-Saharan Africa, where health equity is a social goal. Image: Freepik

Peng Zhong
Director, Social Innovation, Bayer Foundation
Katusha de Villiers
Health Systems Innovation Lead, Bertha Centre for Social Innovation, University of Cape Town
Ekaterina Demushkina
Community & Initiatives Lead , World Economic Forum
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • COVID-19 catalyzed the innovation and adaptation of digital technologies in Africa.
  • Barriers such as supply chain disruption and logistical challenges still persist across the continent.
  • Social entrepreneurs are finding ways to overcome these issues and provide scalable healthcare solutions.

The COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed innovation and adoption of digital technologies in African countries, resulting in many thriving tech start-ups. At the same time, the pandemic amplified existing barriers across the continent, such as supply chain disruption and logistical challenges, and these received the lion’s share of attention from international and local ecosystem actors.

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    How to advance health equity in Sub-Saharan Africa?

    Social entrepreneurs – bolstered by supportive enabling environments – were able to take that opportunity, and used it to leapfrog their solutions, specifically in scaling digital technologies. This is one of the main three findings highlighted in a newly released report, Inclusive Health Systems: Innovations towards Health Equity in Africa, which offers a roadmap for all actors and stakeholders working in the health ecosystem in Sub-Saharan Africa.

    1. How private and public sector can speed the scale of innovations

    The mobile application Whispa was developed by social entrepreneur Morenike Fajemisin and her team. They have developed the first mobile application in Nigeria that offers young people (mostly women), quality sexual health education, private or anonymous telemedicine consultations, balanced contraceptive counselling and an affordable means to book contraceptive appointments, among other things.

    Whispa Health is just one out of many successful innovations identified in the report. But despite these hopeful examples, many other solutions remain underutilized at scale. This is in part due to the lack of an enabling environment that could be created by common efforts from public and private sector partners.

    “When I was five years old, I had a cousin who got pregnant when she was 18. As a result, she was unable to continue her education. This event had a way of changing the entire trajectory of a young woman’s life. And she is far from the only one in Nigeria. In 2019, my country counted 2.7 billion abortions. If she and other girls her age had been given access to birth control, this number would not be that high. My cousin’s story motivated me to create Whispa,” Morenike Fajemisin explains.

    The Nigerian serial entrepreneur Abimbola Adebakin and her team used the existing enabling environment to address challenges in supply chain logistics and access to medicines at the same time. She created the medicines ordering platform myMedicines and managed to significantly increase access to medicines for customers all across Nigeria, even in the remotest of villages.

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    Through its platform, myMedicines, brings together licensed pharmacies across almost all states in Nigeria with those in need of high-quality, affordable medicines crowdsourced from pharmacies nationwide. Not only does the platform help solve access and ease of purchase for users, it is also ensuring the safety of drugs purchased. Without an enabling environment, myMedicines would not have been able to operate at scale in Nigeria.

    “We started with a partnership with the courier arm Nigerian Postal Service (NIPOST) which is the main entity that extensively covers the country with its 5,000 workforce and its 1,000 offices spread across the country. This has enabled myMedicines to deliver drugs and pharmaceuticals to customers across the country. Now we partner with other logistics partners and we currently do an in-house trial to see how we can increase the efficiency of the doorstep delivery even further,” Abimbola Adebakin explains.

    2. Many solutions that address barriers are under-used

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, the enabling environment for scaling transportation and digital solutions grew exponentially. The Government of Ghana for example established the Coronavirus Supply Chain and Trade Disruption Team to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on Ghanaian businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). They managed to urgently mobilise teams who assisted in addressing specific supply chain issues and challenges affecting these businesses. But despite these efforts, other innovations, often community based, were not scaled.

    One reason for this lack of scale can be found in the scarcity of efficient support systems (including mentorship, community building and funding mechanisms) for social entrepreneurs, preventing them from growing and building resilience. Silulo Ulutho Technologies in South Africa for example has created a support system for entrepreneurs in remote and underserved communities by offering them a one-stop business and career centre to uplift and upskill members of these communities.

    Solutions such as Silulo are mostly used to address economic impacts of crises and to a lesser extent, the barriers of digitization and data accessibility. Social entrepreneurs and innovators focussing on developing solutions addressing healthcare capacity, gender equality, and access to basic needs can benefit from utlizing the structural support system represented by organizations like this.

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    What is the Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship?

    3. In health equity, social innovators offer practical solutions

    Systemic shocks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, tend to expose existing societal weaknesses. Through job losses, broken social security systems, interrupted education and schooling, compromised food security, and increased gender-based violence, the pandemic has worsened broad health inequities. These shocks have highlighted both the material risk health inequities pose to businesses’ overall performance and long-term sustainability, as well as the need for businesses and radical collaboration initiatives to play a key role in addressing such inequities.

    Through initiatives like the Global Health Equity Network and its Zero Health Gaps Pledge, business leaders are demonstrating their commitment to playing their part in advancing global health equity. Partnering with and supporting social innovators – who have led the way in developing scalable solutions that sustainably address local needs and priorities – provides an actionable pathway for businesses to follow through on these commitments.

    By accepting that health equity is a societal goal, there needs to be a recognition that these social factors do not stand outside the health sector. In fact, they are integral to developing fairer social systems.

    How can we take action on health equity?

    • Expand the learnings: an effort to continue driving this forward must include wider exploration and comparison of the barriers and solutions identified, on a global, regional, and cross-thematic scale. For example, social entrepreneurs from the wider Global South, such as Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur Sabeen Haque, Co-Founder and CEO of doctHERs in Pakistan that offers a novel healthcare marketplace to connect female doctors to millions of underserved patients in real-time while leveraging online technology. Such innovators continue to inspire and need to be further recognized and provided the opportunities for engagement and exchange.
    • Embrace systems approach: To effectively activate innovations requires all stakeholders to undergo a fundamental shift of alignment towards a broader health equity agenda – social innovators and entrepreneurs, policy-makers, civil society, government actors, funders and philanthropies, and other change agents can use the insights and recommendations generated as pathways to forge new ways of doing and being, because achieving health equity is everyone’s business.
    • Act together: Central to advancing corporate action on health equity is the ability for business decision-makers to understand where their greatest impacts on, and opportunities within, health equity exist. Through the Global Health Equity Network, a group of multistakeholder partners will be piloting an enterprise health footprint to measure how their operations across their workforce, offerings, community investments and ecocystem partenrships impact health outcomes. This in turn can inform the areas of greatest health equity return for businesses to partner with social innovators, governments and civil society.
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