Healthcare represents opportunity for business investment, trade with Africa

by Kim Souza (ksouza@talkbusiness.net) 178 views 

(from left) Princess Dr. Deun Ogunlana moderated the healthcare panel discussion at the Trade with Africa Summit held May 11 in Bentonville. Boyd Nutt, Jason Carney and Dr. Adeniyi Osamiluyi spoke about their efforts to improve healthcare accessibility and services in African countries.

A healthy nation is also likely a wealthy nation, but neither is true for many of 54 countries on the African continent. Chronic blindness from cataracts, a lack of doctors and malnutrition plague many of the 1.2 billion people living in Africa.

There are roughly 9 million blind people in Sub-Saharan Africa and 7 million more who are  severely vision impaired which, according to Boyd Nutt, founder of Legend Treks, renders more than one-third of the adult population unable to work. Nutt, a registered nurse by trade, spoke on a healthcare panel at the Trade with Africa Business Summit in Bentonville on May 11. He said 90% of the visually impaired reside in developing countries. Legend Treks is a nonprofit that provides eye care services, including exams, prescription glasses and surgical interventions for cataract removal.

In the country of Mali, where Nutt has lived and works, there are 14 eye doctors in the entire country. Nutt said three of them live in the capital city and that leaves just one eye doctor for 12 million people living outside the capital. Nutt has taken eye care services to Cameroon, where he is trying to set up a mobile eye hospital to bring cataract surgery capabilities to the people. He has a similar mobile hospital operation in Armenia, which Nutt said stays very busy.

Nutt said travel is often cumbersome in some countries where the needs are the greatest and a mobile hospital holds the opportunity to bring sight to many more. He operates his service as a not-for-profit, but said there are opportunities for businesses to plug in and help. He said there is an economic benefit for corporations who have business interests within Africa to have the healthiest workforce possible. With more manufacturing being expanded in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Madagascar for textiles and apparel, a seeing workforce will be critical.

Jason Carney of Fayetteville, founder of 2nd Milk, talked during the panel discussion of the healthcare needs among the poorest population in Malawi. Carney and wife Lacey lived in Malawi for two years managing an orphanage. The nonprofit 2nd Milk provides baby formula to thousands of babies whose mothers have died. The 501(c) recently provided its one millionth baby bottle of formula in the five years since inception.

The healthcare statistics remain dismal in Malawi, a nation of 17 million people who have annual per capita income of $780. Life expectancy is 62 years for women and 60 for men. The infant mortality rate is 1,360 deaths per 100,000 live births. The top causes of death are HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, followed by diarrheal diseases and cardiovascular disease.

Carney said Malawi looks like many other poor nations of Africa, and investments as high as $25 billion to $30 billion would barely make a dent in the region given the size and underdevelopment of healthcare infrastructure. He said without economic prosperity and opportunity there will be no change in the healthcare status of Africa, no matter the level of humanitarian aid received.

Nutt agreed charity health care is scratching the surface, but pointed to the nation of Rwanda that has become one of the fastest growing nations on the globe. He said there is a direct impact on prosperity when people are healthier. The Rwanda Trading Co., owned by Scott Ford and Westrock Coffee Co.of Little Rock, recently provided vision exams for all the workers in Rwanda and many of them needed glasses. Nutt said the glasses were handed out and productivity among the workforce rose 11% instantly.

“That was just providing readers,” he said.

Dr. Adeniyi Osamiluyi of Nigeria said he often sought doctor consults with other practicing physicians but there was no way to connect with them. Five years ago he used his programming skills to create and launch the first social media site to connect doctors in Nigeria and neighboring countries. He has 11,000 doctors on the site who can discuss on a private platform specific cases where they need consults. He said with more than 30% of Nigerian doctors on the site he is reaching critical mass covering many specialities. He said the site is free for doctors and the business model allows pharmaceutical companies and hospitals to buy advertising on the site.

Dr. Osamiluyi wants to expand the platform to include telemedicine capabilities via mobile device. He said the role of the pharmacy in Nigeria is often elevated in consumers’ mind over the doctor. He said many go straight to the pharmacy and buy the medicine they think they need. He would like to work with pharmacies in Nigeria to be a place where doctors could conduct telemedicine sessions.

His startup employs seven people in Nigeria and he’s bootstrapped the majority of the investments. But he’d like to raise additional capital to expand the telemedicine platform. Dr. Osamiluyi is the brother of Toyin Umesiri, the organizer of the two-day trade summit. He said there is about one doctor per 5,000 people in Nigeria and there is definitely a role for telemedicine if he can find a way to pay for it.

Another problem in Africa is highly trained professionals like doctors and lawyers can make far more money living in the U.S. Dr. Osamiluyi said he remains in Nigeria though each of his siblings are in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. He said a general practitioner doctor in Nigeria earns anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500 per month depending on public or private sector services.

Friday’s session also discussed how the highly educated professionals from Africa who now live in the U.S. and other developed countries need to network and advocate for changes in their homeland through educating U.S. friends and contacts about the opportunities for businesses in Africa. Rwanda has benefited with the help of Arkansas businessmen, but there are 53 other countries that still need investment and trade, said Dr. Anu Frank-Lawale, a geneticist with Siloam Springs-based Cobb-Vantress.

“Donnie Smith, Scott Ford and Dale Dawson already have saved Rwanda, so who will be next to save another a country with trade,” he said.

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