Friday, April 29, 2022

The Nigerian entrepreneur who runs ‘an Amazon for blood’

Temie Giwa-Tubosun had an epiphany 13 years ago when she met an expectant mother who was about to lose her baby. Giwa-Tubosun was working as a 22-year-old intern with a health services organisation in northern Nigeria, doing surveys of rural people seeking care. The family of the mother-to-be thought she would die in a complicated labour because the baby was upside down in a twisted breech position. This wasn’t an unrealistic fear, in a country where one in 22 women perish in pregnancy, during birth, while undergoing abortions, or afterwards.

As it turned out, the woman got surgery and survived. But her baby didn’t, and that death shook Giwa-Tubosun deeply. She didn’t leave her hotel room for four days and barely ate. “I thought it was so unjust that women could die in childbirth,” she recalls. “That got me hooked on maternal healthcare.”

That incident, as well as the difficult birth of her own son later on, got her thinking about blood. Giwa-Tubosun had been contemplating a career that was health related in some way, and she knew that postpartum haemorrhaging was the leading cause of maternal mortality in Nigeria, which records nearly eight times the global number of 211 deaths per 100,000 live births. That is partly because decent healthcare in Nigeria is elusive to all but the rich; the World Health Organization (WHO) consistently ranks it among the worst globally.

In 2010, Giwa-Tubosun won a fellowship at the WHO in Geneva. She went on to work on various health projects, including in Uganda and in Minnesota in the United States. In 2012, she made the leap and founded an NGO known as the One Percent Project, whose raison d’etre was to educate Nigerians on blood donations and distribute them better throughout the country. This led to the creation four years later of LifeBank, a distribution business that uses data and technology to get urgent blood supplies to hospitals. It serves as a bridge between donors and clinics.

Giwa-Tubosun’s work has earned her praise across the globe including from the World Economic Forum, and she has spoken on influential platforms – such as the TedxEustonSalon – about her vision for tackling blood shortage on the African continent. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said after meeting her in 2016 that “If she actually pulls it off, then she’d show a model that will impact not just Lagos, not just Nigeria, but countries all around the world.” Giwa-Tubosun is pulling it off rather well. Working with over 150 accredited blood banks and 142 employees, LifeBank serves over 600 hospitals across Nigeria and has recently expanded into Kenya, according to Giwa-Tubosun. She says she has distributed enough blood to save more than 100,000 lives.

This social entrepreneurship is all the more significant considering that female executives are few and far between in Nigeria – to which Giwa-Tubosun simply says, “We get to save lives and we get to rescue people.”
Bikes, trikes and drones

Even over Zoom, Giwa-Tubosun exudes power. Al Jazeera catches her at the end of a very long day before she’s had dinner. Yet her energy is high. Even without makeup and in a casual African print dress, she gives off the sort of authority that’s kept her successful in a sector where very few women are visible.

Based in Lagos, the nation’s economic capital, the 35-year-old speaks from the guest room of her house. The walls behind her sport framed pictures of her husband, Kola Tubosun, a linguist and writer, as well as a painting of their son, Enaife, by the prominent essayist and artist Yemisi Aribisala. Not that Giwa-Tubosun spends that much time at home; she works six days a week.

Giwa-Tubosun began LifeBank as a startup with two employees to facilitate moving blood from labs across Nigeria to patients and doctors in hospitals. It began with her personal funds. The company was simply an app then. In 2016, a pre-seed investment of $25,000 enabled the company to move to the premises of a business incubator, CcHUB, in a suburb of Lagos.

She initially envisaged a distribution system for blood from labs to hospitals, focused on mothers. LifeBank’s innovation was to leverage technology to collect inventory data from blood banks and supply blood that had already been screened by the labs to hospitals based on request. Hospitals call LifeBank to place orders 24-7. Initially, LifeBank relied on dispatch riders. The company has evolved into a digital medical distribution company that delivers other critical medical supplies apart from blood, such as oxygen, plasma, and vaccines, to hospitals in every region where they are present.

Giwa-Tubosun is intentional about the areas where the company spreads. “We look for large markets with disorganised health-supply chain systems where our innovation could drive significant impact,” she says. She plans to expand to Ethiopia soon. LifeBank offers a round-the-clock service for the over 500 hospitals in its network and aims to provide access to safe blood in under 45 minutes using bikes, boats, adult tricycles and drones.

Being a 24-7 operation across nine states in Nigeria presents security challenges such as abductions and killings in places like Maiduguri in the north of the country, where Boko Haram is active. Giwa-Tubosun says the company has managed to solve these issues by seeking the protection of local communities. During the street protests in Lagos, in 2020, LifeBank motorbikes ferrying blood were blocked by what some claimed were hoodlums and others the police. After outrage on Twitter, the road cleared for them to drop the supplies at hospitals treating people hurt in the protest.

Security issues aside, Nigeria suffers from a deficit of blood. According to the National Blood Transfusion Service (NBTS), the country collects about 500,000 pints of blood annually, leaving a deficit of over 73 percent. LifeBank organises blood drives and runs advocacy campaigns to dismantle prevalent myths about blood donation. In addition to this, on a continent where some roads are inaccessible and, in many cities, traffic jams are legendary, the ability to use alternative means of transportation to get to hospitals is critical. “I think of us as the Amazon of healthcare except we work only with hospitals,” Giwa-Tubosun says with her rich laugh. “We bring global standard procurements to African hospitals right on their platform.” The simplicity of the model compared to the impact has surprised her.

And she thinks on her feet. In 2018, a critically ill doctor working at a hospital in Nigeria died because the hospital didn’t have oxygen. When she heard of this, Giwa-Tubosun began thinking of adding medical oxygen to her “store”. A year later, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, LifeBank launched testing centres and delivered medical oxygen to COVID-19 patients in isolation centres in Lagos for free.

Social impact or not, Giwa-Tubosun finds fundraising difficult for a variety of reasons. For a self-confessed introvert, whose natural inclination is to “sit and observe”, the networking required to get financial backers can be painful. Add to that the gender bias that faces female entrepreneurs. Women are generally not taken as seriously as men in this patriarchal society, she says. To make matters worse, healthcare is a particularly difficult sector to raise capital for, because it’s seen as highly regulated, which could make it harder for investors to rake in huge profits. The demand for capital outweighs the supply. “It’s easier to raise for fintech,” Giwa-Tubosun says, frustration evident in her voice. “You’d think COVID would make a difference, but it hasn’t.”

Those who do receive the services in LifeBank’s network are grateful, however, including Kanne Nzeribe. He works in the medical lab at the Zenith Medical and Kidney Center, a clinic in Abuja. “LifeBank is making a huge difference in blood banking, its accessibility and also its affordability,” he enthuses. “They are always available when needed and they’ve helped out our patients a lot and also in saving lives.”
Breaking down barriers

Giwa-Tubosun’s demeanour brightens again when she talks about the culture she’s enabled at work. Her employees call her by her first name, Temie, an unusual move in a society with a hierarchical structure. Elders, bosses and anyone in authority are generally not addressed as such, but, she explains, “I was intentional in breaking down the barriers that would make it difficult for my workers to talk to me.” According to her personal assistant, Aisha Abiola, the boss runs an open-door policy. “She’s accessible to us, especially on issues that affect our lives and work,” Abiola says.

Giwa-Tubosun counts on another fan – her husband, whom she met in 2009 through a mutual friend. “She’s always had a clarity of vision and I find that really endearing,” Kola Tubosun, 40, says when asked about their relationship. “I am inspired by her drive, optimism and ambition.” Unequal in height – he looms more than a foot over her 5-foot 4-inch (1.6m) frame – they share parenting like equal partners, which helps her work the long hours needed to run her company. Giwa-Tubosun wakes up at 4:45am, exercises three times a week for an hour with a personal trainer, takes their son to school and is at work by 7:35am. A hands-on father, Kola does the afternoon shift. He picks up their son from school, supervises his homework, “provides him with blank papers so he can pretend to be a writer”, and plays with him.

Sunday is her one rest day when she makes dinner, which is often a lavish affair involving many intricate dishes from foreign cuisines (she rediscovered her passion for cooking during the pandemic). “I have binders full of recipes,” she says. Recently she “went to India” and made murgh makhani (butter chicken), garlic coriander chapatis, basmati rice, and a strawberry salad. The following week’s exploration involved Szechuan chicken (extra hot), cilantro rice, and a salad of Asian vegetables.

Giwa-Tubosun says she’s always been serious and earnest. “I wasn’t a very social child,” she recalls. She would line up her shoes and pretend they were her students. Instead of playing with her dolls, she organised them. “And I had a strong sense of justice. I was that child that kept pointing out that something was unfair to her parents.” Her biggest role model was the Nigerian human rights lawyer Gani Fawehinmi, who was popular with the masses and less so with the authorities who detained and beat him.

Giwa-Tubosun’s parents, who were educators, moved to the US with her older siblings when she was 10 years old. She and her two younger siblings joined them in Minnesota five years later. Her parents pushed her to do well at school and work hard. Her adopted country gave her superhero movies, which in turn infused a sense of invincibility. “Everyone in America thinks they are a superhero in waiting,” she says.

That industriousness instilled in her childhood has served her well. It has earned her accolades and several awards. In 2019, she won the Jack Ma Foundation’s African Business Hero Award. In 2020, she was presented with a Global Citizen Prize for LifeBank’s novel approach to blood shortages and response to the global pandemic. And this year, at the Cartier Impact Awards ceremony in Dubai, she won the first place honour in the “Improving Lives” category. However, she is keen to point out that while the honours might carry her name, they belong to the LifeBank team. “The people are working 24 hours saving lives,” she says. “I simply built a system to help them do that.” Even more fulfilling than the awards, she says, are the messages of gratitude she gets from patients and their families, sometimes on Twitter where both she and LifeBank are active.

Never content to sit still, Giwa-Tubosun hopes to list the business on the stock exchange in New York. She has set as targets some key milestones: be valued at $1bn, earn $100m in revenue the year before the listing, have free cash flow, and be Pan-African. That’s an ambitious plan for a company that made $1m in revenue last year. She thinks it will take her seven years to get there. “That will require a lot of work, a lot of hard work and figuring out how to fundraise effectively,” she says, her accent straddling two worlds: the Nigeria of her birth and the US of her youth. She also hopes to raise the number of hospitals served to about 14,000. She believes she’s on her way. LifeBank has received funding from pharma companies like Johnson & Johnson, and partnered with Merck on clinical trials. The company picked up its ninth state government partnership, a contract to supply hospitals in Yobe with critical health supplies such as blood and oxygen. “We got this partnership because the government knows that we can solve a problem that they have,” Giwa-Tubosun says. “We got this on merit.” In a country where cronyism is rife, she is particularly proud of this fact.

At a time when many Nigerians are leaving the country – running or “japa-ing”, in local parlance – Giwa-Tubosun has no intention of doing so. At times she’s tempted, but she’s going to stay put. She believes in her mission and wants to see LifeBank reach more villages and cities across the continent. “Africa is a tough place to tie your future,” she says, “but it’s also a place of opportunity.” 

By Chika Unigwe 

Al Jazeera

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