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“I don’t sit here and say, back me because I’m a woman, I say back me because I’m doing something that is great, back me because we’re going to be great. We’re going to prove once and for all that people who look like us can do this work.”
These bold words come from Nigerian entrepreneur Temie Giwa-Tubosun, who not only built her healthcare, technology and logistics company LifeBank from the ground up in Nigeria, but expanded to Kenya and Ethiopia within five years.
It’s been a journey closely watched, as expectations were heightened after Giwa-Tubosun met Facebook (now Meta) founder Mark Zuckerberg during his first trip to Nigeria in 2016. Zuckerberg said of her and LifeBank: “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.”
Temie Giwa-Tubosun took her passion for building a better world for women, especially pregnant women, her experience working with the World Health Organisation and then, the final spark of the difficult delivery of her son for establishing LifeBank in Lagos, Nigeria.
The birth of her son motivated her to dedicate her entire professional life trying to figure out a path to resolve maternal death “once and for all” – and during bed rest after giving birth she confirmed in research that the leading cause of global maternal mortality is postpartum haemorrhaging.
Lying there, she came to the realisation that if the hospital had access to blood that matched the patients’ type they could stall long enough for their body to learn to clot. But the key is to get the blood to the hospital quickly, and this is where LifeBank steps in to “rescue women, children and everyone that needs our help”.
“To get blood to the hospital, the customer journey starts with inventory. Everything starts with inventory. So from blood, to oxygen, anything that we do starts with that inventory. And then the next thing is matching that supply that we’ve got into the demand that hospitals have,” she says.
For hospitals with access to the Internet, they use technology, and for rural hospitals they use the USSD code to place orders.
Hospitals can also call in as they have a 24-hour call centre in all the three countries in which the business operates – that’s more 160 staff members delivering not only blood but also medical oxygen and health consumables to 1,200 hospitals.
“LifeBank made sure that our supply chain is scalable … and as soon as we felt we’d worked out all the kinks, we launched in Kenya a year ago. And we’ve been operating in Ethiopia for a few months now, but no official announcement yet,” Giwa-Tubosun says.
When starting LifeBank, she says, capital was the main challenge – a stumbling block for most entrepreneurs.
No doubt Giwa-Tuboson’s leadership of LifeBank – basing the business around solving a societal problem of blood shortages, and ensuring it is a sound business for investors – was rewarded by being named one of the six World Economic Forum Innovators in 2017, winning Jack Ma’s Africa Netpreneur Prize in 2019 and the Global Citizen for Business Leader in 2020.
But direct capital from investors, like that received using Prosper Africa’s Virtual Deal Room – the Deal Room managed by the U.S. Government initiative to increase trade and investment between African nations and the U.S, where investors, buyers or interested parties are able to register and review curated deals worth between $1-million and $100-million – continues to be a welcome shot in the arm for businesses like LifeBank.
“You know, expansion is quite expensive. Like anyone will tell you and you know, being able to get access to those investments allows us to do that expansion in a way that makes sense. You know, we’ve been able to partner with all different types of institutions for equity, debt capital, grants capital, non-dilutive capital. We will continue to serve, engage and continue to be creative in how we build the right capital stack, for the expansion we need to do,” she says.
Infrastructure was also a significant challenge, a challenge that is common on the continent.
“You know, people will tell you that when, when a company like Amazon started, Amazon was able to easily plug into the infrastructure that was created for the U.S. Postal Service, right? So it wasn’t that Amazon had to build a delivery system. They were able to just plug in their technology to an infrastructure that’s already present. But for us on the continent, we have to build our own infrastructure, because it doesn’t exist. And that is quite taxing for a young person who’s trying to build a new way of doing business. And it’s quite taxing to your capital as well,” Giwa-Tuboson says.
But now that they’ve built LifeBank’s supply chain, it is “durable and strong”. The next challenges? Ensuring that they have the right team at scale so that the business can continue to grow, and building an entire supply chain for medical supplies across emerging markets.
“My commitment was not specifically only for Nigerian women or for just African women, as the problem that we’re solving is not an African problem, it’s a problem for the emerging markets.”
Giwa-Tuboson wants LifeBank to continue to grow and expand to more countries, working with tens of thousands of hospitals, and expanding to Southeast Asia and South America. They want to make their supply chain more efficient, and use the opportunity to integrate and produce some of the supply.
“The company wants to build a very durable marketplace so that when one looks at LifeBank in the future, you look at a one-stop shop for hospitals to get all the resources they need,” she says.
But the business, like many others, did not escape the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic. LifeBank, however, had already started supplying medical oxygen a year before the deadly virus hit.
“Luckily for the world, and for us, LifeBank had started the work around medical oxygen a year before Covid-19 started. The inspiration was a doctor who died in one of the last mile states of Nigeria because the hospital where she worked did not have medical oxygen. And I remember being really struck by a story.
“We had to build the same supply chain we had built for blood, build it for for oxygen as well. So when Covid-19 started, we had already built relationships, it was just a simple matter of scaling it to help our country, and also other countries, to respond to the pandemic.”
Then LifeBank was able to partner with institutions to make sure that there was no charge for patients with Covid-19 “because it’s quite an expensive undertaking”.
LifeBank also used the time for innovating around their oxygen supply.
“We’ve been able to build a technology that will help predict demand in hospitals, predicts oxygen demand in hospitals. We were able to move over 1,000 oxygen cylinders to isolation centres and hospitals who are serving Covid-19 patients,” she says.
Their use of innovative delivery methods includes drones for critical medical supplies, but it’s not technology use for technology’s sake.
“We don’t use drones to deliver everything, we think there are some strong use cases for delivering via drones. Those cases are where the patient doesn’t have a lot of time to live. So therefore you want to use the fastest way and areas that are hard to reach, for example where there’s a giant mountain between the hospital and the supplier or where there is a river or whatever that makes it difficult to reach a particular area,” says Giwa-Tubosun.
LifeBank tested the concept in Ethiopia two years ago, and now they’re building capacity – “hiring pilots, getting drones in between our ports, to reach the last mile,” she says.
“An additional reason why we’re looking at drones is greening our infrastructure. We are trying to also grow our infrastructure … to making sure that we’re using battery energy that is more efficient.”
But LifeBank is not just about technology, and delivering blood and oxygen efficiently.
Giwa-Tubosun speaks of building the best team for LifeBank in Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, and “scaling our culture” so that it continues to grow.
“So a lot of the things that I do now is talking to people, making sure that we’re encouraging our team, inspiring them to continue to grow the business and making sure that the culture of LifeBank is very strong, so that when you have LifeBank in Kenya, you have LifeBank in Ethiopia, LifeBank in Durban (South Africa), if you will, you will be able to have that same feel.”
Some of the talking Giwa-Tubosun does is, of course, with investors.
“So we’re always looking at what the right capital for us is… For us, it’s all about scale. It’s all about proving this model – showing that young Africans can gather together and build a business that reaches the last mile, and that gets large, right? Investment gives us that capacity to try new things, to expand our innovation, and really drive our impact across the world.”
Even if those investors have their own ideas of how business owners look and sound?
“My request to investors is that they look past who they’re looking at, and look at what LifeBank has built in the last seven years, how it has grown, it’s proven model, and how it has expanded.”
Giwa-Tubosun received several global prizes for her leadership and the solid belief in LifeBank and the impact it makes in Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia, is as solid as her belief that it’s only a matter of time and the world will served by LifeBank.
“For me, you know, like anyone building something new in a market, like Africa, they will tell you, that is quite difficult. Right. And, and being a woman, a mother, that adds a certain level of difficulty to do the work, right. Okay, I think those that follows me, right, because, apart from doing this work, rescuing people, building the right supply chain, building the technology that powers the future of healthcare on the continent, I also have a need to show that people will look like me, can do great things in the world.
“And so that we can have a critical mass of young women who, who may be mothers, or maybe they are not, will look like us, you and I, we can have them solving problems in their communities, because that’s how we change the world. And for me, that’s an additional push to continue to go build this business, and be an example of what’s possible when we do the work.
“It’s not enough to just save lives. We also want to save lives sustainably. And that’s what we’re trying to do,” says Giwa-Tubosun.