It is with great honor that I accept this appointment as the CEO of Villgro Kenya. This comes at an exciting time as we prepare to scale the Villgro brand throughout Africa but also at an unprecedented time as the world continues to grapple with the novel Corona virus.
My heart goes out to all those who have lost their loved ones and those whose livelihoods have been affected in a way that we never imagined. The only encouragement is that when you hit the rock bottom you can only go up from there. I am optimistic that humanity will ultimately overcome this pandemic. I believe in the ingenuity and resilience of the human race that has kept us going in the face of our adversaries, be it in the form of disease, war, famine and other calamities. With the power of entrepreneurship, technological advancement, and innovation we even have a much bigger toolkit to rise from any pandemic than our ancestors had. There is no reason why we should not be able to build back better and restore sanctity of life.
Last weekend, in a low-key event in the serene Karura forest surrounded by a few colleagues and family, my predecessor “handed me the baton”. We enacted a relay sprint for a role that both of us know very well that is going to be a marathon. The eagerness to sprint as opposed to jogging is representative of the times we are in when the world is eager to open up the economies and sprint in order to redeem, or rather salvage, the time and economic loss we have suffered since the onset of COVID-19. As we walked briskly in the woods with our masks on, it was a stark reminder of the things we had grown accustomed to and taken for granted, like basic clean breathing air.
While most of the world wore a mask for the first time of their lives in 2020, the mask has been a living reality for decades in most cities due to unchecked pollution. This is just one among many other issues that we need to address if we are genuine about “building back better” post-COVID.
There are other myriad issues that require our attention. Cutting across multiple sectors from biotechnology, green-tech, public health, agric-tech to edu-tech, social innovators have a huge responsibility to help address issues ranging from pollution to access to healthcare and water & sanitation. The list is endless. As we all try to figure out how to get out of this menace and how to avoid future pandemics, Villgro Kenya has its role cut out in the advancement of entrepreneurship & innovation. As we do so, we will continue seeking partnerships with other like-minded folks to mobilize and deploy capital where it matters most to ensure protection of livelihoods, access to quality healthcare and other basic needs. The pandemic has managed to expose glaring social issues whose cure can be found in social entrepreneurship. This is a clarion call for social innovators to come up with scalable, sustainable & market-based interventions to social economic problems that continue to imperil the future of humanity.
Last week while attending a UNICEF PSUP online workshop, I was shocked to learn that we lose 1.6 million lives every year to waterborne diseases, most of them children under 5. Just think about that for a moment. That’s over 3 times more deaths than what COVID-19 has claimed globally since the onset of the pandemic. This is a prediction that (Peter H. Gleick, 2002) had foretold in his research paper in 2002 that if no action was taken, we would end up losing up to 135 million lives in the last 2 decades (2002-2020) due to water borne diseases. Sadly, that prediction has come to pass. Those numbers are just mind-boggling. There is no justification as to why in this day and age, 3 billion people lack access to proper waste management and handwashing.
I welcome you to pick any other SDG and with a little bit of desktop research run the numbers. You realize how much more we need to work in attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals notwithstanding the fact that COVID has caused us to regress even further back. This effort cannot be left to Villgro alone or to governments alone or to NGO’s alone. We need more and more incubators, social entrepreneurs, social activists, philanthropists, and venture capitalists to start putting resources where it matters most. COVID was just a wakeup call. Therefore, I would like to dedicate the next few years in furtherance of this mission – a more equitable society. This will take a Village mentality. In the coming months Villgro Africa will embark on building a Pan-Africa network of Social Enterprise incubators to create, guide and foster innovative market-driven enterprises that create significant impact to the base-of-pyramid population. We want to be one of those organizations at the forefront in driving Africa’s SDGs.
As I take on this task, I reckon that I will be stepping into the very big shoes of my predecessor, Dr. Robert Karanja. What Villgro Kenya has accomplished in the last 5 years is not a small fete. Thanks to Roberts leadership, Villgro Kenya has gone on to invest over 800K USD in SEED capital to over 24 social enterprises. These enterprises have gone on to unlock over 8.1 million dollars in follow on funding and touched over a million lives. It’s taken years of sweat and burning “mid night oil” with a lot of passion. I am lucky to still have Robert as a co-founder & director. That means I can continue benefiting from his wise counsel and mentorship as he transitions to the Chief Innovation Officer role. I couldn’t have asked for a better co-founding team. Rob Beyer’s decades of hands-on experience in building and managing teams combined with Robert’s experience in research and academia makes us a formidable co-founding team. Over the last 5 years, we have grown to an 8-member multidisciplinary team with combined 80 years of experience & expertise in biomed, entrepreneurship, finance, ICT & engineering and transaction advice. This team gives me a lot of confidence as I take office.
What should the world expect from Villgro Kenya in the next 3 to 5 years?
I would like to summarize my action plan into 5 priority agenda items
Collaboration – Over the last half a decade, we have built partnerships with key funders who have invested significant financial resources and believed in our mission. These partnerships, and many others, have allowed us to demonstrate the impact of social entrepreneurship on lives, the sustainability of our incubation model and many other nuanced lessons for a Pan-African uptake. We have also signed MoU’s with academia and research organizations as well as impact investment funds. Thanks to these partnerships, we have leveraged over 8.1 million dollars in follow on funding in just 5 years. Moving forward we are reaching out to other donors, actors, incubators, and investors across Africa to increase our reach to 100 million lives by 2025. This brings me to the second point.
Capital Efficiency and maximum social returns – In the last 3 years, it has cost us just 1.2 USD to change one life. This was possible due to capital leverage from downstream investors and also due to the dedication of the team, often sacrificing hefty salaries and perks that are seen in the traditional NGO sector. Our leadership has been taking a 30% pay cut for the last 3 years in order to maximize on social returns. When the pandemic broke, they went a step further to commit 5% of their salaries towards funding Covid response innovations.
We have continued to put our money where our hearts are. As we move forward, using a robust incubation management software built by Villgro Innovation Foundation (India), we aim to streamline our operations and increase efficiency to further bring down the cost of impacting one life. That’s the beauty of market-based approach as opposed to pure aid. You can achieve much more with so little and because the enterprise model is inherently sustainable.
As we gear towards opening shop in multiple countries in Africa, we welcome in-country foundations, corporate CSR and local philanthropists who are willing to experiment with sustainable models in areas where aid has failed to bring long lasting change. A combination of both international and local funders is going to be game changing in the way we perceive social enterprise. What Covid has taught us is that home grown solutions and local ownership is the way to solve Africa’s problems. We risk missing out on the demographic dividends if impact investment continues to be a preserve of foreign actors. The international donor community is awakening to this fact. Villgro Kenya’s current funders are always keen to see how we unlock local funding. We are willing to join hands with partners like Africa Venture Philanthropy Association and other like minded organizations to see how we take this agenda forward.
Expansion/Rebranding/Reposition – As my predecessor alluded to in his previous blog post, time is ripe for Pan-Africanism in social enterprise. We have already experimented this on a small scale in Uganda and Ethiopia where we have been active for the past 5 years. 8 enterprises in our current portfolio are located outside Kenya. We have seen collaboration with local incubators and universities yield tremendous results. The local context will always be a key ingredient for any international incubation or acceleration program. In 2018, Villgro Kenya was part of a consortium led by Duke University that offered a 2 year business acceleration support (Technical Assistance, Mentorship, Networks, Market Discovery, Navigating Regulatory Landscape & Go-to-Market Strategies) to Maternal and Child Health Innovators spread across the world in a program funded by USAID, Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada, NORAD & KOICA. This program drew participants from over 20 countries. This was only possible through local partnerships. Rebranding to Villgro Africa essentially means that we are open to sharing our playbook with in-country partners, incubators & universities across Africa. If this sounds like something that your organization is interested in we welcome you to join hands with us.
Gender Lense Investing – The recently released Global Acceleration Learning Initiative (GALI) report on acceleration of women led startups exposed how accelerators and incubators have had an adverse effect of widening the gap between female led startups and male led startups. According to the report Women-led ventures are under-represented in acceleration. Within the GALI dataset, 52% of founding teams are made up entirely of men, followed by 35% with both men and women, and only 13% comprised entirely of women entrepreneurs. As President Barack Obama once said, excluding women in the economic contribution is like being in a match where you don’t let half the team play. Having been raised by a single mum, I have experienced firsthand the power of gender inclusivity. If my dad had not let my mum pursue her career, we would have been left as beggars on the streets after the demise of my dad. We need to encourage more women led enterprises. Research has shown again and again that women led enterprises are likely to create more impact. Women are wired to be more nurturing and caring than men, a recipe that is required in social entrepreneurship. Another research showed that less than half of women entrepreneurs are likely to participate in a pitch competition than men. We have experienced this at Villgro Kenya.When we host a pitch challenge or a hackathon women who show up are less than 15%. We commend initiatives like Women-in-Tech by Standard Chartered bank that are trying to change this narrative. To encourage women participation, we need to change how we have organized pitch festivals and business plan competitions. A simple tweak like ensuring a fair gender representation in the investment committees that pass these investment decisions could have a huge effect. I welcome ideas and suggestions on how Villgro Kenya can improve this.
To close my remarks, I would like to reemphasize that we are at a much more advantageous position than those who came before us to build a truly equitable society and protect fundamental human rights like shelter, food and clothing. With technological advancement in the area of predictive modelling, data science, AI, CRISPR, Biotech we shouldn’t wait for the next pandemic, we should get ahead of it. We should hack it before it happens. As I wrap up, I would also like to thank an incredibly special person in my life – my mum. She made it possible for me to be the man I am today. Widowed at age 38 and with 6 children to fend for, I saw the huge sacrifices she made to put food on the table. This also goes to all the women out there many of whom risk losing their own lives at birth due to lack of access to maternal healthcare. No woman should have to lose her life while giving life to another human. Villgro Kenya will continue doing its best to restore the sanctity of life and empower women.
In an intensive care unit for COVID-19 patients where lives hang in the balance, doctors and nurses have to monitor patients’ vitals closely to ensure they are able to detect any form of distress. For countries like Uganda, where there is a strain in healthcare resources and a high patient-to-clinician ratio, doctors and nurses have to do more rounds and spend more time monitoring critically ill patients. This exposes them to a higher risk of infection.
As a solution, Villgro Kenya, an investor in health innovations, recently awarded $20,000 in grant funding to Neopenda, a medical device company focused on designing and implementing needs-base technologies for emerging markets. Their remote vital signs monitor is a device that will reduce the burden of clinicians and help them monitor more patients efficiently, while simultaneously reducing their risk of infection.
“At Villgro Kenya, we strongly feel that this innovation will change the way we administer care in the era of social distancing. Being able to remotely monitor disease progression in COVID patients could have a great outcome of reducing the risk exposure to healthcare workers who are at the frontline of this battle” – Wilfred – Co-Founder, Villgro Kenya.
The device, which started out as a neonatal vital sign monitor, was developed after founders Sona Shah and Teresa Cauvel, biomedical engineers from Columbia University, visited a hospital in Uganda and saw how nurses had a hard time monitoring admitted neonates.
“We wanted to understand the issue where clinicians and nurses are not able to know when a patient is in distress. This is because there are too many critically ill patients and not so many clinicians. So whenever there was distress, nobody knew and the newborns would end up dying from medical causes. So that led to the creation of the neo-natal device monitor called the Neo-guard,” said Sona.
Nurses and clinicians in remote areas of Uganda have used the device to monitor up to 20 patients at one time. Once all the patients are fitted with a wearable watch, their individual temperature, respiratory rate, pulse rate and oxygen saturation are displayed at a central dashboard. The low-cost device works effectively without internet or continuous power, which makes it well suited for low-income areas.
The company, which started with neonates, has always had a vision for expanding to pediatric and adult wards as well, and saw COVID-19 as an opportunity for them to move their scaling-up strategy forward.
“With our team capacity, we wanted to maintain focus, but when COVID came, most of the patients were adults and thus we adjusted the size of the band attached to the patient, recalibrated the device for different algorithms, because the natural adult vital signs are different ranges from neonate’s vital signs. So we had to do a couple of tweaks to expedite our development cycle,” Sona explained.
With advancements in its technology, the device can support the COVID-19 response in four primary ways. It can help identify suspected cases, as the common symptoms seen in positive patients, like elevated temperatures and low oxygen saturation, can be measured using the vital signs monitor.
Doctors and nurses can also triage an entire patient ward and be able to tell the severity of a single case, from which a clinician can determine an appropriate course of action. Once a patient is receiving treatment, the device can then inform the clinician on whether the patient is responding well to it or not. And, finally, data collected from the device will contribute to predictive analytics for population health, which will help inform trends within countries.
The team is currently looking to pilot their device in Uganda through their relationship with the Ministry of Health. Like many other medical devices, getting additional capital and the right investors has been a major challenge for Sona and her team. She welcomed the $20,000 COVID-19 Response Grant awarded to them by Villgro Kenya saying:
“I appreciate the efficiency of bringing the capital in. For a couple of other organizations it takes a couple of months of diligence for a small amount of the funding to come in, which would inhibit a lot of entrepreneurs. I appreciate the process Villgro Kenya took because that capital is very instrumental to small and large organizations alike.”
Medical devices require a multidisciplinary approach and partnerships across the sector are needed to ensure products like the Neopenda Vital Signs Monitor get to market.
Getting the right partnerships is a challenge for most medical device companies and, aside from funding, impact investors have a role to play in making the right connections.
Sona explained that, “One of the things we are doing with Villgro Kenya is developing a go-to-market strategy based on the COVID-19 response. So a better understanding of how we are responding and how to integrate within their national task force. Part of that is understanding the landscape, talking to other entrepreneurs that Villgro Kenya has connected us to that will enable us to work together to be part of the Ministry’s initiative.”
Speaking on how entrepreneurs can adapt to change brought about by the pandemic, Sona urged innovators and entrepreneurs to understand their role in the pandemic and leverage partnerships while engaging with users to ensure products released are relevant.
“With Neopenda, we accelerated our timelines and adapted our technology. For other companies, it may not be so straightforward to make the pivot to get into the fight but, for those who can adapt, relationships are crucial, especially in the markets venturing into partnerships.”
Frontline health workers continue to face the imminent risk of infection as they interact closely with patients. In Kenya alone, 84 healthcare staff were infected and this raises the concerns about their safety among key stakeholders. The vital signs monitor from Neopenda has the potential to save patient lives and reduce the chance of infections among frontline health workers long after this pandemic is over.
Building Villgro Kenya: From Academia To Business Incubator And Impact Investor In 5 Years (With Learnings To Dial Up For The Post Covid-19 World)
Over the last five years, it has been my great privilege to lead Villgro’s expansion effort in Kenya and East Africa. Villgro is one of the world’s leading business incubators, with 20 years of experience in supporting social entrepreneurs in India. Villgro’s definition of social entrepreneurship is a for-profit company that sustainably delivers value for the shareholders and social impact at the base of the economic pyramid through its products and/or value chain. A social enterprise should also be built for scaling up with venture capitalist (VC) backing. Prior to joining Villgro, I was a research scientist whose only claim to fame was a few initiatives that sought to commercialize research outputs. So, the terms “innovation, entrepreneurship, impact investment, VC” and other development-speak buzz words fueled my bold decision to go where no scientist had gone before (at least in my networks): to put these simple, common-sense concepts into practice in Kenya and East Africa.
Villgro Kenya opened its doors for business in April 2015. Armed with the Villgro incubation model (our “secret sauce”), a ready pipeline of Grand Challenges Canada-funded health innovations, key stakeholder partnerships, and backed by a young team that was full of energy and talent, we were ready to change the world!
The first lesson I learned working at Villgro was that “Plan A” never works. We set out as a business incubator to empower innovators through knowledge and business development services. We were met with veiled suspicion. We did not fit the “incubator” model. Villgro Kenya did not offer free space or wifi to innovators. Instead of “tech” or “youth”, the key buzz words that dominate Kenya’s innovation landscape, Villgro’s branding of “health”, “hardware” and “social entrepreneurship” seemed out-of-touch with the times and altogether not cool. Our target market, the entrepreneurs, did not mince words either. They wanted funding, not the rich menu of knowledge or incubation services that we offered.
The second lesson I learnt was grit and patience. This will be familiar to most entrepreneurs. It takes grit, perseverance and (in lieu of capital) partnerships to press on until the breakthrough! Slowly, the entrepreneurs started trickling in. It was not our impressive CVs or Villgro India’s enviable track record in supporting over 100 innovators to raise USD $25 million and create over 4,000 jobs. Rather, it was the introductions from friends and partners who vouched for us. We rolled up our sleeves and got to work. Our backers and partners, Villgro India and the Lemelson Foundation, were patient and accommodating as we struggled to find our feet. When we were hard on ourselves, they celebrated our little successes. More importantly, they reminded us that Rome was not built in a day. Through our partners, we were introduced to USAID’s Partnership to Accelerate Entrepreneurship (PACE) initiative that provided capacity building and grant seed capital to fund startups. With a stronger value proposition to entrepreneurs in place, we were finally in business, increasing the flow of quality startups applying for incubation!
My third lesson was about the importance of understanding the market. As we worked with startups, we learnt more about the health system and the market that it serves. In the health sector, need does not equate to demand. This is because Africa’s population lacks the purchasing power to reward private sector’s R&D investments with premium profits that drive the global pharmaceutical and medical device industry. Africa’s market – though not willing to bear the costs of “premium offerings” – is discerning and demands quality but cost-effective solutions. Imported solutions that are designed for the more affluent European and North American markets often fail due to high price points and expensive operational infrastructure requirements that further increase the costs of healthcare delivery. How can innovators employ frugal innovation in the design and development of solutions to achieve problem-solution fit? How can they employ social entrepreneurship business models in the production and delivery of health innovations to achieve product-market fit? We learnt quickly that the market is unforgiving, consisting of a donor-driven public health sector that lacks incentive for adopting innovations, as well as a private health sector that presents a fragmented market requiring considerable time and capital to gain traction.
The fourth and final lesson is that if “cash is king” it means the VC is the hidden customer! Realizing how much time and capital it takes to demonstrate a commercial proof of concept was humbling. The only way to reduce the time is to increase the capital. Enter the Argidius Foundation. They challenged us not to provide our services for free, but we didn’t want to charge cash-strapped entrepreneurs. Could we find a middle ground to make this partnership work? The short answer is yes, but we had to change our mindset from thinking like an entrepreneur (market focused) to thinking like an investor (ROI and investment cycle). We continued providing grant seed capital but also introduced equity investments as we de-risked the companies. We strengthened our due diligence and investment committee and noticed that our conversations with follow-on investors were beginning to yield fruit. Our incubation support also reflected a stronger commercial and investment mindset as we began to recalibrate our incubation goals to better align with the investors’ proof points. Before long, we were making our targets as our portfolio companies started to receive term sheets and successfully raise the necessary capital to start making significant inroads in the market.
Today, we celebrate five years of Villgro’s ongoing expansion in Kenya and the region. We are proud of the partnerships that have yielded the progress made so far. Villgro Kenya has proved that homegrown solutions and social enterprises in the health sector can rival the success of Fin Tech startups, if given a chance. Our portfolio companies have succeeded in generating more than USD 1 million in revenues and created 188 jobs in the formal economy, even as they sustainably delivered a health impact for the marginalized communities.
However, it is not all rosy. Clear disparities in the progress of African-founded startups still exist compared to expat-founded startups. The same disparity can be seen with startups offering services versus startups producing hardware or products, and academia or science-based startups versus tech or commercial-based startups. Moreover, even the hard-won gains now risk being wiped away by the COVID-19 pandemic as it threatens lives and upends the economy.
There is, therefore, a lot more work to do and even more at stake than before, which brings us to the fifth lesson: you can’t do it alone – it takes a village! This means looking beyond our own needs to building the ecosystem we operate in so as to create a more enabling environment for more innovators to succeed. “It takes a village” also means scaling Villgro’s replication across the continent by partnering with like-minded incubators and accelerators and sharing our “secret sauce”, the Villgro model of supporting and investing in social entrepreneurs across Africa.
Leading us into this new phase of growth is one of my co-founders, Wilfred Njagi, who will be taking over the helm as CEO as we begin the expansion of Villgro across Africa. Wilfred has been instrumental in the setting up of Villgro from the very start and graciously invited me to steer the boat in the early formative stages of our journey. Wilfred is a naturally gifted entrepreneur and leader, whose contributions to Villgro’s transformative story over the last six years cannot be gainsaid. I cannot think of a better person to lead the organization during this critical time in history as we address the COVID-19 threat. I am very thankful for the amazing friendship, partnership, and support that we have developed along the way and I invite you to join me in welcoming and supporting Wilfred in his new role as CEO as he drives us to greater heights. Thank you!
Co-Founder & Director, Villgro Kenya
Since 2015, Villgro Kenya has been successfully supporting entrepreneurs and innovators in the health and life science sectors. During this period the organization has received hundreds of applications and provided approximately $1M in early-stage seed funding across 20 companies in Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia. With the onset of Covid-19 and the growing demand from health-focused entrepreneurs across the continent, Villgro will now be expanding its services across Africa.
As the organization prepares for the next stage of growth and impact, the team is excited to announce some internal changes that will allow the organization to capitalize on the opportunities that are emerging.
Beginning July 1st, Dr. Robert Karanja will “pass the CEO baton” to Mr. Wilfred Njagi, who is currently a co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Villgro Kenya. Dr. Karanja has very successfully led the expansion effort of Villgro into Kenya and will now become Chief Research Officer (CRO) and will be leveraging his deep roots in academia, research, and impact investment to catalyze these sectors towards increasing opportunities to entrepreneurs and innovators across the continent.
Dr. Karanja has shared his thoughts and lessons learned during his tenure as CEO of Villgro Kenya. Wilfred Njagi has been with Villgro Kenya since the inception, prior to which he spent a year as a Fellow with Villgro Innovations Foundation in India. Mr. Njagi has deep roots and experience in the social enterprise ecosystem having also spent 10 years in Tech startups, Business Development, Social Entrepreneurship, Impact Investing & Incubation support.
“The Villgro Africa team is young, dynamic, and committed to providing more opportunities for African entrepreneurs and innovators. This expansion has been growing organically as the team is already supporting early-stage companies in Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya. It is truly inspiring to formalize this with the planned launch of Villgro Africa and see even greater impact throughout the continent“ says Rob Beyer, Co-founder and Executive Chairman of Villgro Kenya.
As Villgro plans the expansion efforts across the continent they will be welcoming collaborators who share a vision of enhancing the livelihoods of those at the base of the economic pyramid through a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem. Villgro Africa will provide access to the proven Villgro Incubation model and expertise as they endeavor to work with local incubators, innovation hubs, challenge funds, and research bodies that strengthen capacities within individual countries.
“For more information and/or to explore collaborations please contact email@example.com.
Ethiopia has been touted as a frontier market in health innovation technologies as more young innovators continue to come up with local solutions for health challenges in the country. Villgro Kenya first ventured into the region when it supported Simbona Africa’s locally manufactured Neonatal Jaundice Treatment unit. Recently, the team manufactured a locally assembled UVC Room Sterilizer which was awarded a $15,000 COVID-19 response grant from Villgro Kenya to help ramp up their production.
The UVC apparatus is fitted with UVC lamps (8 watts) that emit high-intensity ultraviolet light that is able to kill microorganisms and pathogens found on surfaces in the room. It has the ability to disinfect up to 40 square meters of a room at any given time. According to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), the entire UV spectrum can kill or inactivate many microorganisms, but UVC energy provides the most germicidal effect. This is considered a breakthrough in the fight against the novel coronavirus as the rays are able to kill all known viruses.
The UVC room sterilizer is intended for use in hospital rooms, wards, and medical equipment where the virus is most likely to spread. To ensure the safety of the people operating it, the apparatus is placed in an empty room and switched on for 5-10 minutes before anyone is allowed to come back in. Habtamu Abafoge, Simbona Africa’s founder, says they have put the safety of the staff first by training and giving a manual that outlines how to use the apparatus efficiently. This speaks to their role in the ecosystem as they are also helping the government come up with protocols for upcoming innovative medical devices.
“Locally produced medical devices have been out of the scope for Ethiopia and Simbona has paved the way for the government to adopt standards for WHO Class II Medical Devices. One such case is when the International Ethiopian Standard Agency adopted the International Electrotechnical Commission Standards to give approval certificates for the phototherapy units and baby warmers. This innovation went through the Ethiopian Radiation Protection Authority,” said Habtamu Abafoge.
For innovative startups like Simbona Africa, the pandemic presented an opportunity to think on their feet and come up with solutions for their region due to the global shortage of devices and equipment. Experience has come in handy for the team and they have not faced a big challenge developing this product, as UVC apparatuses do not require clinical trials.
Habtamu, who has a biomedical engineering background, said they have already produced 14 units which they have sold mainly to the Ministry of Health and they hope to increase their production to at least 40 apparatus to help contain the virus in Ethiopia.
“Since we made the post on our website and Facebook page we have received calls from hotels, homes, businesses, and schools requesting for the machines, however, our location at Jimma poses a geographical challenge and we are currently in talks with the Ministry of Health and Medical Distributors to help deliver our product,” he explained.
With the right partners, they hope to scale across East Africa to ensure the device reaches more countries and helps them fight the disease. The COVID-19 Response Solutions grant they received from Villgro Kenya will go a long way in helping them scale their production and unlock networks with relevant authorities within the region. “We are seeing exciting new innovations and strong talent flowing from Ethiopia, we are keen to support the growth of this team and sector in the country,” says Rob Beyer, a co-founder of Villgro Kenya.
Habtamu welcomed the grant saying, “We welcome Villgro Kenya’s financial support as it will help bridge the demand gap we are currently facing. The partnership will also be key in unlocking networks in the Ministry of innovation and Technology and the Ministry of Health due to its status as a regional Impact Investor for Innovations. We have plans to scale to East Africa due to the regional demand which has been brought about by the pandemic.”
Innovators like Habtamu continue to show the importance of a vibrant innovation ecosystem in opening economies and providing local solutions to health challenges faced in their communities. He credits the progress to the Government of Ethiopia, which has been a positive partner that is open to receiving ideas that have the potential to impact the people positively. As the East African region is gradually lifting curfews the UVC room sterilizer will help complement the COVID-19 preventive measures as countries strive to adapt to the new normal.
In Kenya, just like many other Sub-Saharan African countries, pregnant mothers face the grim reality of losing their babies due to a lack of proper transportation to health facilities. Salome, a 27-year-old mother is one such case. On the 23rd of May at around midnight she started experiencing labour pains and her water broke at home. Having lost her first baby, she was determined to deliver her second baby safely so she dialed 1196 and Wheels for Life sent a taxi to take her to Huruma Nursing Home.
At Huruma Nursing Home, Salome’s labour was progressing poorly, Dr. “Jane” from Wheels for Life made a call to Rescue.co at 2.04 am requesting an ambulance to transfer Salome to Pumwani Maternity Hospital. The ambulance was dispatched four minutes later and completed her transfer in 17 minutes. Rescue.co had notified Pumwani of Salome’s condition and when she arrived she underwent an emergency cesarean section which saved both their lives.
Speaking after her delivery, Salome credited the Wheels for Life initiative for her health and that of her baby, saying, “Were it not for this initiative, I would have walked to the hospital and am not sure the baby and I would have been fine. God bless the work of your hands that you may continue to help those in need.”
The Wheels for Life initiative is a collaboration between Rescue.co, the Ministry of Health Kenya, AMREF, Bolt, Pharmaccess Foundation, Kenya Healthcare Federation, and Telesky that seeks to get expectant mothers to the hospital during curfew hours. As part of the initiative, a call centre managed by TeleSky has been set up that routes emergency calls to volunteer physicians. Calls that require an ambulance are directed to Rescue.co’s dispatch centre while those that can be handled by a taxi are dispatched to a Bolt taxi.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges women face to deliver their children. In Makueni County alone, there has been an increase in maternal mortality by a factor of 14, with four deaths in one-week post-curfew versus 15 deaths in the previous year. The high numbers in mortality rates can be attributed to poor transportation and health facilities being reassigned for COVID-19 response, with some major public hospitals converting their maternity wards into Infectious Disease Units.
Since the Wheels for Life initiative began on April 28th, 2020, the team has fielded 3,714 calls, dispatched 198 taxis, and 60 ambulances. All of the women who have used this service have survived, and dozens of babies have been born. The calls have ranged in severity, with the most extreme ones being related to cord prolapses, hypertension, reduced fetal movement and distress, preterm labor, and severe bleeding pre and post-delivery. Their fast response rates have helped save the lives of an average of 8 mothers every night.
Caitlin Dolkart, Rescue.co Co-founder said the partnership with Villgro Kenya has given them the necessary support they need to continue saving lives.
“We are thrilled to be working with Villgro to extend our Rescue.co services to those most in need. The grant will provide us funding to serve over 150 more mothers, and welcome 150 more babies into this world. This is one of those obvious solutions with unbelievable clear impact, and we will also use this funding to galvanise funding support from donors, the private sector, and the government.”
While the effects of the coronavirus pandemic are sure to remain with us for a long time, measures like the Wheels for Life initiative promise mothers the hope that regardless of the new normal they have a partner during their journey.
Villgro Kenya, a health investor and business incubator for innovative, early-stage health enterprises, is looking for healthcare entrepreneurs, professionals, and experts, both active and retired, with considerable healthcare-business experience to guide, advise and support health innovations and startups currently under Villgro Kenya’s Incubation Program.
Mentoring has become an essential factor in entrepreneurial success, helping entrepreneurs overcome setbacks they commonly face in the early stages of their ventures. With the growth of a vibrant innovation ecosystem in Africa, opportunities abound for aspiring and existing mentors to support budding entrepreneurs to accelerate their progress.
Mentors joining the Villgro Kenya family will have the opportunity to work alongside dynamic innovators working in the following sectors:
- Medical Diagnostic Devices
- Health Insurance Technology
- Health Service Delivery
As a mentor you will:
- Serve as a challenging thinking partner.
- Advise on goal setting and planning.
- Share industry information and knowledge.
- Provide a range of strategic and operational support.
In turn, you will:
- Gain personal and emotional satisfaction of having helped an entrepreneur scale.
- Enhance your own career and professional network.
- Learn about potential investment opportunities.
- Become a talent magnet – more promising founders will find you.
Mentorship is a tangible way to contribute to the creation and success of new companies while taking an active role in supporting an entrepreneur’s effort. To find out how you can become a mentor with Villgro Kenya, contact Rob Beyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Digital innovations have shown their ability to provide quality, effective, and affordable health outcomes in the wake of the novel coronavirus. The power of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has been manifested in 3D printing technology for personal protective equipment (PPE), affordable ventilators built across the world from open-source platforms, and telemedicine, just to name a few.
In countries where innovation systems continue to remain fragile, there is a growing need to protect science, technology, and innovative products during and after COVID-19, as they have long-term implications for development strategies.
As a key ecosystem player, this is what Villgro Kenya and our incubatees are doing to contribute towards fighting the COVID-19 pandemic:
- We have awarded $150K in grants to 12 innovative companies working to provide solutions to end the novel coronavirus in East Africa.
- Our portfolio companies continue to receive technical assistance from portfolio managers through virtual meeting platforms.
- We continue to engage stakeholders in academia, policy, and the medical innovations sector to ensure we come up with a holistic ecosystem solution.
- We have encouraged members of our staff to continue working from home and avoid unnecessary travel to reduce their chances of contracting the coronavirus.
Our portfolio companies have not been left out in the fight against COVID-19:
- Kijenzi – Producing PPE using 3D printing technology in Kisumu.
- Enzi Healthcare – Delivering healthcare services to homes to reduce the need for people to visit hospitals.
- Turaco – Rolled out a COVID-19 insurance package.
- Health-E-Net – Digitizing and data analysis of COVID-19 tests.
Now more than ever, innovative startups need support to scale their products to ensure more people get access to quality healthcare. As Villgro Kenya, we continue to pledge our commitment to addressing the lack of access to quality and affordable health services and technologies in Africa.
Villgro Kenya announced an investment of $50,000 to The Pathology Network, a digital referral platform for pathologists in Kenya
Kenya has over 47,000 new cancer cases and 33,000 cancer-related deaths annually with a limited number of cancer diagnosis centres and Pathologists translating to delays in diagnosing cancer early enough for treatment.
The Pathology Network-An Artificial Intelligence-powered digital platform linking small labs to specialized labs for seamless tests referral with access to specialists remotely to shorten the turn around time for diagnosis, promoting early medical intervention for prevention and treatment.
Through The Pathology Network Platform, small labs refer the specimen to specialized regional labs for processing and slide digitization in readiness for a Pathologist to diagnose and report on the cases remotely.
Dr Joshua Kibera, Chief Executive Officer at The Pathology Network Limited termed the investment as catalytic and stated that the company would also greatly benefit from the technical assistance and business coaching offered by Villgro Kenya team.
“On behalf of everyone at The Pathology Network, I would like to thank Villgro Kenya for a meticulous and transparent due diligence process and for choosing to invest in our company. We are excited to partner with VK and look forward to revolutionizing the diagnostic space together.”
“This investment comes at a time when most investors are scaling back on deals due to the business slump being experienced in many parts as a result of COVID-19. At Villgro Kenya, we strongly feel that this is the time that enterprises need all the financial support that they can get to cushion themselves against the negative economic impact of COVID-19. We are proud to play a small role in ensuring that startups outlive the pandemic.” Wilfred – Co-founder at Villgro Kenya.