Tackling COVID-19 in Nigeria: Health Tech Rising to the Challenge

“What is the role of the private sector in economic growth in Nigeria, especially when it comes to economic recovery and transformation after the pandemic?”

On September 10, the Milken Institute and the U.S. Nigeria Council hosted an online event focused on how Nigeria is combatting COVID-19 and the role of health tech as an emerging sector in the Nigerian economy. A video of the event and a transcript of the health tech discussion are available below.

The event proceeded in two parts:

  • Part I: A conversation with Nigerian Vice President H.E Yemi Osinbajo and Milken Institute Chairman Michael Milken
  • Part II: A discussion with private sector and health tech leaders: Abasi Ene-Obong, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, 54gene; Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, Founder and Chairman, Coronation Capital; Bryant Orjiako, Co-Founder and Chairman, Seplat Petroleum; and Vivian Nwakah, Co-Founder, Medsaf. This discussion was moderated by Esther Krofah, Executive Director of FasterCures at the Milken Institute.
Watch the Event
Transcript of the Health Tech Discussion

Esther Krofah

Hello everyone, and welcome. I’m Esther Krofah. I serve as the executive director of FasterCures, a center of the Milken Institute where we’re focused on accelerating biomedical innovation, and right now quite focused on the worldwide response to COVID-19. I’m especially delighted to be with you today, especially being a native of Nigeria, as Mike mentioned in the last panel, and would like to welcome all of you to the second part of today’s session, where we will discuss innovations in Nigeria is private sector in the current environment. And particularly in the health-tech space. Our panel will run for the next 30 minutes or so, and we hope to keep the next 10 to 15 minutes at the end for audience Q&A.

Before we get started, I wanted to cover a few housekeeping items. This call is being recorded and will be made available on the Milken Institute covid19africawatch.org website shortly. Questions can be submitted in the bottom right corner of the screen, through the Q&A feature, we’ll get to the Q&A portion of the discussion toward the end of this panel, but feel free to submit your questions at any time with that. I would like to introduce today’s very distinguished panel.

First, welcome to Bryant Orjiako, Chairman of Seplat Petroleum, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, Chairman of Coronation Capital, Abasi Ene-Obong , Founder and CEO of 54gene and Vivian Nwakah, co-Founder of Medsaf.

Let me start with Chairman Bryant. You’ve been a pioneer in the Nigerian private sector. You’ve been steering petroleum as a leading Nigeria independent energy company, but with a global brand for the last many years. How have you seen the role of Nigeria’s private sector evolve in recent years and in particular, how has the COVID-19 pandemic effected that evolution?

Bryant Orjiako

Thank you very much as the Nigerian private sector has been very vibrant for quite some time. And as you would have heard during the session with the Vice President Professor Osinbajo and Mr. Mike Milken, I think everything that you can see is that the Nigerian private sector is going to drive the Nigerian economy going forward. The Nigerian private sector has participated practically in every sector of the economy. We’ve seen them in oil and gas, which is a major part of the Nigerian economy. We’ve seen them in financial sectors, in the agriculture, manufacturing and the rest of them. And we’ve seen them also in health care services delivery. And basically all you can see going forward is that you can only grow this and the indices are there. Nigerians are made up of quite a lot of entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurial spirit and passion remains very strong and growing. In terms of statistics, you find that the Nigerian capital market, which is the second largest in Africa, contributes quite significantly to the Nigerian GDP.

Now, when you look at going forward, what’s happening in various sectors, you find that the Nigerian private sector will continue to add significantly to these growths. Look at what is happening in the oil industry. It used to be the case that all business used to be just between the government and the international oil companies. Today, the Nigerian and private sector is contributing more than 20% of activity in that space. And obviously because of certain policies in the government, this is growing. And the Nigerian government is looking to diversify the economy. Again, the Nigerian private sector will be the centerpiece for this. And that diversification will start with quite a number of things, including the growth of the energy sector, particularly power infrastructure. And this is one area in which our company is playing a major role, especially in our gas development and commercialization, particularly with gas to power, which will be the main engine of growth in the economy at large.

So going forward, this will continue to happen. And in the health sector, you can also see that quite a lot of Nigerian companies are doing quite a lot of things. We have not quite gotten where we should be in terms of healthcare services, again, due to the challenges in healthcare infrastructure and facilities and funding. But when you then bring this home to the COVID-19 pandemic and the role the private sector has played, you would have seen that the Nigerian private sector played a very active role, and it really hit the ground running, obviously showing the philanthropic spirit that they’ve all shared. You have the COVID initiative that was started by the Central Bank of Nigeria, led by Aliko Dangote and a number of other Nigerian business and leaders. And then you also have the other component led by the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). Through these initiatives, you see that the private sector very actively augmented what the federal government was doing.

Basically they supported the presidential task force on COVID-19, that reaches out to all parts of the country in terms of testing and identification of cases, in terms of treatment, building and supporting isolation centers. Then of course the private sector then took the initiative, built some of the centers themselves, provided quite a lot of testing opportunities, isolation, centers, and treatments. Now, from our perspective, as a company, working with an NNPC, we took the initiative further by building, not just temporary isolation centers, but starting to build hospitals, especially in terms of disease control hospitals. In surplus, we, as a company invested $1.2 million, working with NNPC in a joint venture to build one of these hospitals in Imo state, which is one area where we operate. Over and above that, we reached out to communities where we work over the years, and have shown quite a lot of commitment in terms of corporate social responsibility programs.

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, we then took that to even another level. Apart from participating very actively in educating these communities, in areas of heightened hygiene, social distancing, and various aspects of prevention of COVID-19 infection, we then also intervened in areas of food security. Because following the lockdown initiative, quite a number of them didn’t have access to food. So we did spend quite substantial amount of money and provided food stuff in these communities. Obviously the other traditional corporate social responsibility programs we carry out in our company (being our eye treatments in those areas, care for the pregnant women, and making sure that infant mortality and maternal mortality are under control) continued. But going forward, I think we can only see areas of improvement.

And I will contribute as time goes on in this discussion, because I know that health technology is one areas the private sector will do even more. Recently the Central Bank of Nigeria encouraged quite a number of pharmaceutical companies in Nigeria. And this is a very important intervention with about a hundred million Naira, mainly focused towards improving the ability of local manufacturing companies in the pharmaceutical space to be able to produce relevant drugs for which the global supply chains were challenged as a result of the impact of COVID 19 pandemic. So the view is to see how much of this we can do locally. And I think all of these are collectively yielding fruits. One of the things that the private sector has actually done is to make sure that the consciousness of COVID-19 is well felt across the nation.

Esther Kofrah

Thank you so much, Chairman Bryant. It’s quite clear that the private sector has been very active. During this time I’d like to turn it over to Chairman Aig. I think you’ve been quite involved in mobilizing the private sector for a number of years and even mobilizing private citizens to be engaged in terms of contributing back towards the country. Can you tell me a little bit more about the Social Solidarity Support Fund? What has been the role of that in the private sector, but importantly, within the context of the pandemic?

Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede

Thank you for inviting me to participate in this panel. COVID-19 has many effects on people on the world health, economic, social. I was speaking to one of the leaders of a financing institution and he said, it appears that actually pandemics can have as devastating an effect on the development of African nations as the global financial crisis. Pandemics can set African nations back as much as 10 years, 20 years in terms of development. Take a look at Liberia and Ebola, for example. The rest of the world has a way of coming together, dealing with pandemics and them behind them for good. In Africa, you know, we tend to suffer the lingering effects of pandemics long after the rest of the world has put them to bed. And this is one of the things that really has kept me awake, even as we find that certainly in Nigeria, both government and the private sector made some early moves that have bought us time.

But if you begin to think about certain things, remember that this is not just a health crisis. It’s an economic and social crisis as well. And probably the tendency is to initially look at the responses across the world, they tended to focus on the health issues. Now the totality of money committed per citizen of the world is $2,000. In Nigeria, the totality of money that is committed by the public and the private sector: 5% is coming from the private sector; in the rest of the world, less than 1% come from private sector. So in Nigeria, the private sector is really, really stepping up. But in Nigeria, we’re committing $32 per citizen. And so you begin to see why I cannot sleep at night. And that is why we felt that well-meaning stakeholders, private sector, public sector, people from outside must come together in terms of putting Nigeria in a strongest position to fight this pandemic: thus the Nigeria Social Solidarity Support Fund (NSSSF). This fund is a very innovative intervention mechanism by Nigerians for Nigerians. And you said something very important. It’s about mobilizing citizens to take collective action, mobilizing citizens to donate as well as to take action, and action in areas that perhaps may otherwise be ignored.

Three areas of focus work. Let me tell you something. I never thought about the impact of a pandemic like COVID until I sat in rooms with citizens like me who told me: Do I know what happens to those with disabilities? Do I know what happens to those who have existing health concerns at this point in time? Who is looking after them? What about the people who cannot have HIV meds anymore because of lockdowns? And the rising cases of deaths for cancer and other reasons. So vulnerable segments of society are one area of focus.

The other area of focus is re-skilling Nigerians for the post COVID era. And in that regard, let me tell you something, the changes in behavior such that digitalization has taken over the world, which is great, and we will skill our people in a digital sense, but do you know that there is actually a digital divide? There are digital haves and digital have-nots. And can you imagine what happens to those people who have no access to bandwidth and other things as we skill ourselves for a new way of life? Everybody who is excluded from such tools and such opportunities is even further excluded from development.

And then finally you know, in our country, we have one doctor to 2,700 people. It’s meant to be one doctor to 600 by WHO statistics. And many African countries actually operate at that range. We need to fix our primary healthcare infrastructure. So that’s the focus of the NSSSF – in terms of digital and the train has left the station, and we’re moving around Nigeria trying to make our own impact.

Esther Kofrah

I think some of the issues that you just identified are not unique in fact just to Nigeria, when you talk about the digital divide, for example, that isn’t a global issue. It’ll be interesting to see how we solve for that in particular countries and then how we export those best practices where we see that everywhere around the world. I wanted to bring this to the focus on health-tech specifically, and both of you have done a fantastic job outlining what the private sector has been doing over the last many years. Abasi, you are a young entrepreneur and founded this company 54gene: how did you get started? What is the ecosystem that is supporting your company?

Abasi Ene-Obong

Thank you, and greetings to everyone. We started 54gene in January last year. And our goal is to equalize precision medicine. So there’s this bias that many people do not know about. And it’s the fact that medicine is moving rather quickly. Our genetics schema, genetic data is informing how to treat people, whether that is for cancers, cardiovascular diseases, even infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis. Many parts of the world have gotten a head start and have conducted genetic studies, once the technology was available in the early 2000s. As of this year, Africans have only made up about 2% of all genetic studies. And what that means is that as drugs keep being developed, and are being targeted for all these diseases, we are losing an opportunity to actually have drugs targeted for people like you or me. So 54gene was started last year and in the space of the past year, we’ve been able to attract over $20 million in funding from a collection of US, Nigerian and global investors to solve this problem. And we have been doing the research partnering with global pharmaceutical companies trying to answer some of these questions that basically improve our connected health care.

Now when the pandemic hit, and the world was going to be closed up because of the COVID pandemic, we looked at the capabilities that we already had developed in-house. Incidentally, some of these capabilities were needed for the pandemic. At the time, Nigeria was doing somewhere around 200 tests a day, and we saw that there was no way we could contribute at 200 tests a day. And so I had to immediately call my team who had the molecular science backgrounds (and molecular science is rarein Nigeria because most universities that teach molecular sciences don’t even have the labs to treat people practically). So it’s usually a theoretical study. And without doing the practicals, you don’t really know how to apply that theory. And so we had to replenish some of our team and joined forces initially with Union Bank to raise about $500,000. We contributed a significant part of that money. And we immediately used those funds to help improve the public labs. Our goal at the time: these tests would done publicly by government labs, but these labs did not have that capacity, and that’s why they weren’t doing enough tests. And so we increased their capacity to a point where they could start doing somewhere around 1,500 tests to date, by buying a PCR equipment, or to get an extractor.

The next issue we had: you have this equipment, but people still need to do this test. And so we found that private sector companies can help provide the funds, for example, FCM Nigeria provided funding for us to launch a lab in local states and test 3,000 people. The Dangote Foundation did something similar. So we partnered with these groups, and immediately deployed a lab. We came up with this lab, we were the first group in the country to create a mobile operational diagnostics laboratory.

Esther Kofrah

Abasi, we’ll come back to you to complete your thoughts, but let me actually bring in a Vivian because what you have done is create an innovation that was brought to scale very quickly with respect to the pandemic. It’d be interesting to hear from you later: what’s your hope for their future? How can this be applied to other disease conditions? Because COVID-19 will come and it will go, as we address the pandemic from a therapeutic and vaccine perspective.

Vivian, just to turn it over to you for a moment, you’ve been dealing with a pharmaceutical supply chain issue now for several years. How did Medstaf get started and how has the pandemic affected your business and what are your persisting challenges?

Vivian Nwakah

Thank you for having me here. Today is actually my seven-year anniversary of moving to Nigeria without ever having been in Africa before, to help solve Nigeria’s problems. So it’s a special day. I started Medsaf because a friend of mine died from taking a fake malaria pill. And I believe, and have seen, that fake and substandard medications and consumables (which includes PPE and other medical equipment) could be one of the largest public health challenges that Africa faces but that is untracked. And so Medsaf was created to reduce the friction between all of the various players within the pharmaceutical supply chain that causes the end result to be fake or substandard medications within the system. And we started in 2017. So from 2017, we knew we were going to create this super-platform or super-app that facilitates and finances the movement of pharmaceutical products through the supply chain. And we use data analytics and technology to increase the access, affordability and quality of medications.

So we’ve been working on a COVID-19-ready company since 2017, and when you think about building and improving the healthcare system in an African perspective, that’s how you get prepared for these types of issues that could potentially pop up like a pandemic. One of the things that was unfortunate for us, but fortunate for Abasi, was that we were just in the beginning of our fundraising. And I want to explain that one of the largest challenges for the healthcare industry at this point in time is access to finance. At Medsaf, we’ve been financing hospitals and pharmacies since 2017.

Something that a lot of people don’t know is that we actually are a FinTech company. We’re the first company to provide a FinTech product around the purchasing of medications in Nigeria, and throughout the pandemic, we financed over 160 healthcare facilities as they purchased what they could through this disruption of the supply chain. And we were able to expand to about five additional states due to the fact that we’ve been teaching the healthcare industry that you can use technology, i.e. a platform/a website to purchase your medications since 2017. We’ve built up a brand that means quality. That meant that we didn’t even meet these hospitals that randomly reached out and use our platform until they made a request for the medications that they needed. So I believe that Medsaf has actually solved the issue of this supply chain breakdown, and with the right support of stakeholders and Nigerian government and financiers, that we can actually really scale this across the country and start moving it through other emerging markets that also suffer from the same issue.

I want to mention some of the other side impacts that I saw throughout COVID-19 that we helped support. Cancer patients: where are the cancer medications – disrupted, right? Abortions are illegal in Nigeria, but do you know how many requests we continue to get for abortion medications? And as we turn these women away, where are they going? What are they doing? Hypertension, diabetes, all of the chronic illnesses. So throughout COVID-19, we actually expanded our platform to engage directly with patients. That is not something that we typically do. We have a supplier network that we’ve vetted. We get supplier network, supplier, medications, and pharmacy, and manufacturer medications directly to hospitals and pharmacies. And we use the data that we collect from those transactions to help manufacturers and pharma companies improve their offering. We’re not B-to- C, but we were pulled into B-to-C due to very sad cases of patients not being able to access their hospitals.

So as we speak about COVID-19 and its impact, I really want us to start to think about the thousands of different other types of issues that popped up because the COVID-19 focus. For instance, the lack of access to financing for hospitals that already exist, that already have been working in these communities for years, for decades. What is the support that they were able to receive from the greater community so that they could improve their offering to the patients that trust them?

Esther Kofrah

Let me just stop you right there, because I think you’ve raised a number of points related to the financing of the health-tech sector that can spur further innovation, which as we just talked about is going to be the growth engine for the Nigerian economy going forward.

Aigboje, can you comment on that? Because that’s what you, that’s what you do. That’s what you’ve spent your career focused on. How can companies like these be mobilized from a financing perspective? What is the role of capital for the health sector in Nigeria?

Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede

The ecosystem I’m involved in is a model that you would find more in Asia if you like the Tencent model, where within an ecosystem, you have several disciplines by which you serve and provide solutions to the needs of people using technology. So technology is very central to what we do. And we are involved in several things, and even my exposure to oil and gas is completely technology driven, for example. Just like across Africa, innovative young firms in Nigeria have greater access than they had in previous years. I can tell you that much. For example, if you look at health ventures in Africa, by the first half of 2020, they had raised about $90 million. It’s not a lot, but look, I can tell you that 10 years ago you would be saying that in half of the year, they raised $2 million. You’ve got to see the growth. Now there’s still a yawning gap. I’ll focus on the health innovation and funding, early growth health opportunities, because that’s the focus of the discussion.

Financing from commercial banks (because those are dominant) is not going to be done because nowhere in the world do commercial banks fund early, early stage growth companies and startups. That is done by investors. And the intermediaries are the financial institutions that stand between such investors and people like Abasi and Vivian who might be seeking capital. They could be called venture capital companies, private equity companies, alternative asset managers. That area is only just developing. It’s been 20 years at most in Africa. So let’s start there. We are in a nascent stage of growth.

But what is the good news? Capital goes to where the opportunity is. Without the opportunity, there’s no sustainable way that capital will move to fund something. Now what is that opportunity? We have 200 million users of healthcare in Nigeria who are very dissatisfied with status quo. Isn’t that a great opportunity: 200 million customers who don’t like the level of care they’re receiving today. So clearly, the demographic argument is there. So what is then the challenge, can they pay? Guess how much these 200 million people spend on healthcare every year? 4.2 trillion. That is much more than is spent on the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM). It could be obvious, but understand that by organizing the GSM telco sector. That sector now accounts for 17 to 20% of GDP and made many people very wealthy, not just the people who invested in the mobile telecommunications company MTN and so on, but think about everybody along the value chain. So this is a very powerful sector that could transform lives, for investors and people in the value chain across Nigeria.

So what’s the problem? Why aren’t we getting money to those who have the ideas? It has to be better organized, inmy mind. But the great thing actually is this: it’s not easy to be a young entrepreneur, and I admire them. I’m not that young anymore. It’s really tough. And the Vice President and his team have done a great job in improving the environment, but it’s really, really tough still, and apart from access to capital, there are several additional challenges.

But you know what I love about digital innovation? The raw material is the brain and the fixed assets are in the cloud. Let me tell you what making money is all about. It’s all about the raw material, the fixed assets by which you convert those raw materials into value. On the market, they are all there.

Esther Kofrah

Let me just pause on that point, because I think that point is what brings the story of Abasi and Vivian together, because you’re talking about skill sets that exist, intellectual capital that exists. Pairing it with trying to solve a particular problem, but you need the infrastructure in order to do so. You’ve talked about the role of private capital, potentially.

I’m interested, Bryant, before I turn back to Abasi and Vivian, for you to comment on the role of philanthropy. Because maybe not any particular financial mechanism can solve for all of that, to provide the kind of capital that Vivian or Abasi would need. What is the role of philanthropy? What is the role of private industry like SEPLAT, for example, which has been quite involved in local communities trying to support hospitals or eyecare or maternal and child health, how do we pair that into this entire ecosystem?

Bryant Orjiako

Thank you very much, Esther. First of all, let me join Aig in commending Vivian and Abasi. These are indeed the real hope of the growing private sector in Nigeria. I must say, congratulations, young people, for all the good things you’re doing. Now, the role of philanthropy isindeed also related to the role of the private sector. Obviously Aig has highlighted it, but the health sector is suffering a great deal in Nigeria. It’s suffering from inadequate funding, and I’ll give you one typical example. In 2001, the Africa Union started the Abuja Declaration, where all the countries are expected to invest at least 15% of their budget in health care services. To date, only one country, and I think that is Tanzania, has met this target. Many other countries have indeed backslid in terms of even reaching 15%. Many of them are below 10%. That has created a very huge gap in this sector.

Another area of concern is the fact that if you look at really what happens with healthcare services, there are multiple problems of funding. One is the fact that the funding is not there. Those who have the funds do not have the willingness to spend more money on healthcare services. The third point of course, is the infrastructure that is either lacking or they are dilapidated. And this is where the efforts of these young entrepreneurs really come very handy.

So in terms of philanthropy, it’s important that we go back to the drawing table and look more at the needs. Obviously, it’s been highlighted: the digital application in medicine, the telemedicine, all of these would need to be funded because with the COVID pandemic the real importance of the internet of medical things and needs has been heightened. So these are areas that both the private sector and philanthropy should begin to address.

The other area that I think is very critical, in addition to the mobile lab, as you make the diagnosis, is what then happens to these patients when you see them? So philanthropy has to play a major role in making sure that especially those who do not have the ability to pay for healthcare services are then assisted in doing that. Aig also mentioned the aspect of not many people really have access to digital technologies or what then happens. So I think again, to reach out to them, mobile services and all of these other areas will be where the private sector will need to come in and intervene.

Esther Kofrah

Yes, absolutely. Thank you so much. And everyone has to find their place and play their role in order to continue to sustain the kind of development we’ve talked about. I want to go quickly back to Abasi and Vivian before I open it up for audience Q&A, we’ve talked about potential opportunities and financing on two different sides. If you could identify your top three needs from your business perspective, as you look at the future of health-tech, the challenges that you’ve been able to solve thus far, but you’re trying to project two or three years down the road. What are the two or three things that you need in order for your businesses to continue to thrive, but also to solve this healthcare challenge that as Aigboje pointed out, is a significant opportunity. Abasi, can we start with you?

Abasi Ene-Obong

I would say funding, access to capital. We trying to solve a difficult problem that requires lots of investments upfront, and that’s the thing we need to help companies really do R&D. And not many people are comfortable on funding R&D. So being able to tap into a steady source of capital is definitely a need.

A secondary need is talent. Talent is needed drastically. Because in sciences like data science, biology, artificial intelligence, we don’t have universities in Africa that are developing people with this skillset and there are no other jobs or other companies. There isn’t an ecosystem that is developing this talent. So we are left with typically having to do the development ourselves or via subsidiaries in markets. Those are the two major needs I think that we need.

Esther Kofrah

That’s great. Those are really good points that you have identified.

Vivian, you strike me as someone who solves a problem and you don’t really wait around for anyone else to come and solve it for you. But still you’re in an ecosystem within what you’re trying to achieve in Nigeria with this pharmaceutical supply chain working with hospitals. What are your top two needs?

Vivian Nwakah

Absolutely I would say access to financing. I think I’m the number 37 Black woman that has raised over a million dollars. From the US perspective they say there’s only 35, but what would be nice is if there were more rallying of Nigerian investors around solving Nigerian problems. I’m here in London, fundraising, I’m getting instant checks from the French, UK, European, Americans. And so I think that Nigerians can rally around helping the startup ecosystem because there are brilliant and amazing people trying to really solve Nigerian problems from the ground that have the solutions but that don’t get access to the financiers, who can give someone like me or someone like Abasi the money that they actually need to grow their business.

The second would be partnerships. You know, I moved to Nigeria without knowing anybody here. I’ve worked my way up from the very bottom to figure out how to understand the business community. It would be nice to be able to present something that I know is a 100% solid to the Nigerian government, and actually think that I will be able to work on that project. Being able to partner with governments obviously would allow my business to scale immediately overnight and be able to solve the problems that we’ve been tackling in the private sector since 2017. But sometimes entrepreneurs like me, that don’t have the family or the family connections, we do find it harder to be able to work with government. And I’m just going to be honest there. So definitely partnerships and access to financing.

Esther Kofrah

Two very important points that you have raised. I want to open it up for the audience questions that have come in and we have a great one to start with for both Bryant and Aig. How do we begin to tell the positive stories coming out of Nigeria in Africa, in terms of rebranding Nigeria to attract international investment potentially into these companies we’ve heard about today, as well as into that health sector more generally. How do we tell these positive stories and developments? Bryant, why don’t we start with you and then Aig.

Bryant Orjiako

Telling the positive stories, frankly, there are many challenges, but there are obviously some good stories to tell about Nigeria. Number one, of course is the abundance of talent starting with Vivian and Abasi. So there are very many things to tell about Nigerians in that regard. The next one, of course, we spoke about it before, is the way and manner in Nigeria and philanthropy is very sensitive to situations like this. I spoke about the way Nigerians participated. And I think when Vivian spoke about Nigerians putting money into Nigerian issues, that is very key. I think quite a lot of Nigerians have done this, but we would like to see more and more Nigerians do it. I think that’s the message. And the good story of course, is that quite a number of people are doing a lot of things which are not known and therefore quite a lot of this information needs to be put together and put out into public space.

The other point of course is to encourage those who have been dominant to see that these are opportunities to be added into whatever they’re doing that is not known. That’s the way to start now. Of course, the partnerships that Vivian mentioned, I think it’s not only partnerships with government. I think there is needs to be partnerships with the private sector as well. And once you do this, then not only will those areas of difficulties become more known, but obviously you now begin to see those who might be interested in supporting these kinds of initiatives, but do not do so because they don’t have the access. So I think those are the two areas I’d like to talk about.

Esther Kofrah

Yes, Aigboje. I’d offer you to pick up on this idea: it’s not just about international finance and capital; also about domestic financing capital and investing in these kinds of companies, but also in telling the stories. How do you see that? What’s your response to that question?

Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede

On this, I speak to Vivian and Abasi as much as I speak to any young person who is on this call. I can tell you that in Nigeria, most of the big success stories that you see entrepreneurially, that you talk about today, after 30 or 40 years of venturing, these people and their backgrounds, including myself, ordinary Nigeria finds it so much more difficult to scale up their ideas and their dreams, and make a big impact. That much I agree.

And why is it so much more difficult? Why was it in a sense easier in the past? Now, whenever Nigeria has played, whenever we played the type of music as business people, almost like an orchestra that everybody’s applauding across the world, we all come together and work as one towards that common purpose. When I say we, I’m saying government and the private sector. We all work in unison, knowing that the winner is Nigeria. Government gets taxes, our people get better services and of course, greater opportunity in terms of employment and so on. That is what we have to do. Think about my story and that of other people in the banking industry, it was not very different from the things you are saying today. How would you as a young man or woman in Nigeria buy a bank, how would you do it?

Of course, you’ve got to raise money from people. And it wasn’t an easy thing to do owning banks or something that was for politicians and military, very senior military men until 1990. And Nigeria got together and said, let’s license this stuff. And let’s give opportunities for professionals to move in. And the world has changed since then. And those are the brands you see on Nigeria TV. Now those brands could be Vivian’s brand or Abasi’s. If we come together, and back them the same way Nigeria backed the banking industry, backed the telecoms industry, today backing the oil and gas local participants. And so that is what is needed. Nothing else.

Esther Kofrah

I think these comments give me a lot of hope for the future. Vivian, what gives you hope for the future? You’ve heard a lot today. It sounds as though there’s tremendous support for companies such as yours, there’s a significant need in addressing the kinds of issues you’ve been proactive in solving for many of these issues, including, as you said, providing financial capital, even to the hospitals that you work with. What gives you hope for the future?

Vivian Nwakah

Great question.  I grew up in Chicago surrounded by an amazing group of Nigerians. My couch growing up was the underground railroad because every other week an uncle would pop up straight from Lagos or the East, and then they would go on to be doctors, they would go on to be attorneys, they would go on to make a name for themselves. So I’ve always had this understanding that Nigerians are extremely resilient people. They’re extremely brilliant people and they are the greatest asset that Nigeria has. Greater than oil. And so I know, and I saw during COVID-19 that no matter what happens, somehow Nigerian come together, they rally and they suffer and they figure it out.

And so the hope that I have for the future is that what makes me Nigerian is that optimism and that fighting spirit that just makes me continue to be resilient and keep carrying on. And I try to bring people along with me into that mentality if they don’t think that way. And so the hope is that there is nothing else to do, but hope. And so that’s my answer.

Esther Kofrah

Thank you. And Abasi, you’re talking about advances in life sciences that are critical for sustaining a therapeutic development and helping with better health outcomes. What gives you hope?

Abasi Ene-Obong

No African company has ever discovered a new drug and we’re going to change that. So that’s one of the programs that we set out to solve. We are going to be that African company that makes innovations that are not just sold in Africa. And it gives me hope because 10 years ago, I couldn’t see this. Nobody could see this right now. Africa contributes less than 1% to a drug R&D – less than 1%! But we can be what China has been to the outlet industry. Once upon a time, it was similar to Africa.

I think that that’s one way you can really transform an industry because of the jobs, the revenue that comes from those drugs, it can be used to build other aspects of the ecosystem. And so I am glad and I’m excited. And I’m also excited that most people in the world are beginning to see that we can do this. And so that’s what gives me some hope and excitement.

Esther Kofrah

I am so grateful that I was able to participate in this discussion today. Nigeria has tremendous human capital, intellectual capital, and the resources while the challenge can be solvable. I want to thank all of you for participating in this panel and sharing your insights and your expertise and your vision for Nigeria and for the entire continent.

For this particular panel and the work that’s been underway, I’d invite the audience to visit the website of the US-Nigeria Council. We encourage you to visit the Milken Institute covid19africawatch.org website for recording of today’s event, as well as latest information and resources regarding the pandemic in Africa. And you of course can continue to reach out to us. Right now, through zoom, chat, you can visit the Milken Institute webpage for the work that we’re doing at FasterCures with regards to COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines. And I look forward to partnering with you.

This was a great conversation in ways that we could be helpful with the work that we do with regard to life sciences, health sector, medical research. Abasi, Vivian, please look out for a note for me just to follow up on this conversation today. Thank you so much for participating all of you, to this fantastic discussion and I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day.

via COVID-19 Africa Watch