SAVING LIVES IN NIGERA
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Inspired by Nelson Mandela, Temie Giwa-Tubosun wanted a career in the UN until an experience in a village in Nigeria changes her life. She sets out to build a marketplace to help hospitals get the blood that they need for their patients, but how is she going to get the blood delivered in Lagos’ crazy traffic?
“We are on a mission to save one million lives”
Episode 2 of Revolution of Necessity is about a startup that is literally saving lives. It shares the story of Temie Giwa-Tubosun, the Founder & CEO of LifeBank. LifeBank is a healthtech startup in Nigeria that helps hospitals find the critical medical supplies that they need and delivers it to them on time and in the right condition. The company began by focusing on blood: it has already delivered more than 10,000 units of blood to hospitals in Lagos.
LifeBank is an important story because healthcare systems in most developing countries need a lot of work. This is especially true in Nigeria, where the system is notoriously bad (a recent World Health Organization study ranked it 187 out of 191 countries - here). As LifeBank shows, the impact of technology in such a context is potentially enormous. This episode gives a sense of the challenges of building a startup in a place like Nigeria, as well as some of the lessons.
The Importance of Purpose
"When you find your life's work it helps simplify your life. I don't have to save everybody in the world. It helps organize me, it keeps me focused completely on this one problem I've decided to solve."
How Temie came to start LifeBank is a powerful story. Growing up she wanted to be a lawyer, but, inspired by Nelson Mandela, she pursues a career in the United Nations. After seeing a young woman almost die in childbirth she focuses on health, but the international organizations are not close enough to the challenges on the ground. After her own traumatic labor, not even her cool job working health messages into Nollywood (Nigeria’s version of Hollywood) scripts is enough. She devotes herself to building a company that will help tackle maternal mortality.
This interview is packed with lots of great insights on building a startup. Here are some of them:
1. Define your problem and know your market
Temie is determined to improve maternal health and she zeroes in on the blood shortage problem. However, to address this issue she really has to understand why there’s not enough safe blood available. Temie doesn’t sit around speculating; she immerses herself in the market, talking with people who are dealing with this problem everyday.
"I talked to everybody that would talk to me. I'd usually walk into hospitals like "so, what's going on around blood here?" ...I would talk to hospitals, to government agencies, anyone who would talk to me, who knew something about this particular system, about maternal mortality in general, I would talk to them."
It was from one of these meetings that she makes her critical discovery that blood that is not used within six weeks has to be thrown away.
2. Finding creative spaces
Inspiration often doesn’t come at scheduled times. Contrary to prevailing wisdom, you’re probably not going to have your best insights at that planned “whiteboard session”. Entrepreneurs need time to think, to be creative, for ideas to come to them. The critical insight for Temie’s startup comes when her mind is wandering on a long car drive.
"We were going on a road trip. My husband is driving and he is in the mood, he’s listening to some music and I'm sitting down beside him in my own thoughts and I started thinking about all the things I've learned in this last year around blood."
Good thing she wasn’t mindlessly playing with her phone….
3. Be resourceful. Master Google
In many ways being a startup founder is just having to conquer a seemingly endless series of problems, most - if not all - of which you’ve never dealt with before. Being resourceful - figuring out how to solve problems (quickly!) - is an essential skill. The answers to many questions can be found online, as Temie discovers time and time again. For example, when she has to figure how to move blood.
"Entrepreneurs this is the way Google helps you: I literally Googled “how to move blood”. That was it, “how do you move blood and keep it cold."
4. Get support. The right support
Building a startup is hard. Incredibly hard. You need support. Other Founders can be great. So too can the right startup programs. Temie joins pioneering Lagos tech hub CCHub’s incubation program and it’s incredibly valuable. While most people don’t know why she wants to leave her awesome job, Bosun Tujani, Femi Longe and Tunji Eleso and the CCHub team help Temie focus on the most important things she needs to do get LifeBank going. She couldn’t have done it without them.
5. Getting the sequencing right
Building a marketplace is much harder than it seems. Getting both supply and demand right is critical. Luckily for Temie, her detailed understanding of the blood market shows her that she needs to first focus on getting supply.
"When you have a hospital, when someone dies, they are the one who sees the patient dying, right? So they have a front line view of the problem I was trying to solve. So they were on my team."
Her critical task is to get the blood banks on board and the most important blood bank is - of course - the first one.
"After that I could go to the next guy and say "oh, you know, this blood bank is on our platform and they've already, started seeing an increase in a month" and like "really? He's on this platform? Okay then I have to sign up" And that was it. It was dominos."
6. Being determined
Entrepreneurs get a lot of “nos”. Resilience is essential. Temie is testament to this.
She also shows how important it is to be confident, even if you don’t necessarily feel it.
“There was a meeting where I told one guy, he runs a blood bank: "If you don't do this in two years you're gonna come to me and beg me and try to pay me to get on my platform". He was like "What? Hmmm, you're very confident". I said, "Yes Sir. I'm very confident", and then he’s like "OK. I'll give you 10 bags".
7. Doing things properly
Startups involve lots of improvisation. In general, the “minimum viable” concept is very valuable - and not just for product. what’s the fastest way to figure out if your hypothesis is right?
However, there are some things that just have to be done properly. This is especially the case in a sector like healthtech. Ask yourself: what are the consequences if this hack doesn’t work? (Theranos stands as an example of an epic fail) .
"I said "I can either do it the Nigerian way or the right way" and he said "Temie, if you want to build something that endures you have to do it the right way" and that was it."
8. Framing your business for investment
In order to raise money you have to present your startup in a way that investors can understand. This can be challenging if you’re building a business that’s not easily recognizable, if impact is a high priority, or if investors don’t know the market.
“We basically had to educate people that yes, it's blood, yes, it's medical stuff, but it's also logistics and you understand logistics, you understand distribution, and you would easily invest in a distribution company. Just think of Life Bank as a distribution company with a product that happens to be a medical product”
The vision is also important. VCs only invest in businesses that have a shot at being huge. Temie satisfies this by showing that LifeBank can grow in at least two important ones:
Product - LifeBank isn’t limited to blood. Its logistics system could be used to deliver many other critical medical supplies
Geography - Once LifeBank has a system that works, it can replicate that system in other cities beyond Lagos.
9. Ignore stereotypes
This is important. Over the years the media, especially tech media, has promoted a very particular image of a tech entrepreneur. Usually: young, white, male, engineer. And investors, who are usually an older version of this archetype, are often looking for the next Zuck, Musk, Travis. Belatedly and slowly, some parts of the industry are beginning to address this. In the meantime, things are tough for entrepreneurs like Temie.
“I think they have never met anyone like me before; I don't look like an entrepreneur: I look big [laughs], I'm a mom, I am a girl. You will rarely find people who look like me that can found companies that are global in nature and I think that people were taken aback by that, and I think people always just second-guess like “can she do it? can she pull it off?”
It’s not fair, but Temie is charging on.
“I basically have to prove to the world that I can pull it off. There are lots of women who look like me who are entrepreneurs, who are tough, who are courageous, who can do hard things and who can lean in and get things done and win, right? Not only it is important for LifeBank but it's also important for the world to see people who are like me who are doing this sort of work”.
“We are on a LifeBank runs a 24/7 call center as hospitals and suppliers learn to use their tech platform to save one million lives”
Challenges of Developing Countries
This episode also gives a good sense of some of the challenges of building a tech startup in a developing country. Here’s a few of them:
Logistics - The traffic is Lagos, like many other big cities in developing countries is, brutal. This is the major problem that Temie and many other tech entrepreneurs in these markets need to solve.
Innovation - Temie finds that getting people to try new ways of doing things takes a lot of work.
"A lot of things in this market... people just get used to how things are, and are not interested in doing something different. At some point you've been doing this, let’s say he's been running a blood bank for 20 years.So he doesn't understand technology, he's not interested in technology. And it was just... no, no sense of innovation- cannot see innovation and how innovation helps him."
Technology adoption - Temie hopes that everything can be done quickly and efficiently on the LifeBank platform, but getting people to use technology can take a while.
"A lot of hospitals didn't have internet access. And also before LifeBank started, the workflow was call the blood bank. We knew that the job of transforming them and pushing them towards the tech platform would take convincing. So we needed to build a 24/7 call center - we needed to meet them where they were."
My Favorite Part of the Interview
Talking to Temie was a delight. There are so many parts of this interview that I love. However, my favorite was when I asked Temie about who inspires her. Early in her life, it is Nelson Mandela, but she no longer looks to “famous” people now:
"I've started getting inspiration from people like my mother, who worked two jobs and raised six children, in the morning she would go to work putting together pacemakers, in the evening she would watch after people in nursing homes. I get inspiration from everyday women who are doing tough things that nobody knows about; nobody knows their story, nobody cares about their story, but they still do these amazing, incredible things, they do great things and they do hard things and they hold our community up. That's where I get my inspiration now."
On the Cutting Room Floor
Temie and I spoke for literally hours, so we had to cut a lot! One episode that didn’t make the final edit was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s famous visit to the Lagos tech scene in August 2016. Zuckerberg visited CCHub where LifeBank was based at the time and spent some time talking to Temie. He was very encouraging and later he spoke publicly about LifeBank saying
This is a thing that needs to exist…. if she can actually pull it off then she’ll show a model that will impact not just Lagos, and not just Nigeria, but countries around the world.
You can watch his comments here:
In every episode I asked the interviewee what song keeps them going. Temie loves Beyonce and so her anthem is - fittingly - Run the World (Girls). Here it is:
It’s much harder than it should be for entrepreneurs like Temie to get funding, so shout out to CCHub who gave Temie her initial funding and incubated LifeBank and to Echo VC and local investor Fola Laoye who joined with CCHub’s Growth Capital Fund to do the company’s seed round.
I hope you enjoy this episode of Revolution of Necessity. You can listen to it here:
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To read the transcript of this interview click here.