June 20, 2024

Pulse Bliss

most important health challenges

Folake Owodunni, a pacesetter in transforming emergency medical response in Africa

Folake Owodunni is the co-founder and CEO of Emergency Response Africa (ERA), a healthcare technology company that is changing how medical emergencies are managed in Africa, beginning in Nigeria. ERA saves lives by connecting individuals experiencing a medical emergency to the largest network of Community First Responders, ambulances, and hospitals to deliver care in minutes using technology. ERA recently partnered with the Edo state government to improve the state’s responsiveness to medical emergencies in the public sector. ERA has been recognised for the work it is doing in providing technology-enabled care, including features in national newspapers and leading technology publications.

Folake has a Master’s in Global Health & Development from University College London, and a Master’s in Business Entrepreneurship & Technology (MBET) from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. She has over 12 years of experience working in healthcare, marketing communications, and management consulting, with companies in Nigeria, the United States, and Canada. She is certified as a First Responder with the Canadian Red Cross and is passionate about Africa’s rising tech ecosystem and making fast, reliable emergency medical care accessible to all Africans using technology. She has received multiple awards and development grants, including the Google Black Founders Fund, JICA’s Next Innovation with Japan Award, The Professor Grace Alele-Williams Alumni Impact Award, and most recently, the global Aurora Tech Award.

What inspired you to start a healthcare technology company aimed at solving medical emergency management challenges in Africa, particularly in Nigeria?

I have always been interested in healthcare access – how do we make healthcare more accessible to more people? Even as a child, I wanted to become a doctor, and over time that evolved towards public health so I could have bigger impact. After going through an emergency with my son in Canada, I felt the need to start something in Nigeria that made that “911 experience” available to our people. There are too many stories of loved ones dying before their time simply because they couldn’t get help on time.

Timely access to emergency medical care is essential for saving lives and preventing long-term disabilities. Without proper emergency response systems in place, individuals experiencing medical emergencies, such as heart attacks, strokes, accidents, or complications during childbirth, are at a higher risk of adverse outcomes. In addition to its direct impact on health outcomes, inadequate emergency care also has social and economic implications. Families often suffer emotional and financial hardships due to the loss of loved ones or the burden of caring for individuals with disabilities resulting from poorly managed medical emergencies. I believe that in prioritising emergency care, we can mitigate these risks and improve the overall health and well-being of Nigerians.

How does your company’s technology platform address the unique emergency healthcare needs and infrastructure challenges in Nigeria and other African countries?

Nigeria’s emergency care space has many challenges at all levels, including the lack of a centralised communication and dispatch method for ambulances, shortage of trained paramedics, few, poorly managed ambulances, bad road networks, heavy traffic, and challenges with payments. We address the problems by implementing both technology and a unique operational model. While our operations pioneered ideas like the Motorcycle Medic – a paramedic that arrives at the scene on a motorcycle fully-equipped to provide treatment on site to the patient, our technology helps us to connect the most well-equipped ambulances available to the patients that need it in the shortest possible time. This allows patients with minor emergencies be treated at the scene and those with severe emergencies be transported to the hospital for further care. The technology also makes it easy to collect and transmit data about each case, building up a reservoir of information that can help to improve responses.

What impact do you envision your technology having on improving access to timely emergency medical care in Nigeria, and ultimately throughout Africa?

Technology has a huge role to play. Something as basic as mobile data access can determine the speed with which a patient can be located to receive timely treatment. In our experience, technology can either be a huge enabler or inhibitor of access to timely emergency care, and by impacting communications between patients and emergency responders, it can actually affect the quality of care being delivered. We’re hoping to see more telecoms providers like MTN, Airtel, 9Mobile, Glo and others coming alongside health technology companies like ours to drive access to care, not only in Nigeria but across Africa.

Can you elaborate on the key features or functionalities of your technology platform that enable efficient emergency response and management?

Our platform has many valuable features that make it easier to manage complex medical responses. I’ll highlight two features. One is the first responder mobile application, which allows those in the field receive details about cases near them and respond in a timely manner. Because we train and deploy first responders in communities, this can be a very scalable way to make sure that the responders that are just 5 minutes away from a situation are notified and can get to the scene quickly. This is a huge improvement on situations today where emergency victims call their loved ones that are hours away by road (or even airplane) for help. The second feature that really saves time and saves lives is our ability to send case information to the hospital before a patient arrives. Delays at the point of hospital handover can be long and deadly, whether caused by the hospital not being suited to treat the patient, or a lack of bed space. By facilitating this communication in advance and giving hospitals the opportunity to confirm their readiness to accept our patients, we minimise delays.

How do you ensure the reliability and accessibility of your technology, especially in remote or under-resourced areas where medical emergencies might occur?

This remains a challenge to this day, hence the need for collaborations with telecoms operators. Today, we implement backups of backups, ensuring that if one network is failing to connect, another one can step in. However, this has an impact on the cost of business and doesn’t fully address the challenge. By incorporating features that permit offline (non-internet based) access to our platforms and offline data capture, we’re adapting for low-resource environments.

What role does partnership and collaborations play in the success of your goal for emergency care in Nigeria?

Partnerships have been critical to our progress today, across the private and public sector. We’ve been privileged to have many mutually beneficial partnerships with key players in the health sector such as hospitals, ambulance owners, insurance companies, and even universities. These have ensured that we can deliver our services and expand our reach from just Lagos to Abuja, Port Harcourt, Benin City, Ibadan, Warri and other cities in Nigeria through trusted partnerships. Our recent partnership with the Edo State Government to launch Edo Emergency Medical Services (EdoEMS) is a testament to the importance of public-private partnerships for scaling health innovations and providing access for the most vulnerable. Many other states are interested in launching similar services and we’re committed to partnering with them to achieve their goals. We have also found immense support through communities like the Healthcare Federation Network and Digital Health Nigeria. These are all excellent platforms for identifying partners that either increase our access to customers, and therefore revenue, or grow visibility, which is sometimes a prerequisite.

Are there any specific regulatory or legal challenges you have faced, or anticipate facing, while working to revolutionise emergency medical management in Nigeria?

While we support the delivery of ambulance services and other pre-hospital care, we are not your typical ambulance company. This has meant that we don’t quite fit the standard regulatory categories available. To address this, we have been engaging closely with the regulatory bodies to recognise the immense value of our service and we hope that in the coming years, we’ll see policy changes to that effect. It is not surprising though, as many digital health innovations, and innovations generally, need to work with regulators to ensure that while the public can benefit from the innovation, they are also protected from poor quality services.

How does your company prioritise patient data security and privacy in the context of your technology solution?

This has been a priority area for our company. Our patients must trust us with information about their most personal health situations and we work to keep that trust by making sure only those that require access to it for treatment purposes have that access. We engage the relevant experts in the area of data protection and cyber-security to ensure that all our practices around storage and processing of patients’ personal data are in compliance with the Nigeria Data Protection Regulation (NDPR).

What are your future plans and goals for expanding the reach of your technology beyond Nigeria, and into other African countries facing similar healthcare challenges?

Although each African nation is unique, when it comes to emergency response, we all face similar challenges, and the solution can be scaled to address these challenges. Our vision is for an Africa where everyone can access emergency medical care in 10minutes or less and to achieve this, we are committed to expanding beyond Nigeria’s borders in the next 2 years. We will continue to partner across private and public sectors to support this expansion and we look forward to a time where millions of lives will be saved.

How do you integrate local cultural and social factors into your technology and emergency response strategies to ensure a comprehensive and effective solution in Nigeria?

Our people are our greatest asset and also our greatest tool for adapting care to local cultural and social needs. We recognise that while the clinical treatment for a particular condition may be the same, its application may need to be adapted to the unique patient. This is why empathy is one of our core values. We believe that by putting ourselves in our patients’ shoes, we can deliver the care that is best suited to their medical, cultural, and psychosocial needs.

What strategies or initiatives do you have in place to ensure affordability and accessibility of your technology to a wide range of healthcare providers and emergency response organisations in Nigeria?

Affordability is a key issue in Nigeria that all private healthcare practitioners face. We’re adopting various strategies to tackle this including partnerships with healthcare financing institutions, introductions of low-cost health plans designed to meet the most basic needs, and optimisation of operations in such a way that we reduce the cost of delivering care. At the same time, we work with the partners in our emergency response network to agree on pricing that is suitable to them yet manageable for clients. This ensures that we can drive business to them, yet not be out of reach for those who need it. Finally, like all healthcare providers, we are closely watching and trying to join the conversation on critical government programmes like the Basic Healthcare Provision Fund Emergency Medical Treatment Gateway, which if appropriately implemented, could unlock the demand for emergency medical response that we know is there.

As the CEO of a healthcare technology company aiming to make a significant impact in Africa, what keeps you motivated and what future impact do you hope to achieve through your work?

I firmly believe that every human being, particularly Africans, deserve the right to access help during emergencies. Being part of the solution to address this disparity is my driving force. Even during the most challenging times, this motivation propels me forward and fuels my determination to make a meaningful impact. I hope to realise our vision for an Africa where everyone can access emergency medical care in 10minutes or less.

What in your own view needs to change in healthcare delivery in Nigeria?

We need to see a more enabling environment in which to operate – this means payment mechanism for healthcare that make it possible for quality healthcare businesses to do more than just survive in this economy – to thrive. This factor along will have significant knock-on effects on retention of health workers, markets for medical equipment and consumables, and ultimately economic development.

Tell us about your partnership with Edo state government

We partnered with the Edo state Government in October 2023 as part of an innovative pilot project, supported by the Fund for Innovation in Development (FID). The objective of the project is to support Edo state in the delivery of emergency medical services, with the goal of reducing preventable deaths from key issues such as maternity-related conditions, road accidents, cardiovascular diseases and more. The project is unique in 3 main ways. Firstly, it leverages technology to optimise emergency response systems, enabling rapid dispatching of first responders and ambulances to medical emergencies. This tech-enabled approach ensures faster response times and the data collected will enable more efficient resource allocation, ultimately saving lives. Additionally, the project focuses on building partnerships with local communities by identifying and training members of the community as first responders and equipping them as the first line of defense for their people. Finally, the project works closely with government agencies such as the ‘State Health Insurance Scheme’ to drive insurance enrollment and create a sustainable and scalable emergency response network. By combining cutting-edge technology with collaborative partnerships, the project sets a new standard for emergency care delivery in Nigeria. We are immensely grateful to the Governor of Edo State, His Excellency, Godwin Obaseki, and all the stakeholders at the Edo state Ministry of Health under the leadership of the Honourable Commissioner for Health, Samuel Alli, for their commitment to the success of the project. We are looking forward to the impact.

You recently won the global Aurora Tech Award. Share more about this with us

We first applied to the Aurora Tech Award in 2023 and although we were shortlisted in the final 20, we were not selected as one of the top 3 winners. However the Aurora Tech Award represents the power of women to change the world, something I very much believe in. So, this year, we decided to apply again, with no expectations. I was quite surprised to be shortlisted again and this year, all the 20 finalists were invited to attend the award ceremony in Almaty, Kazakhstan on March 8, International Women’s Day. To my surprise (and joy) Emergency Response Africa was selected as the top winner. It came at a time when we needed that extra boost and support and the recognition it has brought has been very encouraging for our whole team. For years I have had the privilege of being mentored and mentoring others through women’s professional groups like Women in Successful Careers (WISCAR), and some of our earliest investors were women from groups like Rising Tide Africa. To win this award on International Women’s Day was a blessing. I am looking forward to more opportunities to not just win but give awards to recognise the amazing work that other women are doing.

Concluding words

Emergency Response Africa ( is on a journey to transform emergency medical response on the continent. Whether you are a company looking to protect your staff, an estate trying to protect your residents, or a government seeking to protect your constituents, we want to work with you. The best support anyone can give to a business is to do business with them. We look forward to doing business with you.

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