— Says Ismail Badjie, Founder & CEO of Innovarx Global Health
Ismail Badjie, 36, co-founded Innovarx Global Health, a healthcare services company headquartered in The Gambia whose mission is to transform healthcare delivery in sub-Saharan Africa. He spoke to Nathan Hastings-Spaine about his vision for healthcare in Africa. Excerpts:
Give us a brief background about yourself?
I was born in The Gambia. At 18 years old, I traveled to the United States to attend college, first at Tennessee State University, where I earned a degree in chemistry, and then at Purdue University for my Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD).
After obtaining my PharmD, I started practicing at a Walgreens outlet in Charlotte, North Carolina. Before leaving Walgreens to start Innovarx, I was a pharmacy manager where I oversaw $1 million in inventory and helped generate $60 million annually.
In 2019, my co-founder Gerard Mengang and I left Walgreens to build Innovarx. Many people thought we were crazy, but we envisioned what the next 10 years of health care in sub-Saharan Africa would look like. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry, and we wanted to get on the ground early to position ourselves to capture market share and be part of shaping the industry.
Today, we operate a brick-and-mortar store in Banjul [The Gambia’s capital] and have an e-commerce business, a global telemedicine platform, electronic health record (EHR) integration support and a mobile clinical unit.
When and how did you start this project?
We founded Innovarx in 2015, before we left Walgreens, but it took another six years to get our first franchise opened.
We spent those six years learning about the future of health care, even traveling to India, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, and China to get a global perspective. Each country educated us about what was possible. Had we not done those travels, we would have created a substandard company.
Many companies create an African version of a business that operates in other regions. We decided to do something different. We took a global idea and were intentional about Africa being the first place to receive it.
We selected The Gambia as a starting point because it is familiar terrain; it has a small population, and we could control a lot of variables in this market. More importantly, there is a need because only 4 per cent of Gambians have health benefits, mostly in the form of private insurance, and can access preventative medicine.
Many companies create an African version of a business that operates in other regions. We decided to do something different. We took a global idea and were intentional about Africa being the first place to receive it. Ismail BadjieFounder & CEO of Innovarx Global Health What problem does your project solve? How many people do you employ?
We built a US-style community pharmacy; it is a vertically integrated operation that leverages technologies for telemedicine, point-of-care diagnostics, electronic prescription processing, retail e-commerce and last-mile delivery of quality healthcare products and services.
Our model is rooted in the continuity of care and preventative health services. Today we have 65 employees in Gambia and Ghana, and we are hoping to replicate our model in Lagos, Nigeria.
What are the challenges and successes so far?
When you start a company in Africa, you become a human development company because there’s a huge talent gap. You can’t put out a job posting and get many qualified individuals. We’ve had to put significant resources into developing our team to operate at a high level.
Many companies are unwilling to invest what’s required to get their team performing at a global standard. It’s why people would rather go into the commodities business because not a lot of human development is needed in that sector. Our goal is to continue building talent by disrupting the pay scale locally to attract and retain high performers. We pay up to 20 per cent higher than the market rate.
How would you describe your successes?
We’ve changed the landscape of healthcare delivery in The Gambia. We’ve established a new way of delivering care. Our successes include adding 200 active subscribers to our all-inclusive yearly care plan that covers routine delivery of medications and diagnostic tests required to manage chronic conditions such as diabetes. We have about 12,000 active customers; Gambians living in the diaspora who sponsor the care of loved ones locally have played a huge role in our success. About 50 per cent of our revenue in 2020 came from outside The Gambia.
What is your message to young Africans?
We have the power to change the narrative and transform our continent. The population growth and the opportunity for innovation and technology adoption have set Africa up for that.
So, my message to young people in Africa is for them to harness the power of collaboration and the sharing of best practices across the continent. Our desire for a better Africa is the same. Also, they must see the challenges on the continent as a golden opportunity to create products and services that can impact their community, country and continent.