4 lucrative ways the private sector can help improve healthcare in Africa

A hospital ward with equipment. Source - Dumisani Dube
  • Africa alone suffers almost a quarter of the world’s health problems but only contributes 3% to the global healthcare workforce
  • Business Insider Sub-Saharan Africa sat down with Dr Amit Thakker, Chairman, Africa Health Business to discuss the many opportunities that exist for the private sector in healthcare
  • We also talked about the biggest obstacles Africa faces to having efficient healthcare systems and how to overcome them

One of the most startling health statistics is that Africa alone suffers almost a quarter of the world’s health problems but only contributes 3% to the global healthcare workforce. This was one of the biggest talking points at the recently-held Africa Health Agenda International Conference in Kigali, Rwanda which brought together over 1,200 participants from 35 countries.

The conference was co-hosted by Amref Health Africa and Rwanda’s Ministry of Health.

During the event, Business Insider Sub-Saharan Africa sat down with Dr Amit Thakker, Chairman, Africa Health Business and Co-founder, Avenue Healthcare. We discussed the many opportunities that exist for the private sector in healthcare, ranging from supply chain to innovation and investment in health education. We also talked about the biggest obstacles Africa faces to having efficient healthcare systems and how to overcome them.


The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Business Insider Sub-Saharan Africa: Tell us about yourself and what you do.

Dr Amit Thakker: My name is Dr Amit Thakker, I live in Nairobi Kenya. I’m a medical doctor with an MBA qualification and I’ve been in the business of private healthcare for the last 25 years.

I founded Avenue Healthcare, which is a network of healthcare service providers through clinics and hospitals about 25 years ago and since then, have diversified into several businesses and companies in the healthcare space in East Africa and beyond on the African continent.

I have had the opportunity to get into health insurance and also into boutique hospital management and establishment across Africa. That's what I currently do.


I also run Africa Health Business, for which I'm a founder and executive chairman, that offers high-level consultancy and advisory services for foreign investment and growth of domestic market in the health industry in Africa.

BI SSA: Okay, let’s go deeper into the role of private businesses and organisations in healthcare in Africa. What are the opportunities that are there for them?

Dr Thakker: Healthcare is a growth sector. In many countries across Africa, the governments have made improved healthcare (Universal Healthcare, UHC) a political agenda. This has opened up a great opportunities for the private sector. If you look at the industry right now, the largest space for private sector to play in is the supply chain -- management, distribution and production.

The discussion about local manufacturing is at its highest level currently -- How could we promote local manufacturing of medicines? So, I see that as a very great opportunity.


The second one is efficient, coordinated distribution of medicines and products. We have seen the advent of drones coming in to countries like Rwanda that are reducing cost of supply. So, innovations around this kind of space are opportunities.

Another area that I believe is a great opportunity is health technology. Innovations around the healthcare industry are going to make healthcare easier, cheaper, better, and the use of mobile phone is going to become like the mainstay of the innovative solutions that we want to see rolled out.

There's a lot of discussion around telemedicine and taking healthcare closer to the people. We've seen in Rwanda, a company called Babylon that is also trying this concept on a using a mobile phone to provide provide Primary Health Care treatment. You don't need to go to a doctor to be treated and you don't need to go to a pharmacy to receive medicines, or you don't need to go to a laboratory to get lab tests.

So, taking healthcare closer to the community, where minor ailments and conditions that are easy to treat are treated at home rather than at the hospital.

The third area is health insurance and risk pooling. A topic that we've been discussing over the last three days here in Kigali. How do we improve coverage of citizens in countries so that they don't have to pay for health services, but have a medical plan or a medical insurance?


Typically, insurance has been very expensive. So, many residents in Africa are not covered, they tend to pay out of pocket when a family member falls sick. So, what kind of programs and insurance can we design that's cost effective, and yet going to provide the benefits that they desire? We've been discussing community-based medical plans, we've been discussing national health insurance plans, we've been discussing provider pooling plans, we've been talking about various methods of payment, like captation, diagnostic related groups. So, these are the kind of things that we are busy looking at.

The fourth opportunity that I want to talk about is the opportunity on academia, education, and health training. As you're aware, the number of health workers that we have in Africa is 3% of the global health workforce and yet we have 24% of the disease burden. This gap can only be bridged if we have more health workers that are trained in Africa for the African market. And so academia is one big opportunity.

BI SSA: You've been in this business for 25 years. So, definitely, you learned a lot. What are some of the most interesting insights that you've gained along the way?

Dr Thakker: Stakeholder collaboration in healthcare is critical. Engaging stakeholders at the right time, in the right manner, to create the right partnerships, is a true path to success in healthcare.


It is a complex sector where you need several actors and players to collaborate to produce good healthcare. You need the right supply chain, you need to have the right health workers in place, you need to work with the government for the right regulations. So, I think over the years, what I've learned is stakeholder collaboration in healthcare is a path to success.

The second thing that I have learned is that engagement with the government needs to be organised and coordinated and also progressive to promote pro-growth policies in health.

Healthcare is largely seen as the domain for the public sector. And people and governments think that it is their mandate and their responsibility. In a way, that's quite true. But since the resources are limited in Africa, the private sector has to play a role in providing these services. So, working with the government in having pro growth policies in place, and the sound regulators models in place is absolutely vital.

The third thing I've learned is that you need to make your services patient-centric. Don't forget the most important party in the healthcare industry -- and that is the patient. So make everything you do patient centric, look at the quality of care, talk about compassion, talk about costs,

how expensive it is for families to access healthcare services, talk about follow-up, talk about the right diagnosis. Explain to the patients what to expect out of their conditions and what the treatment options are. If we make the patient the centre of what we do, then our product will be appreciated, more relevant, and more successful.


BI SSA: So far, what is the biggest obstacle to the adoption of effective healthcare systems in Africa?

Dr Thakker: Two key things are stopping us from having effective health systems in Africa. Leadership and partnership. Let me explain.

We have seen that weak leadership, that we currently have in both the public and private sectors, leads to inefficiencies and waste across the entire health system. This needs to be addressed.

If you look at the Ministry of Health budgets across the entire continent, up to 40% of the funding is wasted. Imagine how much more healthcare services we could render with the same amount of money we're giving to the current governments in Africa. This requires an immediate call to action to stop all corrupt practices and inefficiencies in the ministries of health because that will save children and mothers across the entire continent and will make us, Africans, live longer.

Leadership also has seen to be weak in the private sector where there have been unscrupulous players who don't focus on quality and appropriate practices, Instead, they create and distribute counterfeit products, substandard products, and engage with the government in corrupt tendering practices, especially when it comes to procurement. So again, this is a lack of leadership and lack of ethics that we've seen in the private sector.


This, I think, is a heavy burden that the continent is paying a price for, where we see our health indicators being so poor and not progressing well. For sure, our life expectancy has increased in Africa in the last two decades by about 10 years. Is it good enough? Not at all. A baby girl born in Sierra Leone today is lucky to live up to 42 years of age. But a baby girl born in Switzerland can live up to 84 years. Why should we leave only half as long as the developed world?

This is because we've had poor leadership in the management of our limited resources. So that's a big challenge, the number one challenge that we have to deal with in our countries.

The second challenge that I want to talk about is partnerships. We haven't leveraged on partnerships effectively in Africa. We are blessed with several agencies, bilateral partners, organisations that are involved in healthcare, and very many of them are promoting better and good health. But because the trust between the government, private sector donors, and development partners is low, we haven't been able to leverage these partnerships. The time is right, now, for us to have a multiplier effect through partnerships and to leapfrog for better healthcare. And organizations like AMREF, who organised this event, I congratulate them because it catalyses effective partnerships for better health and that is another pathway to universal health coverage, because together we are stronger.


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