In conversation with Temie Giwa-Tobuson, CEO, LifeBank

5 January 2021.
By the Award program team

On 8 December 2020, Speak Up Africa and IFPMA launched the Africa Young Innovators for Health Award at the 3rd Galien Forum Africa.

You’re going to face problems, but here is what you have to say to yourself, you have all it takes to solve those problems… Because you are young, you are innovative and you are going to be relentless. I think it is crucial that Africans, young Africans in particular, solve African problems. Temie Giwa-Tobuson

We had the pleasure of being in conversation with Temie Giwa-Tobuson (TG), multi-award-winning CEO of LifeBank. Senior UN Correspondent, Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga (CF) moderated the stimulating discussion in which Temie walked us through her entrepreneurial journey.

CF: Where did you start your journey? How did you come up with this business idea? And why did you decide to pursue this business idea?  

TG: I started LifeBank because I found a problem that I could not stop thinking about. It kept me up at night, and it was the last thing I thought about before going to sleep and the first thought in my mind when I woke up.

Post-partum haemorrhage is the highest cause of maternal deaths in the world; a mother gives birth, and within two hours, she can lose her life because of a loss of blood. It is a big problem across Africa. Furthermore, my personal experience, having had my son seven years ago and experiencing post-partum haemorrhage myself got me thinking seriously about maternal health. 

At the time, I was living in the US. I was fortunate to have access to healthcare, to the best doctors, to all the necessary resources. Unfortunately, not all women have this access, and I knew this. That is why I decided to move back to Nigeria and launch LifeBank to deliver critical life-saving supplies to hospitals.

CF: How did you manage to take your idea and make it a business? How did you manage to get financing? To whom did you turn to or has it been down to luck? 

TG: I won’t say it was easy. At that time, I was very young. I had a little boy that was about eight months and had a lot of responsibility to my family. I also had a job, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this idea – it captured my attention. 

I knew that I needed an institution that would help me in developing the idea of fundraising, training and ensuring we had all the resources and knowledge we needed to make this idea come alive. So, I did my research. The first step was the approval of the concept, and it required me to put some savings into the business. Afterwards, I took my idea to a Tech Hub called the Co-creation Hub. They were all keen on my idea, and I was able to get financial backing as well as training to develop my idea further.

CF: So it seems support, not just financial, but also training and skills development was vital for you to develop your business.

TG: Yes, absolutely! When you have a new idea, you need training. I had a lot of experience in healthcare, but I didn’t understand how to run a business. I had never worked in business before, so I didn’t understand how to run a tech company. I felt like I needed further training, but also, I knew that I needed access to capital, and they were offering both.

However, before that, I had to develop the idea, I had first to invest my own money in the concept. So as a young person, if you believe in your vision, take whatever little resource you have. Either human resources, for instance, if you have friends who are into tech, who can help you build it; if you have family members, who understand or maybe they have a little bit of money, that they can give you to start it. If you have a job yourself and you have resources, make sure that you invest in the idea. People will only believe in your idea if you first think and invest in it yourself.

CF: Although you have great expertise in the health sector, you don’t specialize in blood products so how did you manage to gain the trust of the government or authorities to be able to do this?

TG: Absolutely, that’s a great question. You know the problem that we saw was not a lab problem; it wasn’t specifically a science problem. The problem was distribution, so it is a supply chain issue, moving products from point A to point B to point C. That was the issue causing fatalities due to post-partum haemorrhage. There was no lack of blood, but rather a lack of distribution.

The question was: who could move this blood quickly to the hospital where the woman was delivering her baby? So we knew that it was a distribution problem and to be honest governments, labs, healthcare people were not comfortable building this kind of business since they didn’t have the expertise. You need someone knowledgeable about supply chains. I had expertise in the supply chain for healthcare, and this was how I was able to start this business, and the government was happy for me to do it.

CF: When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, you were able to take your learning from the blood distribution supply chain and apply them to the medical support needed to help fight the pandemic – how did you do this? 

TG: COVID-19 hit, and as we had built a reputation and expertise in distributing this critical resource around the clock, 24 hours a day, seven days a week in a WHO-approved blood system. We, therefore, rose to the occasion and opened a testing centre for COVID-19. We expanded our distribution system for medical oxygen, and we were able to do that.

COVID-19 forced us to expand our business model. For many years, we were entirely focused on blood, but now people need medical oxygen and testing kits across the region. So, we started working with the same distribution system to build a value chain around medical oxygen, around COVID-19 test kits, making sure that some ventilators, respirators are delivered across these two countries where we operate, and I think that was incredibly useful. We’ve been able to be innovative and expand our product, and the value that we bring to the market is significant.

CF: We know that in Africa, it is challenging for hospitals, for entities to find the money, even to buy standard medicine. How are you sure that people you’re working for are going to be able to pay you?

TG: We believe in the power of business to build sustainability into your work. We think that if you don’t have a business model and opt for a grant model, as an innovator, it will be tough to sustain your work overtime. Grants run out, but if you are adding value and people are willing to pay for your services, customers will not run out. They will always come. 

We are not a blood business. We are a distribution business. So, the same way DHL makes money the same way any distribution service makes money is how we make money. So, we make a profit by ensuring that we are delivering this critical supply of blood, blood products and oxygen, which are not like any other medicine that can go into any truck.

CF: What were the biggest obstacles you had to face? What was a problem at the beginning?

TG: At the beginning, it was just the amount of capital that was needed. 90% of all the investment we got in the first year went into the equipment. Now that we’ve proven our model to people, access to capital is not so difficult. Now what is difficult is security, we have to ensure that we keep people safe. We are making deliveries all around the clock, from early in the morning to late at night. We have riders out there delivering these critical resources, and we must keep them safe. 

CF: What would you advise young people that have an idea they would like to make a reality?

TG:If you have an idea that keeps you up at night, that makes you feel excited, that makes you feel like, this is what you are meant to do with your life, go for it. Because, like I always say: I’d rather regret something I did, than regret something I didn’t do. You should start. 

You’re going to face problems, but here is what you have to say to yourself: you have all it takes to solve those problems. It is in your hands; you have everything you need to solve the issues you are going to face. Why? Because you are young, you are innovative, and you are going to be relentless. I think it is crucial that Africans, young Africans in particular, solve African problems. If you have the same issue that I had, and I am sure a lot of people do in the beginning, regarding access to capital, what I would say to you is: put skin in the game, do the work and once you prove your business model, the capital will look for you. The people with the capital will call you and request to meet with you. 

Watch the full interview from 10:37-34:21