In Nigeria, saving lives one pint at a time
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In Nigeria, saving lives one pint at a time

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By Stanley Azuakola

In 2009, Temie Giwa-Tubosun visited Nigeria, her homeland, for the first time since she was 10 years old. 13 years abroad had insulated her from some of the harsh realities in her home country, but back as a graduate school intern with the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), she witnessed an incident which became a motivation for her life’s work.

A young woman had been in labour for three days and her family, unable to afford hospital bills, milled around her waiting for death to come. Giwa-Tubosun and her colleagues showed up at the doorsteps of the petrified family hoping they would participate in a household survey. It was fortuitous timing – they lifted the woman into their truck and moved her to the hospital. She survived, but her baby sadly died.

“I had never seen anything like that. The family had resigned itself to losing her,” says Giwa-Tubosun of the incident.

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Blood is a big deal

Giwa-Tubosun spent just three months in Nigeria during that visit but she became obsessed from that moment with stopping maternal mortality.

Nigeria contributes the second largest share to maternal and child death rates in the world – hemorrhages kills more pregnant women every year than any other complication apart from pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure). Malaria patients (especially children), sickle cell patients, cancer patients, victims of terror attacks, and many others end up needing blood at different times as well. A pattern was emerging in Giwa-Tubosun’s mind – blood is a big deal.

dsc_5325In 2012, Giwa-Tubosun returned to Nigeria and started the One Percent Project to “inspire a new generation of voluntary blood donors to solve the problem of blood shortages.”

The One Percent Project kept a database of willing prospective donors who could be reached at a moment’s notice to donate blood. Through its blood drives and advocacy, the project has received donations of 3500 pints of blood to date, enough to save over 10,000 lives. Her work earned her a 2014 nomination in the BBC’s 100 Women List.

But Giwa-Tubosun wasn’t satisfied. The NGO model wasn’t working for her. It could not solve the problem in a “significant way,” she said and she worried about sustainability when the project rested on the whims of donors.

“Every year the funders decide what they care about,” she says. “I spent 70 per cent of the time looking for money.” Her response was to quit her day job with the Lagos government and launch a technology powered social enterprise called LifeBank, “the biggest virtual based blood bank in Nigeria.”

At first glance, it seems like the only problem is one of supply not matching demand, but it is “actually an information and logistics problem.”

A blood bank in Ikeja, Lagos – for instance – may have the blood needed by a patient elsewhere in Lagos, but the patient and the hospital may be unaware. Stored blood has a shelf life and is discarded if it is not used within six weeks. This is waste which could be avoided if the hospital had access to the information.

The second challenge is transporting the blood from where it is available to where it is needed in safe and reliable condition.

LifeBank solves both of these problems. It uses technology to provide information to health providers about where to find the blood they need at any given time, and then helps deploy it in quick time and in good condition to save lives.

dsc_5363“We have an online database where health providers can search themselves for blood availability and pay for it. Or they could call us on our toll free numbers to help them find it,” she says.

Nigeria’s health systems largely remain basic and unreceptive to change – Nigerians spend up to $1 billion annually on medical tourism – so LifeBank is operating in almost virgin territory. Making a business case to investors for health technology in Nigeria, according to Giwa, is challenging – especially for women.

“Investors tend to bet on people who look like them,” she says. A 30-year old mum navigating in the male dominated tech sector of a notoriously sexist society like Nigeria looks nothing like the typical investor. “It is hard for them to trust the judgement, vision and ability of women to move the company they’re building forward,” Giwa-Tubosun says, “but I don’t let it stop me.” Her advice to women? “Don’t wait till you think everything is certain. Women have to just start.”

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