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Providing Healthcare Access and Empowering Women in Rural Nigeria

A profile of trailblazing entrepreneur Opeoluwa Ashimi

Over 52% of Africa’s population live in rural communities. Africa and Asia are the only continents where the rural population outnumbers urban. The World Bank reports six out of every 10 persons in sub-Saharan Africa live in a rural area – that’s over 656 million people lacking proper healthcare access. Compounded with low-income levels, lack of proper roads, communication networks, and access to disease control centers, this further challenges outbreaks and epidemic control coordination.

The personal impact of rural deficiencies on Opeoluwa Ashimi, CEO of Promane and Promade Limited social enterprise, was losing her godfather to delayed lung cancer diagnosis – a victim of his rural community lacking healthcare services. This lunged her on a mission to leverage her dual degree in Pharmacy and Digital Health, coupled with an MBA and 14 years’ experience in development and private healthcare sectors like Novartis, to develop equitable healthcare access for rural Nigeria and upskill women.

Opeoluwa Ashimi

Opeoluwa Ashimi

“Empowered women contribute to the peace and economic progress of countries. It’s good for equity, it’s good for global peace, and it’s good for the economy,” believes Ashimi, proud that half of her 60-employee company’s leadership is held by women.

But developing a personalized digital health solution to expedite quality health diagnosis and treatment across Nigeria’s low-resourced, low-income communities was challenging, and required to override lack of internet connectivity. Following a Horizon 2020 scholarship win, Ashimi went on to develop and form a team to design M’Care AI – a digital health device transmitting live AI-decision support to guide clinical diagnosis and medical treatment prescriptions.

Today, with 500 Community Health Extension Workers (CHEWs) recruited across 350 subscribing rural communities, M’Care has addressed over two million unique medical cases cumulatively. Earning sustainable incomes, more than double the common $2/day wages, CHEWs provide patients immediate access to healthcare and medical experts. And as Internet infrastructure improves across rural Nigeria, M’Care up-skills CHEWs’ digital literacy annually.

Pandemic-driven healthcare equity impact

In addressing “ignorance, misinformation, and accessing PPE for CHEWs” across “import-dependent” Nigeria, Ashimi’s team initially trained over 200 CHEWs, partnered with two Nigerian hospitals, an NGO, and a pharmacy chain to develop WHO-compliant hand sanitizers and cloth masks. M’Care provided responses using the WHO WhatsApp and Nigerian Center for Disease Control (NCDC) Telegram channel. Its info-graphic COVID-19 video and public COVID screening questionnaire defrayed fears and up-skilled CHEWs in supply chain management of essential medical supplies.

With 500 Community Health Extension Workers recruited across 350 subscribing rural communities, M’Care has addressed over two million unique medical cases.

In the midst of the pandemic, Ashimi’s team released M’Care Compass – a public health dashboard that coordinates care response with healthcare and government authorities. Some 71% of its beneficiaries treated for maternal health and childcare are disproportionately affected by potential outbreaks and contagious diseases.

A companion, MasterApp, decentralizes training for CHEWs via a mobile library of training content, providing supply chain management component for field monitoring and evaluation that integrates MEAL (monitoring, evaluation, accountability, and learning) in the public health initiative development space.

“MasterApp’s unprecedented modular architecture allows multiple programs to be hosted by organizations simultaneously, across Nigeria,” Ashimi explains how a geo-location feature tracks patient requests, workflows, and medical treatments in every community with timestamps linking detection and transmission of each disease or possible outbreak, to a master public health concerns dashboard, reaching response teams in disease control centers.

Last year, MIT’s Solve selected M’Care Compass as 1 of the 7 Global Solvers for Health Security & Pandemics Challenge – from among 349 solutions across 64 countries. Solve, Ashimi says, “propelled” her social enterprise’s “growth path” by putting her “at the driver seat with access to an array of resources and a network” that fulfilled her most passionate mission – “empowering rural women and providing equitable healthcare.”

A geo-location feature tracks patient requests, workflows, and medical treatments in every community.

Simultaneous to M’Care expansion in 2021, Ashimi launched the Digi-Women Initiative in Partnership with Retail Giants Academy and SheLearns Here Initiative. Up-skilling rural women entrepreneurs’ digital literacy and resilience to economic shock waves, the Initiative bridged the women’s digital skills gaps.

“Women hold the fabric of our societies. They constitute half of the world’s population today – and McKinsey reports digital up-skilling of women could add up to $12 trillion to the global GDP by 2025. That’s just 3 years away,” Ashimi’s 3-month long Initiative matched 100 rural women to digital jobs and helped:

  • 54 micro-entrepreneurs set up e-Commerce stores
  • 24 entrepreneurs create their Google Business Pages
  • 10 women graduates from the digital marketing program design their business websites and social media sites and channels

African Woman with Child

Last mile impact – women-empowerment and equitable healthcare

M’Care’s long-term impact has fostered resilience across the communities it serves by:

  • 74% reduction in mortality rates – increasing by 272% year-on-year deaths prevention
  • 90% improved access to medicines, vaccines, and healthcare
  • 94% increased detection of contagious index cases within 12-hours, limiting outbreaks
  • 8 riverside communities built resilience to flood-related healthcare challenges with halting epidemics’ spread

CHEWs can flag highly contagious cases within a 12-hour period. Public health risk cases are immediately referred to preset referral hospitals and disease control centers across Nigeria – part of M’Care’s Compass 243 referral centers and hospitals in the proximity to the rural community. CHEWs can stabilize emergency cases with a direct phone call connecting them with medical specialists from M’Care’s database of 3,000 doctors.

Nigerian rural community members

“Over 80% of our patient demographic are women of child-bearing age and children under five. With over 50% child mortality rates, scaling M’Care across sub-Saharan Africa is our priority,” Ashimi notes. She aims to double the reach to 3.6 million rural people in the coming year, and to 50 million in the next five years, working with Primary Healthcare Directorates, Ministries of Health, pharmaceuticals, multilateral health organizations, and large NGOs with a network of CHEWs.

In a pandemic-prone world, Ashimi believes “timely primary care interventions” will be critical. Even in developed countries, strained health budgets will make it impossible to “scale healthcare workers to meet the exponential demand.” AI solutions such as M’Care will not only be important, but “redefine both developed and developing countries’ healthcare infrastructure to be more responsive, cost effective, and accessible to everyone needing care.” M’Care, she says, is ahead of “this curve through its adaptability and ground-up model.”

Asked how world leaders can make a greater impact, Ashimi offers one word: “Equity”.

“EQUITY. Development is not a zero-sum game if you add equity to the equation. Equitable access to healthcare, education, digital skills, economic and social mobility opportunities contribute to a rich, diverse, and exciting world where amazing creativity flourishes evenly without depleting or threatening the survival of our ecosystem. Equity is a holistic way of development for profit, the planet and people,” Ashimi says.

Jackie Abramian has been a regular contributor to Ms. Magazine, The Progressive, Forbes, Grid Daily News, Thrive Global and HuffPost. She serves as an advisor and board member on various social enterprises, impact investment firms, and NGOs and is a corporate communications strategist and founder of Global Cadence PR consultancy.
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