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Waterloo firm aims to deliver affordable emergency service to Nigerians

In many North American communities, people who have a medical emergency dial 911.

“In my home country of Nigeria, there is no one to call,” Folake Owodunni says.

In Ontario, there is one ambulance for every 11,000 people.

In Nigeria, there is one ambulance for every 191,00 people. The World Health Organization recommends a minimum ratio of an ambulance per 80,000 people.

Without ambulance access, people depend on bystanders to get them to the hospital and receive no care on the way. In Nigeria, “the ambulances that exist lack the staff and communication to be effective,” she says.

More than 200,000 people die annually from road traffic accidents or complications from heart disease, “common addressable emergencies.”

Owodunni and Maame Poku met while doing Master of Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology studies at University of Waterloo. They have formed a company to address this problem. Emergency Response Africa (ERA) is developing an affordable, fast and safe ambulance system in Nigeria.

The firm has won three pitch competitions since July, cash prizes they will use towards a pilot this winter in Lagos, the largest city.

After winning $5,000 at a UW contest, they won $10,000 at the MEDA pitch competition in Tucson in November. The MEDA pitch competition saw five finalists from the US and Canada compete for the Allan Sauder Social Innovators Award.

That award is sponsored by Ron and Barb Schlegel and family. It was named in honor of former MEDA president Sauder. He worked for the organization for 31 years, serving 16 years as president before retiring in late 2018.

A few days after that win, ERA won $10,000 at the Evoke Tech For Good Competition in Toronto.

ERA combines training, technology and transportation to deliver medical care to victims. Current systems offer expensive care for the wealthy. That results in 95 percent of Nigerians preferring to call a neighbor instead of an ambulance.

They hope to respond within three to 10 minutes, using lower-cost ambulance tricycles, at a fee 70 per- cent less than a regular ambulance.

Their target market is 42 million Nigerians (of 203 million who live in the country) who are earning a living wage. ERA will sell its service as an annual subscription that can be paid up front, in instalments, or by employers/insurers.

A subscription model works in a country where 80 percent of health care spending is out of pocket, Owodunni said. Most hospitals require payment upfront prior to treatment.
ERA has surveyed potential clients to see what they would pay for the service and based pricing accordingly. Lowest income earners would pay a flat fee of one percent of salary.

Signing up 15,000 subscribers would provide $40,000 in profit that they could re-invest in the company.

The Lagos pilot, in partnership with a non-governmental organization there, will involve training first responders on first aid, triage and basic care. ERA will provide internationally accepted training and liability insurance coverage to protect responders.

A dispatcher will input requests for service, identify the closest responder and contact them on a mobile app.

ERA has a Go Fund Me campaign underway to raise additional funds for the pilot. The firm will eventually be seeking investors. They hope their system will launch by this fall.

The project may eventually expand to other countries which face similar challenges, such as Ghana and Uganda. In Ghana, ambulances take up to three hours to arrive,
said Poku, a Ghanaian native whose grandmother died when an ambulance did not arrive promptly.