A new generation of Nigerian entrepreneurs is looking for fresh ways to make their way in business. Ola Orekunrin has shouldered the pain of a family loss on her way to the skies.
One person’s passion can change the fate of humanity for good. Add a dose of personal tragedy to the mix, and you get a fascinating case study in the drive to change healthcare in Africa’s second-largest and fastest-growing economy.
Orekunrin, 25, is among the brightest of a new breed of young and visionary entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, she is an African who has made her name in Europe and is now bringing home that experience to the continent to create wealth and jobs. She saw an opportunity in helping everyone from oil companies to factories airlift injured workers to distant hospitals after accidents.
Nigerians have been talking about an air ambulance system for the country since the early 1960s. No-one had taken up the idea, until Orekunrin stepped in two years ago.
“I’m very passionate about healthcare in Nigeria and I really do believe I was born to practise medicine,” she says.
How has she achieved so much at such a young age? A healthy measure of humility may be one reason.
“I’m the most clumsy, disorganized, eccentric person ever…honestly,” she says defensively.
The trauma and emergency specialist is poised to change the face of medical practice on the continent with Flying Doctors Nigeria Limited—West Africa’s first medical emergency evacuation service. She studied air ambulance services in India and elsewhere in Africa, before founding Flying Doctors with £200,000 ($313,000). The money came from the liquidation of her assets, including her life savings, fast car and London apartment. Private investors matched the money.
Today, she employs 25 professionals and the firm is poised for speedy growth, considering the retinue of current and prospective clients in the financial services, petroleum and public sectors.
“Our main clients are from the oil and gas industry and manufacturing firms. I definitely think patronage from these sectors is set to grow,” she says.
The service that Flying Doctors provides fills a gaping hole in quality healthcare in the world’s sixth-largest crude oil producer. Often distances between factories, remote oil industry installations and hospitals can be more than 100 kilometers. For this reason alone, Orekunrin is optimistic about more business coming from Nigerian and international corporates. She also expects increased business from the public sector and state governments, as most do not have organised disaster management systems.
“Tragedy led me to entrepreneurship,” she says. “I believe that perhaps my sister, who died when she was just 12 years old, may have lived if this sort of service was available in Nigeria at the time. I feel the need to make a difference and prevent it happening to someone else. So my main childhood motivation for becoming a doctor was because my sister was ill when I was growing up and I had very positive experiences with doctors and nurses. My mother wasn’t keen on me taking up flying, my other interest, so I went to medical school. My inner-rebellious child started learning to fly as soon as I left medical school. I love flying now, nearly as much as medicine!”
Born in London and raised in a working-class foster home in Lowestoft, a little fishing town in the East of England, she enrolled for a medical degree at the University of York and qualified at 21—one of the youngest ever to take the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath in Britain.
Barely out of medical school, she jetted off to Japan for medical research work and then China, where she had “one of the most invaluable experiences”, in addition to picking up Japanese and a liking for sushi.
“My proficiency in Japanese meant nothing to people in China,” she told FORBES AFRICA. “After growing up in England, Asia was an interesting shock to my system, but my experience there has greatly influenced my work ethic and attitude to life.”
Now Orekunrin lives in Lagos, West Africa’s commercial hub and Africa’s fastest growing city with a current population of 19 million.
“It’s hard enough practising medicine in Nigeria, and I’ve seen that people tend to wonder why I am doing what I am doing now. I am getting used to the positive prejudice,” she quips.
“Starting a business like this has been much harder than I thought. It was a lot of hard work, with a lot of discouragement. There were a number of points when I thought it would never happen. It took an enormous amount of dedication, focus and sacrifice. But the number of lives we save each year makes it all worth it. I would do it all again in a heartbeat.”
Flying Doctors received its initial technical support from the UK’s East Anglian Air Ambulance Service. A portion of operating profits is ploughed into the Flying Doctors Foundation, which funds public healthcare projects in Nigeria. She won’t disclose what the firm is currently worth, but the rapid response air ambulance service they provide has been hailed as one of the most important healthcare innovations in Nigeria this decade.