Project Management


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Safe Healthcare is Good Business and Good Health


Many people have been shocked by recent stories about the proliferation of counterfeit drugs and the rate at which they are killing and harming people in Nigeria. The International Narcotics Control Board found that up to 50 percent of medicines in developing countries are counterfeit. This has driven home the point that without the presence of legitimate players in the African drug market, the illegal sharks will step in to make large profits – and a literal killing.

To counter this negative trend, what is most needed is support for reliable Africa-based companies: businesses that are long-term, sustainable and not living from one grant to the next. But as experience has shown around the world, nurturing businesses requires certain fundamentals: they must work to be profitable, they must find a market and exploit it, and they need cash infusions that are timed to the company’s growth, not to the cycle of international donors. This role, often served in developed countries by venture capitalists, who want a fast return of 35 percent – is too onerous a burden for most African businesses. What African companies need is a more conservative, long-term approach; one that expects returns of between five and 10 percent.

Kenyan company Advanced Bio-Extracts (ABE) is one good example. Only 18 months old and based in Nairobi, the company produces one of a new generation of low-cost anti-malarials known as artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs). The drug is produced from the green leafy plant Artemisia, or sweet wormwood. The company is the first in Africa to make this drug, and employs 7,000 local farmers in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, as well as scientists.

ABE has received two infusions of cash from non-profit social venture capitalists Acumen, as well as investment from Swiss drug giant Novartis. Acumen has so far invested US $9.6 million in 11 active investments focused on a diverse set of health challenges, including basic healthcare access in rural areas and treatment for malaria and HIV/AIDS.

“We are commercializing a product that had never been commercialized,” said ABE’s owner, Doug Henfrey, to the New York Times. “Those little windows of support make these things happen. We could not have done it otherwise.”

Acumen’s Kenya country director, Nthenya Mule, said “there are positive things happening in Africa, but they are not happening overnight, and some are happening quietly. ABE is exemplary. You will not see it as front-page news, but in 18 months they set up a factory with 160 people interfacing with 7,000 farmers and supplying one of the major pharma companies in the world.”

Stimulating private sector solutions to African healthcare problems is receiving an additional boost from a new fund established by the World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation. To be launched later in 2007, it will offer cash and loans totaling US $500 million to commercial healthcare projects in Africa. According to its own statistics, 60 percent of health expenditure in sub-Saharan Africa is privately funded, and the market, excluding South Africa, is worth US $19 billion.

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

Published: May 2007

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP's South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South's innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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Like this story? Here is a dirty secret: this website is packed with stories about global South innovators. We spent 7 years researching and documenting these stories around the world. We interviewed the innovators to learn from them and we visited them to see how they did it. Why not use the Search bar at the top and tap in a topic and see what stories come up? As for my work, I have been involved with start-ups and media ventures since the early 1990s. While most tech entrepreneurs were either still in their nappies in the 1990s (or just a drunken night away from being conceived in the 2000s), I was developing content for this new thing they called the "Internet". In the years since I have learned a great deal about innovation and digital and have shared these insights in the stories on this website as well as in the 5 issues of Southern Innovator magazine. So, stick around and read some more!    

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