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How to Find Opportunities in Africa that Others Miss: Thoughts from a Nigerian-American Founder and CEO

Throughout the African pharmaceutical market, fake pills and substandard medicines are often sold in place of the real thing. In Nigeria, supply chains are so fragmented and informal that hospitals, pharmacies, and individuals regularly purchase their medications from unregulated, open markets, with no guarantee of quality.

Prosper Africa, a U.S. Government initiative to increase trade and investment between the United States and Africa, recently interviewed the American Founder and CEO of Medsaf, a Nigerian company working to strengthen pharmaceutical supply chains in emerging markets.

Born to Nigerian parents, Vivian Nwakah grew up in Skokie, Illinois. She attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and worked in different sectors around the world, including in the financial and healthcare industries. An MBA from Georgia State gave her the skills to pursue business opportunities that create impact.

While working on her degree, she decided to complete her internship in Lagos, Nigeria, having never visited the country where her parents grew up. Here, she began her career as an entrepreneur, launching a hybrid diesel-solar company and then Medsaf. 

In this interview, Nwakah shares her insights on operating a business in Africa, finding investment opportunities on the continent, and using technologies to disrupt markets.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.*

Why did you create Medsaf?

Vivian Nwakah: When I got to Nigeria, I was a little overwhelmed with all the problems, and I noticed people weren’t talking about solutions. I wanted to be part of the story of how we can tackle hard, fundamental problems and provide solutions using technology. Then, seven years ago, while I was building my hybrid solar company, a friend of mine died from taking a fake malaria pill. That experience moved me to look at the pharmaceutical industry and understand the problems there.

I found a disjointed and chaotic medication supply chain plagued by volatility. I learned about Nigeria’s open drug markets, and realized that they are actually an on-the-ground solution, a home-grown solution, to real problems in the supply chain that cause delays and shortages. I thought that with the right technology, we could disrupt the entire pharmaceutical market and create a controlled ecosystem. That was the beginning of Medsaf. I was sitting in that open drug market and realized just how bad the problem was, and my conscience would not let me not start this company after seeing that market.

The Medsaf team
Medsaf’s team is made up of 22 people. The team, pictured here, connects hospitals and pharmacies with the medicines and supplies they need. Photo: Medsaf

How does Medsaf work?

Nwakah: Medsaf is a pharmaceutical platform that connects purchasers with suppliers that we have vetted, ensuring that there are quality medications flowing through the system. We give manufacturers and suppliers quality control support as well as access to financing and business intelligence tools so that they can improve the efficiency of their businesses. We then connect them to hospitals and pharmacies. We connect with logistics partners so that medications can be shipped directly to hospitals and pharmacies within 24 to 48 hours.

We facilitate the flow of medications through the platform using technology and data analytics, and now insurance companies, governments, pharmaceutical companies, and NGOs can have visibility into the movement of those medications.

We were able to expand when COVID-19 hit because we were already providing PPE, we have a good reputation, and our platform is easy for people to plug into. Because our platform has track and trace capabilities to show where medications are at any moment, we are also perfectly aligned to support pharmaceutical companies that have to get vaccines across countries like Nigeria. The time for people to adopt new technology is right now.

Nigeria gets bad press that could give investors pause. How does the perception of Nigeria compare to your experience living there?

Nwakah: People have a lot of perceptions about Africa’s problems that prevent them from keeping an open mind and seeing the opportunities. Because I had worked in and traveled to many places, I was open to asking, “How can I create an impact here?” I was able to spot the opportunity to use technology to improve healthcare even though for many it would have seemed impossible.

I think there is an opportunity not only to advance and create products for Africa but also to leapfrog technological advancements in more developed countries. If you’re looking at investing in Africa or Nigeria, I would suggest keeping an open mind, asking the right questions, and trusting your gut. If you approach it from a place of fear, you’re going to miss out on all the opportunities.

Nigeria definitely has bad PR working against it. One example of misperception of Nigeria is the prevalence of fraud, which is a perception that keeps people from doing business here. When I came here, I didn’t think I would be able to open a company because I had it in my mind that I’d have to bribe people, and I wasn’t willing to do that. That hasn’t turned out to be the case. We started on the ground, asking hospitals what they needed and fulfilling a real demand, and we’ve never bribed anyone.

Are you seeing a lot of investor interest in Nigeria?

We are currently raising $3.5 million and we have quite a few U.S. investors and firms that are interested in being part of this round. We are part of the wave of companies that are making it easier for U.S. or European investors to plug into Africa. We’re creating transparency and creating new opportunities for industries to thrive.

I think that there is a lot of opportunity across Africa. If I were an investor, I’d be looking at it from the perspective of, “This company has a strong foundation in one African country. Is it scalable to the others?” That’s the best way for an investor to catch the upside of Africa. If a company designs a tech-platform that can take into consideration different cultures, languages, and psychologies behind why people purchase something, then that is a business with a future that is going to be successful in Africa.

*This interview represents the personal opinions and experiences of Vivian Nwakah and not the policies or points of view of the U.S. Government.