In late 2020, Rakuten Europe announced a new collaborative initiative with Asia Africa Investment & Consulting Pte. Ltd. (AAIC). The initiative aims to support African startups — especially those eager to apply innovative solutions that will effectively leapfrog their local economies to higher stages of development faster and more efficiently than previously possible.
Shigeru Handa, director of AAIC, and Nobuhiko Ichimiya, AAIC’s Nigeria director, sat down with Rakuten Today to discuss key projects, how AAIC hopes to support African startups and why they are working with Rakuten.
Solving ambulance logistics and blood shortage issues
Flare is a healthcare startup in Kenya that identified a need for an ambulance dispatch service. As of December 2019, 56 of Nairobi’s 200 ambulances are registered on Flare’s platform. Instead of calling each hospital individually, those in need of emergency medical attention can call Flare, who uses GPS to determine the best ambulance and route to respond to the situation.
When an emergency medical situation arises, the first hour is the most critical in determining the outcome for the patient. In Japan, when someone calls 119 to request an ambulance, the average ambulance response time is 8.6 minutes.¹ By contrast, in Kenya, it can take two to three hours.
This approach has proven very successful, with ambulance response times through Flare averaging less than 20 minutes. AAIC hopes to leverage Rakuten’s experience in logistics to help take Flare to the next level.
“Mental illness is considered Africa’s silent epidemic. Structural and systemic barriers such as inadequate health care infrastructure, an insufficient number of mental health specialists and lack of access to all levels of care have exacerbated a mental health crisis throughout Africa.”AAIC Director Shigeru Handa
In Nigeria, blood shortage is a chronic problem for hospitals, causing preventable deaths for anemic children and pregnant women, as well as countless complications for women shortly after childbirth. Founded in 2015, LifeBank is tackling this social problem head-on. The company started a blood ordering service using a smartphone app and a delivery service in 2016, connecting hospitals with blood banks. To date, LifeBank has donated blood to 1,115 hospitals and saved nearly 9,000 lives.
Tackling Africa’s silent epidemic with online mental health care
Shezlong is an Egypt-based startup that employs a digital platform to help address the key issues of availability (quick help and convenience) and social stigma (privacy) to support the estimated one in four people suffering some type of mental illness in Africa.²
“Mental illness is considered Africa’s silent epidemic,” shares Handa. “Structural and systemic barriers such as inadequate health care infrastructure, an insufficient number of mental health specialists and lack of access to all levels of care have exacerbated a mental health crisis throughout Africa.”
With Shezlong all consultations are done online, reducing the physical barriers to healthcare infrastructure and increasing access to certified mental health specialists. Through the platform, clients can identify a suitable doctor and speak to a psychologist at their own convenience. All psychologists on the platform are registered, certified and verified.
Since AAIC invested in Shezlong, it has increased its monthly sessions by almost 50% in six months. Rakuten aims to use its expertise in digital marketing to help Shezlong to reach even more people in need.
Providing safe drinking water and empowering franchisees
Jibu is a social enterprise which helps make clean, treated drinking water available to underserved communities using an innovative franchise model. According to Jibu’s co-founder and CEO Galen Welsch, “Over one billion people globally do not have access to daily necessities such as safe drinking water. Top entrepreneurial talent lies dormant because of a lack of meaningful business ownership opportunities and massive unemployment in emerging markets.”
Using a turnkey model, franchises are given the equipment, training and tools needed in order to operate a successful small business. Local communities benefit from having easier access to potable water as well as reduced emissions and respiratory illnesses, which are unfortunate side effects associated with having to boil water using wood or charcoal. Customers pay a bottle deposit and exchange their used bottles for a fresh supply. Jibu currently operates in seven countries.
From Kenya and Nigeria to Egypt, South Africa and Morocco: Outlook for African startups
Much of AAIC’s work is focused on the Kenyan and Nigerian markets, which represent the most active and well-funded startup communities in Africa, garnering 80% of total African startup funding in 2019. However, Handa is also excited by startups in Egypt, South Africa and Morocco, and believes there is incredible potential across Africa as a whole.
“Since the day Rakuten was founded, we have always believed in the power of innovation,” shared Toby Otsuka, CEO of Rakuten Europe. “Throughout [Rakuten’s] history, our company has always been dedicated to contributing to society. In recent years, many startups in Africa have achieved tremendous growth and are using technology to change people’s lives in significant ways.”
AAIC views this collaboration with Rakuten as an excellent opportunity to promote synergies and business growth for startups, particularly in the area of technology. Rakuten is on the same page, aiming to solve social challenges as a team by working with its partners to leverage Rakuten technology and business assets.
“Scaling up for further growth is a big challenge as we invest in and support companies that are driving innovation in the healthcare sector — one of Africa’s social challenges,” commented Handa. “While we are navigating a challenging and unforeseeable environment, this collaboration is a joint endeavor, and though both sides bring unique strengths to the table, staying innovative is a shared value.”
Though still in its early stages, the healthcare startup scene in Africa appears to be on the cusp of a breakthrough. The potential to leapfrog traditional stages of economic and infrastructural development is palpable and the standard of living of African families could be dramatically enhanced as a result.
AAIC is a growth equity fund with operations across Africa. As of December, 2020, it has investments in 23 companies with a focus on bringing innovation to the healthcare sector in Africa. Services include healthcare e-commerce, fintech for international money transfers, an ambulance dispatch platform, online mental health counseling, a teleradiology platform with advanced imaging centers, dialysis centers and maternity hospitals. AAIC aims to achieve sustainable growth for developing countries by harnessing Japan’s strengths across three pillars: growth capital, strategic consulting and human resources.
² Source: Community Psychology in Global Perspective CPGP, Comm. Psych. Glob. Persp. Vol 1, Issue 2, 78 – 95