While you may best know Senegal as the home of Liverpool footballer Sadio Mane, this West African country is growing every day. A mid-size country with a population of 16.2 million (source: World Bank), Senegal has begun to take its place as a leader in West Africa’s francophone startup ecosystem. In 2018, VC4A listed it as one of the most developed entrepreneurship ecosystems within French-speaking countries in the region, identifying job creation by startups and ability to receive investment as leading areas of achievement for Senegal in comparison to its peers.
Photo Credit: African Health Innovation Centre

However, similar to many West African countries, young Senagalese entrepreneurs lack direction in where to begin when leveraging effective business models to improve health outcomes. While many organizations are active in health delivery, services tend to remain heavily siloed – the government oversees policy and public healthcare, local and international NGOs lead community-based programming, and the private sector provides products purchased by the middle class. Where does that leave a passionate, young entrepreneur driven to create change through both a sustainable financial model and social impact?

Unique Challenges Faced by Health Startups

Entrepreneurs around the world face barrier after barrier when attempting to launch a startup, but those in West Africa face challenges often unconsidered in the Western world. Attempting to launch a startup in the health space? Those challenges are compounded even further. In addition to traditional barriers (everything from difficulty at customs to fluctuating currency), health startups often hold the lives of men, women, and children in the palm of their hands – or on their mobile app. While this provides real opportunity to create impact, it also comes with significantly higher risk and expectation. The provision of healthcare is a cautious culture – not well-suited for the “ideate, test, pivot” structure of an up-and-coming startup. 

Furthermore, building a well-rounded team can be a big burden for a new entity. While clinicians often see the challenges faced by patients and have great ideas, they may not have the technical, business, or management skill set to see them implemented. Similarly, a young coder may have the tools to take a mobile app online, but do they know what hospitals, clinics, or pharmacies really need? Or how to work within regulatory systems and protect patient confidentiality? Creating a successful health startup is a truly collaborative effort, requiring knowledge from clinical care to supply chains to investment readiness. So where does a prospective entrepreneur begin?

Lafiya Innovators | Helping bring health startups to life

In 2019, the team at Impact Hub Basel received support from the Swiss Development Corporation and Fondation Botnar to launch the Lafiya Innovators program – a joint effort co-created with Impact Hub Dakar, Impact Hub Accra, and the African Health Innovation Centre – to help health startups identify and solve these unique barriers and help grow Senegal’s emerging health innovation ecosystem.

In November 2019, three startups were enrolled in the Starter Track of Lafiya Innovators. Over a six month period, each startup will undergo intensive business bootcamps and receive opportunities to engage with key stakeholders in the health community. While entrepreneurs learn how to identify and define their customer segments, determine their core business model, and develop product and service prototypes, they will simultaneously identify key players in the health ecosystem, engage in dialogue with potential partners, and discover pathways through health-based policy and regulation.

Creating Dialogue Around Health Innovation in Senegal

Photo Credit: African Health Innovation Centre

One of the best tools for startup growth is collaborative conversation. Throughout the first three months of the Lafiya Innovators program, enrolled entrepreneurs have had the opportunity to engage one-on-one with leaders in the Senagalese health ecosystem – holding real-world discussions around challenges and opportunities for startups seeking to improve healthcare and public health services. In December 2019, the Lafiya Innovators team had lunch with Dr. Patrick BRENNY, the UNAIDS Regional Director for Western & Central Africa; UNAIDS Regional Support Team, and had a site visit to the office of Dr. Papa Serigne SECK, the Conseiller Technique en charge de l’Elevage et des Peches, at the office of the President of Senegal.

In January 2020, the Lafiya Innovators program brought together approximately 30 participants for a Health Innovation Dialogue, taking place at Impact Hub Dakar in Ouakam. The specially curated conversation represented voices from diverse backgrounds – bringing together young entrepreneurs, representatives from government, leaders of international NGO country offices, and passionate advocates and consultants – from the community to corporate level. This presented participants with the unique opportunity for cross-talk between various ecosystems – while entrepreneurs were able to express concerns about finding their place among already established competitors, major players were able to outline the core needs startups must meet to be considered as viable players.

Photo Credit: African Health Innovation Centre

The Lafiya entrepreneurs will take these lessons learned to Switzerland next month, as they prepare to meet major players in the Swiss innovation ecosystem. Follow along here to learn more about how they blend lessons learned in Europe into their plans for Senegal and beyond.

Emily Sheldon, AHIC

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