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Nwokoye: Africa needs more local investors to support startup fundraising

Jennie Nwokoye, founder and CEO of Clafiya digital healthcare startups, in this interview with Abolaji Adebayo, speaks on the challenges faced by Nigarian/ African startups and the way out

As founder and CEO, how did you come up with the idea of digital healthcare startup?

The business was inspired by my personal experience seeking healthcare in Nigeria. I was born and raised in the United States. But at the age of eight in the year 2000, I briefly relocated to Nigeria with my family. At that time we lived in Nigeria for six years and we experienced all kinds of challenges as a new family living in Nigeria for the first time. We realised that accessing good healthcare was a barrier. It is difficult for many people to afford good healthcare. Infrastructure challenge exists in the Nigerian healthcare system. So for us it was more of how can we get access to timely healthcare, right? Where can we find the best hospitals, the best pharmacies, diagnostic centers, how can we ensure the quality of care, how can we ensure convenience, right? In our family and our extended family, we had lost family members who could not access healthcare on a consistent basis and you know loss of life was basically the results of that. So I left Nigeria after living there for six years and I started to visit Nigeria again in the year 2016. I consistently come every year and I realized that the challenges I had back then with my family almost 10 years ago had either stayed the same or had gotten worse. So, I became very interested in the aspect of the healthcare, thinking if I was going to do something about this and what could I do, what could be my approach. So I started to do a lot of discoveries, talking to people, just trying to understand what their pain points are and then that’s basically what brought about my startup known as Clafiya. I started my masters program at Georgetown University in 2019, and that is where I started to conceptualize Clafiya. All my coursework was centered around the startup, and I got quite a bit of support from my professors. They encouraged me to apply and pitch at various competitions. I lost some and I won some of them. I’ve won some prizes and I decided to make Clafiya a thing. So that’s basically how Clafiya was born.

What are the challenges you faced while setting up a digital healthcare service in Nigeria as a startup?

I would say the biggest thing is not understanding or not knowing what the regulatory environment is. So, obviously there are policies surrounding healthcare in Nigeria. But I wonder if the policies are actually updated or enforced because one thing is to pass laws or policies, but if they’re not properly enforced, it becomes like a waste of time. So, that’s one of the biggest things, not really understanding what the policy environment or regulatory environment is in Nigeria when it comes to healthcare. It’s very, very fragmented and so trying to figure that out is a pain and continues to be a pain. Second thing I would say is access to funding. Though we’ve seen like a boom when it comes to startups in Nigeria or even Africa. Fintech seems to have gotten quite a bit of funding that has come into Nigeria. But there are other sectors that are significantly lagging behind, which is healthcare and not having to find or getting access to that funding is challenging because building a healthcare startup is not the most appealing thing to do but, it’s very, very impactful. So, not having enough investors who are willing to throw their weight, who actually understand the healthcare space in Nigeria and understand that investing in healthcare is a great challenge. It’s actually very long term but the rewards of that are massive. Then third is workforce. We heavily rely on human, human capital to provide access to our healthcare for our customers. Specifically I’m relying on community health officers and nurses to be the first level of contact when it comes to accessing primary care. But constantly, our workforces are leaving for better pastures outside of Nigeria. And you can’t blame them for that, because they don’t have the best working conditions in Nigeria. They’re not paid well, they’re not compensated well. There isn’t a lot of upward mobility when it comes to their work. And so it is just easier for them to find better job opportunities elsewhere. And so that affects all. You know, everyone who is working in the healthcare rely on this very critical asset which is human capital. So, those are the things I would say have been the challenges for us at Clafiya while building a healthcare startup in Nigeria.

How will you describe the funding, and where are the sources for the funding?

I would say that I’m very excited to see that there is increased funding in Africa going into African based startups. But when we compare the funding that goes into African startups versus other parts of the world, it is still significantly less. Specifically for us, we’re really excited that we have amazing investors and other entities that have given us capital and other sorts of like funding to help us build our startup. Although there is increased funding going on in the continent, it is still not enough. There are other countries in Africa that don’t even get that visibility when it comes to funding their startups, a lot of the funding comes from outside of Africa. And I would really like to see a world where a lot of the capital that is needed to fund startups in Africa come from our local investors because that is what we are going to need to achieve and actually see the change we need to see. We can’t continue to rely heavily on the West to fund our initiatives, fund our startups, fund our companies.

It was reported that many startups may be affected by Silicon Valley Bank. How possible is that?

Yes, I definitely heard about it. But it doesn’t affect us yet. But I will say it was a big eye opener. I had the privilege of meeting some employees at Silicon Valley Bank in January. And you know, I had never heard of Silicon Valley Bank before then. Or maybe I had, but I wasn’t familiar. But I would say in January of this year in San Francisco was the first time I actually met someone who worked at the Valley bank. And to be honest, they were the most nicest people I’ve met when it came to financial entity who supported startups. I have my own bank that I use to deposit our business fund. But I don’t really get any kind of support from them when it comes to actually being a startup found- er. So, Silicon Valley Bank was t h e first bank I h a d heard of that actually was for the s t a r t – u p c o m – munity and I was very excited to hear about it to the point where I was actually considering switching my banks, because I didn’t want to just be a customer to a bank, or a bank where they just see me as someone who’s just depositing funds. Unfortunately, I did not get to do that transition and so it wasn’t affect us However, when I heard about the news of the bank going under, I wasn’t happy because there were a lot of startups that were impacted because they weren’t able to get their funds out of the bank. And so they were very stressed out on how they’re going to make payroll, pay their staff and might have to lay off some of their employees. I mean that’s not a good feeling. Building a company is already hard in itself. And that just seemed like a really bad experience that came unexpected.

What can you say about a funding programme for African startups calles Black Founders Fund programme?

The programme is really helpful to African startups. It was actually very exciting to be a recipient of the fund. We applied but we didn’t make it. We made it all the way to the final round, but we didn’t get it. Last year was actually perfect timing for us to have been accepted into the funding programme and received the support. What I would say is that, being part of the Black Founders Fund through Google has really impacted my startup in a positive way. I’ll talk about five things that have happened to Clafiya to help us succeed and grow. The first thing is increased revenue. We were connected to mentors who provided a lot of insight on how to refine our market strategy, how to do business development, what the sales cycle is like for the market that we’re trying to target. And we were able to identify a unique customer segment that changed the trajectory of our startup significantly. We were able to grow our revenues and that was really exciting for us. It also helped with job creation. We were able to increase our team from 11 to 19 and hire more women. So I’m really happy and excited to say that Clafiya is literally woman dominated, up to 55% of our team are women, and that’s very exciting for us as we’re able to create job opportunities for women. Mentorship, I talked about receiving mentorship that helped us increase our revenue. They had quite a lot of master class sessions throughout the program where we were. We listened to world class experts in their fields and some of those insights I still leverage today up to this point. And it continues to have a profound effect on what we do. And not even just that, our team as a whole benefited from those master classes. So not only were they helping us increase job opportunities, they invested in the professional development of our employees. And that I would say speaks volumes. Other things are storytelling. I mean it’s through the Black Founders fund that I’m even able to have this interview with you.

What is the impact of technical support by the Black Founders Fund programme on startups?

I will say it is really great. We have been able to leverage the Technical Support that we received to help boost our business from product development to visibility. How can we best position ourselves on Google to ensure that we are searchable and we can increase our presence. Other technical support that we can use not even just being in the program outside the program is leveraging AI, leveraging some of their tools to build our mobile app that is coming out soon, leveraging some of their tools for optimization. It also helped in ensuring that our health practitioners are connected to the closest patients in their own communities. So, I would say the Technical Support has been massive and beneficial through Google.

What is importance of promoting diversity and inclusion

in startup ecosystem to the black startup founders? Promoting diversity and inclusion is very, very important when it comes to startup ecosystem. First of all, it increases more opportunities for women to not just empower them to be entrepreneurs, but also to fund their ideas. Diversity and inclusion is very important because of different perspectives and being able to leverage that is ver powerful. Even me as a woman, there are different perspectives that I don’t see. I don’t have because I don’t have the experience or I’m not surrounded by people that have the experience or there might be blind spots. And so, but having diversity of thoughts and diversity of perspectives i what’s really going to help to bring coluor to the world. Bring like vibrancy to the world that can only be achieved through diversity inclusion.

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