When “go-local” doesn’t work: sanitary napkins in sub-Saharan Africa   Leave a comment

7 years ago, an enterprising Harvard student, Elizabeth Scharpf, began a project to produce sanitary napkins using local workers and local materials in sub-Saharan Africa. Although difficult to quantify, the amassed evidence has suggested that many women in developing countries– particularly school-age girls — are routinely sequestered and miss multiple days of school each month because of the lack of hygiene products to use during menstruation. This issue has been long ignored largely because of the associated stigma around a woman’s menstrual cycle in conservative societies and the lack of health officials familiar with women’s needs. Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), the company founded by Sharpf, was an attempt to a) address the needs of rural women through a locally available commercial product AND b) provide a self-sufficient business model to entrepreneurial women in these countries.

The basic model has been to first find local entrepreneurs interested in starting a local sanitary napkin production operation. The raw materials for these sanitary napkins are then sourced locally using banana tree fiber, a waste product of banana harvesting, as a substitute super-absorbent material. The cost savings on materials and production help reduce the cost per pad from US$0.11 to US$0.07.Local women are then trained to produce these with small table-top workshops that can be used in their private homes. These are then collected by the local entrepreneur and sold in markets or with door-to-door sales models.

SHE Pad Prototype

First-generation SHE Pad. Not exactly what Rwanda’s women were looking for. (Courtesy Ecouterre)

SHE’s success to date has been mixed. Between 2009 and 2011, Scarpf used funding from Echoing Green and Harvard Business School to setup the first franchise model of banana fiber-based sanitary napkin production and distribution in Rwanda. However, using the available public information on SHE’s website and blog, the latest updates dated August 3, 2012 suggest that company is just now completing its supply chain and brand strategy. The largest hurdle seems to have been that the uniqe selling point SHE pads offer — their attractive lower price — are exactly why consumer demand from Rwandan women has not been strong. In a critical oversight, Rwandan women who cannot afford imported pads would rather use their existing coping mechanisms in a pad-less world than use SHE’s product. Although SHE is actively working through these issues and is currently completing a redesign, SHE has yet to prove its model for a new sanitary napkin for the low-income communities.

A particular concerning trend is that efforts to provide locally-produced sanitary napkins have been increasing even though the existing businesses have yet to identify a succcessful business model. At the the University of Oxford’s 2012 TATA Ideal Idol business plan competition in March, one of the finalist was BaNaPads, a similar sanitary napkin effort being attempted in Uganda. No evidence suggests that these me-too ventures are finding solutions to the problems that racked earlier efforts. Although there is a certain attraction to local production and women’s empowerment through independent income generation, the social entrepreneurship and global health communities should be self-critical to such unproven models.

While the work of the organizations above is commendable, none of these efforts have seem to realistically questioned if multinational corporations are already providing female hygiene products in the most financially sustainable way. Patricia O’Hayer, Unilever’s Vice-President for Communications and CSR, challenged the development community in a recent Oxford-based debate to avoid automatically assuming that there was something intrinsically better about local production versus global mass production when it came to making consumer healthcare products. Procter & Gamble and Unilever may be unapologetically “big business,” but their ability to reach economic scale and provide a safe, reliable product may be unmatched in this product category. Entrepreneurial efforts such as these must be compared to existing ways of doing business if they are meant to contribute to societal value creation.

Disclosure: In early 2012, I informally worked with a team from  Procter & Gamble on shared interests to bring health-related retail products to rural communities in rural Kenya. There was no material remuneration from this engagement.

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Is Kenya’s healthcare sector ready for a take-off?   2 comments

Last month had me traveling around the world courtesy of Saïd Business School’s capstone Strategic Consulting Project and our multinational corporate partner who is currently looking to become more invovled in healthcare innovation in developing countries. I just finished my second short stint in Nairobi, and I am thoroughly impressed by a number of developments in Kenya. The current macroenvironment for healthcare in Kenya combined with individuals’ entrepreneurial efforts has produced palpable excitement in the sector that may well signal a new dawn for healthcare in the country. Most interesting, the opportunities for Kenyan private sector healthcare may be the best they have ever been.

One of the most important macroenvironment trends is the improving political stability since the post-election ethnic conflict of  2007-2008. Since then, a new constitution has been ratified and the upcoming elections will be preceded by a number of bureaucratic improvements that will streamline the alignment of commercial ventures with committed policy-making. This political normalization has also allowed for an increasing amount of “business as usual” from the administrative arm of the government including more direct financial management of HIV/AIDS spending and a new eHealth strategic plan. Although the next round of elections scheduled for 2013 may well herald a new wave of vote-rigging and subsequent violence, the two rival political parties from the last election have learned to work together through power-sharing and the knowledgeable city-dwellwers I have spoken to in Nairobi seem optimistic.

mPESA Transaction

Many groups are trying to repeat mPESA’s success in mobile money payments by coming up with similar mobile-related leapfrog applications for healthcare. (Courtesy of OpenIDEO)

Another trend occurring in Kenya is the overwhelming success of modern mobile telecom infrastructure. Nearly every business venture I met with in Kenya includes in its business model a component related to mobile technology. Mobile technology in developing countries has been shown to be a major catalyst for healthcare development but where Kenya stands out is in its mobile phone penetration. Over 70% of Kenyans own and use a mobile phone and nearly a 1/4 of the country’s GDP is transacted through Safaricom’s mPESA mobile payment service (see more).

All of these trends have directly stoked the entrepreneurial efforts of many Kenyans. Zoe Alexander Ltd is a new technology start-up who is leveraging automated telephone systems (“robo-dialing”) and Kenya’s high mobile penetration to deliver personalized audio messages to pregnant mothers that time appropriate antenatal visits and warn mothers’ of “red flag” warning signs during pregnancy. Zoe Alexander and others have also focused on bypassing the existing healthcare infrastructure because of the its overly bureaucratic nature in Kenya. Another example is Changamka Microhealth’s use of health savings accounts to incentivize individuals to save rather than trying to expand the relatively small population footprint of the country’s national social insurance plan. The latter’s bureaucracy was unable to design a means of participating in the plan for individuals that did not work for major Kenyan corporations.

While such initiatives will not radically change the health and wellbeing of the average Kenyan overnight, these efforts should be complimented for their inventiveness and aspirations for self-sufficiency. Through my travels last month, I have heard far too many stories of companies seeking overly traditional approaches to reaching low- and middle-income healthcare consumers. Marketing techniques designed for industrialized countries will not work elsewhere unless modified to local conditions. Home-grown, for-profit healthcare in Kenya may be the first sign of lessons learned.

Disclosure: I, nor my summer employer, have any financial positions in the companies listed here. However, my trip to Kenya was funded as part of business development field research for a multinational corporation.

Micronutrient powders as a sustainable solution for child malnutrition   5 comments

The World Health Organization rates malnutrition as the foremost threat to global public health. Each year, over six million children die of starvation, and more than one billion people suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies requiring medical attention. Media coverage of malnutrition tends to highlight starvation, but micronutrients (e.g., Vitamins A through E, iron, and zinc) are equally important for child wellbeing. Substantial medical evidence suggests “micronutrient malnutrition” in the first two years of life has a lasting impact via physical and cognitive impairment.

A “Sprinkles”-branded Single-use MNP Sachet

Micronutrient food fortification — adding micronutrients to a person’s everyday food — is one of the most cost-effective public health interventions available today. Unfortunately, most children suffering from micronutrient deficiencies live in rural, subsistence economies that are not easily reached by traditional industrial food fortification (e.g., iodized salt, fortified flour). As opposed to manufacturers adding micronutrients through industrial food processing, at-home fortification with individuals adding their own micronutrients have also been successful.  Studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) in rural Kenya demonstrated that at-home food fortification – using micronutrient  powders (MNPs) (see photo at right) – was effective in substantially reducing rates of micronutrient malnutrition in these communities. Most interesting, these MNPs were provided using a market-based model where mothers were paid a  near-market retail price for the product from door-to-door sales agents. Despite this proven demand, there is currently no on-going supply of MNPs in most countries of the world because of limited coordination between commercial distributors and public health advocates.

A community education tool for teaching mother’s how to use MNPs safely and effectively. (Courtesy CDC)

In January 2012, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), industry partners, MBA colleagues of mine, and I met in Nairobi to discuss how to introduce micronutrient home food fortification products to Kenya through a market-based mechanism. The consensus reached was that although support from health authorities existed, the collaborative nature of public health interventions in under-resourced areas would required a very unique business model for market-based MNPs to succeed.

Our team of MBA students helped craft a business plan for GAIN and its private partners that demonstrated the economic feasibility of a public-private partnership model that could provide micronutrient powders across Kenya through a market-based, financially self-sustaining process. Armed with the proper cash flow models, marketing plan, and risk analysis, GAIN’s Kenya Fortified program is currently in the process of securing start-up financing and locating Kenyan commercial operators with the appropriate logistical capabilities for distribution and sales (see video below). Delivery of the first locally-branded micronutrient powders to Kenyan communities is expected in early 2013 (with future production scaled to up to 300 million sachets per year).

Even more exciting than this particular project’s success is the potential for future efforts to deliver similar programs around the world. The basis of the solution above was taking existing opportunities and capabilities and reshaping them to fit a unique market macroenvironment (i.e., rural Kenya).  This project demonstrates that although such radical rethinking of business models may be difficult, successful new methods of achieving healthcare goals often lie at the other end of the process.

Disclosure: I have received no monetary or in-kind compensation from my work with GAIN or in promotion of MNPs more generally.

The potential for predictive data analysis to decrease patient hospital readmissions   1 comment

One of the recent cost-control measures that Medicare has been experimenting with is a planned penalty for hospital systems with high readmissions. For example, if the reimbursement data a hospital files with Medicare shows a higher 30-day readmission rate for patients it previously treated, also called “bouncebacks,” a percentage deduction will be made from all future Medicare payments to that hospital. The basis of this new rule stems from a belief that hospitals with high readmission rates are the result of inadequate care continuity practices and not the result of skewed populations being served. For this post, I will leave aside the many criticisms (e.g., for indigent care hospitals, for population outliers) of the new policy and focus on the innovation trends for helping individual hospitals lower their readmission rates.

Leaving so soon? Most quality experts believe readmissions could be reduced if high-risk patients remained as inpatients longer. (Courtesy Hospital & Health Networks)

The research group that I currently work with at Emory University’s Department of Surgery and Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies view excessive readmissions as the first signs of  correctable errors in the discharge process. These errors can be broadly grouped together as systems-based and decision-related.  Systems-based errors are when a patient is not adequately prepared for discharge because of an internal system failure. For example, the process for discharge at a hospital may not properly instruct a patient on the use of home-oxygen prior to discharge. Decision-related errors are when lack of information or external pressure lead to a patient being discharged too early.

Systems-based discharge errors are currently being addressed through traditional quality improvement mechanisms now being applied in the healthcare setting. However, decision-related discharge errors represent an under-explored opportunity for hospitals to reduce their readmission rates. The general thinking is that if physicians can have a more accurate sense of the likelihood of readmission, patients can be discharged at a more appropriate time while not wasting resources by simply holding on to every patient for a longer time period.

Although approaches have varied, the common wisdom to address decision-related discharge errors has been to take advantage of the latest advances in bioinformatics (i.e., healthcare IT) and apply them in real-time to patient discharge decisions. Currently, the most developed commercial solution is Microsoft’s Amalga healthcare information management platform (3M has a similar IT product oriented more toward quality improvement offices). The basic principle of these systems is for algorithm-based analysis of existing patient data to develop and refine predictive tools for use by a physician at the time of discharge of a future patient. For example, as the system collects data on patients who ahad gallbladder surgery it will become increasingly better at predicting which future gallbladder patients will most likely be readmitted. With such information in hand, a surgeon could potentially flag certain patients as high-risk for readmission and manage their discharge more conservatively.

It is important to note that product offerings like Amalga have not been readily adopted by the mainstream healthcare information management community. Critics note that Microsoft has been struggling to establish itself in healthcare IT due to its late entry and lack of a comprehensive product line. Recent moves by Microsoft signal that the company recognizes these vulnerabilities. A 50/50 joint venture called “Caradigm” between Microsoft (an IT and platform leader) and GE Healthcare (an electronic health record industry veteran) aims to capture many of Microsoft’s latest clinical informatics innovations and package them into existing health system platforms.

Currently, these uses of predictive data analysis are in their infancy. To use a term from business innovation theory, we’re in an “era of ferment.” What I find even more interesting than the technical hurdles firms are currently struggling with is the foreseeable problem on the horizon of how we pair technical expertise (healthcare providers) with these predictive tools. This man-machine interface is easy to dismiss, but I believe that successfully addressing it will be the determinant of a successful dominant design.

Disclosure: I currently receive a graduate research stipend from the National Institutes of Health (1RC4AG039071) for work related to surgical patient readmissions and discharge decision-making.

FoetoH – Good science. Good medicine?   1 comment

I recently came across FoetoH, a fetal heart rate monitoring device that has been developed at the University of Oxford. Unlike other forms of fetal health monitors, FoetoH is designed to be used by laypeople and in a real-time manner. Rather than giving health information output in complex jargon or graphs, the device provides a stoplight-style assessment (green, yellow, red) of a developing fetus’ current health. The scientific breakthrough was developing an exercise belt-like device (think exercise heart rate monitors) that a mother-to-be wears all the time that communicates with a handheld unit (or iPhone app) which facilitates data storage and interpretation.

The idea of FoetoH is attractive because of its synthesis of the latest technology trends (i.e., mobile-based health applications, user-oriented design) and advanced health monitoring devices. The marketing materials of FoetoH are excellent and describe this device as potential breakthrough to help address the more than 2 million stillborn babies born each year around the world. The basis of this claim is that mothers who know their pregnancy is in trouble (indicated by a “yellow” or “red light” on the device) could receive emergent medical care to improve fetal outcomes.

Unfortunately, such a simplified product and health solution obscure some major logical flaws in their existing argument. For FoetoH to contibrute to a reduction in worldwide stillbirths, the device needs to prove itself to be more than just effective at measuring fetal heart rates. FoetoH’s founders need to be able to demonstrate that identifying changes in fetal heart rates is an effective way of identifying AND preventing still births. Why do I raise this issue? The limited data available on still births demonstrates that the majority of still births are due to genetic and environmental insults that go well beyond impaired cardiovascular support of the fetus. Many of these stillbirths are due to unknown  genetic causes, infectious disease, or severe malnourishment, and fetal distress (erratic fetal heart rates) is an end-stage sign of imminent still birth. In these cases, last-minute emergency care would have virtually no chance of preventing “fetal demise” (technical term for still birth). It is also unclear that FoetoH’s real-time monitoring is any more effective than current guidelines for antenatal care which include regular physician visits and routine ultrasound scans at pregnancy milestones.

Moreover, it is unlikely that most mothers at risk for stillbirth would be able to gain access to the FoetoH device. Its currently reported cost of manufacturing is approximately $80. A public sector price is likely at least twice as expensive with a market price even more. Given that the vast majority of stillbirths occur in impoverished women from developing countries, the target population who could potentially benefit from such a device would be unlikely to be able to afford it. Even if such devices were provided free of charge to high-risk mothers, the limited benefit of using the device I raised in the prior paragraph would likely outweigh the high cost to health systems.

These issues are not lost on healthcare device makers familiar with the product. At Oxford’s recent TATA Idea Idol business plan pitch competition – where FoetoH was a finalist – judge Will Chadwick of TATA Interactive Systems noted that the only realistic market for FoetoH were overly concerned mothers from the industrialized world who were willing to pay for a device that provided peace of mind rather than a clear-cut medical benefit over existing practices.

In fairness to FoetoH, its TATA Idea Idol team went on to win this year’s competition despite Chadwick’s misgivings (so someone clearly thinks FoetoH has something going for it). In the end, the science and potential commercial market for the device were convincing enough to beat out a number of strong competitors. FoetoH is a useful reminder for clinicians. Sound science and commercial availability do not make good medicine. Healthcare providers have to always maintain a critical eye and question new healthcare good and services to ensure that they are consistent with the individual provider’s aims and means of care as well.

When industries collide: how Big Pharma and consumer goods firms are redefining food   1 comment

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a strategic war game. For those unfamiliar with the term, imagine a business strategy competition where four teams are posed with the same problem. The unique twist of a war game is that each team is assigned the identity of a real entity (e.g,. the management of a health insurance firm) and must justify all the decisions it makes by demonstrating consistency with the existing operations and culture of the real thing. While these can be organized as internal professional development opportunities, this particular war game — entitled “Designer Foods – who will win Big Pharma or consumer goods?” — was an Oxford-Cambridge face-off organized by Fuld & Company, a business intelligence firm.

Let the games begin

The basic premise upon which the four teams’ arguments turned was how scientifically-engineered super-foods would develop in the coming years. Specifically, would the expected explosion in health-oriented food products that enhanced wellness be led more by science-based pharmaceutical firms (e.g., GlaxoSmithKline [or GSK] and Abbott Nutrition) that lack brand recognition with consumers or traditional consumer goods firms (e.g., Nestle Health Science and Danone) who understood consumers but have struggled with regulatory concerns over their prior health claims? The intentional ambiguity of what qualified as a “designer food” and what potential scientific advances were on the horizon made the ensuing presentations and Q&A sessions highly unpredictable and insightful.

The consensus ultimately reached by participants and observers alike was that this gray area between food and medical product is developing unusually fast and not without controversy. Risks abound for a company to find itself either a) not being able to bring consumer-friendly markets to product quickly enough, or b) not being able to justify satisfactorily any health claims to government watchdogs.For example, both GSK and Abbott had substantial history in medical nutrition (e.g., infant formula, adult disease-specific supplements), but neither had successfully grown a brand in a consumer-oriented product segment. Conversely, Nestle was intimately aware of its consumer reputation as too much a “confectionary company,” and Danone was being dragged through courts on multiple continents for health claims it had later amended with its Activia line of digestive yogurt-based products.

The solution put forth by our team (and others) was that the firms gathered could best participate in this new market ecosystem by partnering with complementary firms. For example, we were assigned GSK and strongly advocated the firm formalize new product development with a consumer goods firm (e.g., Nestle, Danone, Unilever) to quickly move into the space. Our argument rested on GSK’s ability to provide “scientific credibility” to consumer goods firms’ health claims. However, not everyone agreed with this strategy. The Danone team returned in a later round to not only reject an offer to partner with a major pharmaceutical company but opted to leave the functional food market (and return to its traditional fresh-dairy products without health claims) after a game twist led to increased regulation of food products making health claims.

It will be interesting to see where the designer food market ultimately goes. One of most important findings I noted during my business research for the competition was the lack of credible products in the space. There are a number of medical food products that will soon hit the market (e.g., chewing gum to reduce blood phosphate levels in kidney failure patients); and there remain a number of essentially rebranded naturally healthy products like yogurt with active cultures. What I was unable to find were products intended for the mass market that made uniquely novel health claims. It is certainly possible that rather than a dominant player establish designer foods as a strategic growth market, the role of high-science, mass-market foods dwindles out for lack of promising development.

Disclosure: I received a share of the prize money awarded to the first place team by Fuld&Company the Oxford-Cambridge War Game simulation. As of June 2012, I am currently engaged with one of the firms above on a short-term consulting project unrelated to designer foods.

What to do about the worldwide healthcare workforce shortage?   Leave a comment

A community health worker registering patients at a rural health fair

A community health worker is seen here registering patients at a rural health fair outside Thomonde, Haiti. Community health workers are critical at serving "last mile" healthcare needs and are typically deeply embedded in communities.

It is widely acknowledged that the developing world is in the midst of a healthcare personnel crisis. Even the citizens of middle-income countries that have begun to reap the rewards of increasing standards of living and the emergence of disposable incomes are finding that local health systems lack the healthcare personnel to provide adequate care. The World Health Organization estimates that  57 countries lack the health care personnel needed to reach health-related Millennium Development Goals. Even small increases in the ratio of healthcare workers to the general population correlate with substantial declines in maternal, infant, and child mortality.

Unfortunately, progress is not being made fast enough, and the primary problem is lack of infrastructure. The consulting firm McKinsey & Co. has modeled current workforce education capabilities and estimates that $33 billion and 300 new medical schools would be needed in sub-Saharan Africa alone to meet the continent’s workforce needs. Radical changes to the existing system of healthcare workforce education are needed if health systems are to meet the demands of a world in need of accessible and quality healthcare.

The current paradigm of health workforce education across much of the world involves a massive financial and social investment into the education of highly-skilled, upper-tier medical professionals that typically requires 5-10 years of higher education. However, in a number of developing countries, substantial healthcare services have been provided with less highly trained mid-level providers.

Pharmacist providing medicine and counseling

Having trained pharmacists available at dispensaries ensures that patients receiving proper counseling on the use of medications.

Changing the workforce shortage starts with changing the paradigm. New models of healthcare workforce education need to be tried that move away from the high-cost, state-run institutions currently being used. One alternative would be to begin offering private, market-based programs that provide a more flexible path to licensure as mid-level providers. These programs could use a modified version of distance education — already popular in the developing world — and take advantage to the expanding technical capabilities of mobile networks in these communities.

The biggest obstacle to experimenting with new workforce education strategies is the regulatory environment. Many governments in the developing world still find it difficult to license mid-level providers given their unusual place in the medical hierarchy and these governments’ lack of experience with such providers. Additionally, these novel education schemes would need to be accredited as well.

Given these regulatory hurdles, a “bottom-up” approach of market creation is unlikely to work for new education models. Hence, the workforce shortage issue is ultimately a policy problem. If one is able to leverage government policymakers, these new models of medical workforce training represent a great opportunity for addressing the biggest, least recognized problem affecting global health today.

Interested in learning more? See this proposal I previously prepared on how such market-based education solutions could be implemented given the risky regulatory environment.