Jumoke Akinrodoye came to the United States last year from Nigeria specifically to give birth. It wasn’t to secure citizenship for her baby—she’s a U.S. citizen, so her child would be too, no matter where he was born. Instead, Akinrodoye wanted to ensure she and her baby survived delivery.
“To me, getting any kind of medical care there is not worth the risk,” Akinrodoye says. “If there was something wrong with my fingers or toes, fine, I could go to the hospital in Nigeria; I can live without a finger or toe. Anything more than that and I’m going to America,” she said.
Her fear is reasonable. Although Nigeria is one of Africa’s most resource rich countries, the country’s healthcare system is undeniably broken. The Economist called Nigeria “the worst place for a baby to enter the world in 2013,” and the World Health Organization has ranked Nigeria’s medical system 187th out of 190 countries.
And in this challenging environment—where public funding is scarce and mismanagement causes chaos—the few middle- and upper-income families who can afford to leave the continent even for basic check-ups. In fact, Nigerians spend more than $6.25 billion each year seeking treatment abroad.
Last week, the GEANCO Foundation hosted a special event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. to discuss a project aiming to offer world-class healthcare services in Nigeria. The foundation is working to build a state-of-the-art hospital that would make travel unnecessary and provide subsidized care for the majority of Nigerians who can’t afford to pay. The goal is to become the center for standardized care in the region.
“Ghana has a few good hospitals and Nigeria has a few smaller facilities that function well,” says Afam Onyema, co-founder and COO of GEANCO Foundation. “But burn victims are still being flown to Germany and people are still flying out.”
GEANCO isn’t the first (and certainly wont be the last) organization to consider opening hospitals that raise the level of healthcare in Africa. Dikembe Mutombo’s project in the Democratic Republic of Congo has done well; Jacaranda Health started with mobile clinics in Kenya before opening a hospital last year; and African Medical Investments operates private hospitals in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Tanzania.
But the difference is in GEANCO’s story.
GEANCO COO Afam Onyema’s father, Dr. Godwin Onyema, grew up admiring British missionaries who ran an on-campus clinic at his boarding school in southeastern Nigeria. He noted their dedication and the sacrifice it took for them to be there.
“They were underpaid but committed, and that’s the example I had,” Dr. Onyema says. “I didn’t know how it was going to happen, but I knew that’s what I wanted to do. So I came to America, became a doctor, married a nurse and worked to make the dream a reality.”
Five decades later, his son has joined him, forgoing several lucrative offers to join the family business to help his father achieve his dream instead. Since GEANCO was founded in 2005, Afam Onyema has used his Harvard College and Stanford Law connections to develop relationships with influential donors and organizations that have made the medical missions and symposiums the foundation engages in possible.
From DreamWorks Studios, to Chicago law firm Mayer Brown, to Ernst & Young and Stanford Hospital, the Onyemas have used their story to build connections that have helped raise GEANCO’s profile and attracted other powerful supporters.
“Afam’s credentials are so great that he could’ve done almost anything he wanted and made a ton of money. And yet he chose to do this instead and put his shoulder fully behind the hospital they’re determined to bring to life,” says John McGoldrick, director and chairman of Zimmer, Inc, a GEANCO supporter. “It’s hard not to be drawn to these folks that are trying to do something this important.”
During the D.C. meeting last week, GEANCO announced a new Clinton Global Initiative joint project to screen women for anemia, as well as a special orthopedic medical mission to Nigeria this fall, and plans to partner with a Silicon Valley biotech company to bring a new cheap, anti-diarrheal supplement to the country. GEANCO also provided a status update on the hospital.
The ideas, the investments and the missions are all big—and yet they’ve been able to maintain a small, family feel that’s made all the difference.
Jumoke Akinrodoye was gleeful at the prospect of having a world-class hospital based at home in Nigeria. “If there was a hospital inside of Nigeria that worked as well as the ones here, I would be in heaven,” she said. “I wish them well. If it works, I’m there.”
Donations to GEANCO Foundation can be made here.
Bolanle Omisore is a freelance journalist who covers business, energy and environment news from the African continent. Follow her on Twitter @venerableladyB.