The Ethiopian behind the start-up currently on top of the tech world
Wuleta Lemma (PhD) is a healthcare entrepreneur honored as a PITCH winner and currently shortlisted on Jack Ma Foundation’s Africa Netpreneur Prize Initiative. An optimist, the once recipient of the Ethiopian Ministry of Health - Lifetime Achievement Award - converses with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on her latest achievement, on her drive to digitalize the Ethiopian health sector, on taking her initiative forward and helping young people get opportunities. Excerpts:
Congratulations on winning PITCH. What challenges have you faced as a startup?
Thank you! I have to tell you, we participated last year as an introduction not just to the award, but also to promote our products. We saw the diversity of ideas in our participation in it. Those that got to know us, encouraged us to try and go for the PITCH and we did not think we were at a stage to compete in such an international arena but then again, through encouragement, we tried again this year and here we are.
From 2500 entrants, we were shortlisted to 700 and then to 140 and subsequently, 18 were chosen. And last week, 18 of us finally competed and presented our products. Finally, among the three that were listed – there was one from the United Kingdom, one from the United States and us – and amazingly, we were the ultimate victor. It is really amazing that we won!
That is great. I have to ask you, how hard is it really to start such a startup in a society in which even the startup concept is still foreign to many people?
That is unfortunately true and you are correct in your assessment of it. I’m from an academic background. I have been mentoring and supporting young people in to move forward with such a unique idea for the last 16 years. Even the mind shifts to start such a company is not easy, I have to tell you. I started my company four years ago because I really believed we could change the local Ethiopian health care system. I have been involved in the Ethiopian – African healthcare system for more than 28 years and I know it from the inside out.
I believed the best way to inspire young people to be the agents of change in the local healthcare system was to begin such a startup. We self-funded it with support from friends and family members. If you are in Europe or the United States, it is possible to receive such financial support to try such an innovative idea, but in Ethiopia there is literally no support.
Once we established ourselves, we offered our services free of charge to local hospitals, including COVID-19 centers where we felt it can best be utilized. The IT sector and its role in our local hospitals remains very minimal on the ground and that is where we continue to see a role for ourselves. Our software is cutting edge and the judges from Google and others saw its potential to do good and I believe that is why we were recognized with the PITCH.
How would being a PITCH winner help Lalibela’s ongoing efforts?
I think, on a nutshell, it shows to the world we can come up with our own mechanism to solve our own problems, with our own money and resources and compete on a world stage. Our company was founded in Ethiopia and by Ethiopians and it shows others there is talent within Ethiopia and Africa. The digitalization of our system is important to all of us.
If one goes to any of the local hospitals and sees how our medical records are kept, you will understand our effort and work in such a practical way. The World Bank estimates the African healthcare system will be worth 30 billion USD by 2025 and many young people will suddenly be given a chance to work in the medical system, where as right now, many young medical students and IT graduates are in search of scarce jobs.
To me personally, our success is a testament of what can be done within Ethiopia when we have a good mindset and welcome new ideas, instead of running away from it. I hope it will also inspire other women to move forward with their ideas and not shy away from international competitions.
What does Lalibella Global Networks intend to achieve in the long term?
Our long-term vision is to be the leading ICT digital health company in Africa. We want to achieve that in the next 5 to 10 years. We want to base our home within Ethiopia where we have lots of young, talented and passionate young people. We can then take our idea to all over the continent. You have to be aware; we are translating our system into multiple African languages and we are now even getting phone calls from Latin America, in Ecuador where doctors want to use our system to help their people.
My personal dream is to start a big center in Ethiopia where we have a digital factory to bring young people we can train and have them change the local healthcare system and also work all over the African continent. Perhaps I am a dreamer but that is my mission.
What does ABAY-CHR do exactly?
It is a system where it tracks all your health activities from childbirth to adulthood and where your medical record is kept and utilized when needed by any medical health practitioner. A lot of records are misplaced and lost because many are using a paper system. As African nations continue to become visa-less with the free movement of people already taking hold, such a system becomes very paramount and important when medical practitioners need to access the medical history of the person they treat no matter where they are.
What are the prospects of launching ABAY-CHR in Ethiopia in the near future?
We are already in four hospitals, including in St. Peter’s, Specialized Hospital, Felege Hiwot Comprehensive Specialized Hospital, the emergency room in Dessie Referral Hospital and the COVID Field hospital in Addis Ababa. But to expand our product, we need more funding; we need the government to help uplift us. We need the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Innovation & Technology to really understand we have to become paper-less and also be connected to big investors who are intent on investing in such companies in Africa.
You know there are now big drug makers entering the African market. I ask, if they do not have good data, how would they be able to function? Also through our system, we are trying to establish the digitalization of payment where people can pay for their loved one’s medical care from a distance, where ever they many be, from the diaspora or those in between.
You have also been shortlisted for Jack Ma Foundation’s 2020 African business heroes award. With your international recognition coming fast and thick, what do you think is the key to financial and professional success?
Changing the mind of adversaries, finding champions and to have people to go visit their local hospitals and learn about the shortcomings of the system. If Ethiopia wants to become a leader in such idea, it needs to champion it from the start and also have believers to see the vision in practice. Let me tell you something, I have traveled to many parts of the world, including to the Southern parts of the United States and Nepal and others, they also need such a system to be their reality. Ethiopia exports coffee ably, why not ICT?
I am in my 50’s now. I am still an idealist. Throughout my life, I have had many opportunities to give up but I still believe in Ethiopia. We have many young, talented people and I still believe in them. I want to provide them opportunities where they can help change their nation. In all Ethiopia’s shortcomings, I see opportunities and we are a beautiful nation. I also want Ethiopian fathers to encourage their daughters to aim high as my own father gave me a chance to do great things in life.