Picture someone you love. Now imagine that person falls sick and cannot access the medicines they need to get better.
This is the daily reality of hundreds of millions of Africans, where less than half the continent’s population has access to affordable medicines when they need them. This problem results in the unnecessary death of millions of Africans annually.
The Investing in Innovation (i3) initiative intends to fix that problem. (Disclaimer: I am on the steering committee of the program).
i3 is a pan-African initiative designed to accelerate the commercialization of 60 promising early & growth-stage healthcare companies. The initiative will provide grants, training, a network, and access to market support for these companies.
In our language, i3 is a market-creating innovation initiative built to foster healthcare focused market-creating innovations across Africa.
Market-creating innovations transform complicated and expensive products–like medicines–into simple and affordable ones making them accessible to many more people in society. These innovations are unique in their ability to trigger economic prosperity at scale. Consider the impact of one of the major market-creating innovations across Africa: mobile phones.
In the late 1990s fewer than five percent of people in Africa had access to mobile phones. The product was deemed too expensive and complicated for a majority of people on the continent. Like many medicines today, only the rich could afford mobile phones then. But in 1998, Mo Ibrahim built Celtel and developed a business model that made inexpensive mobile phones and telecommunications accessible to millions of people in several African countries.
In just six years, Celtel was able to build operations in 13 African countries and gained 5.2 million customers. By 2004, revenues had reached $614 million. In 2005 when Ibrahim decided to sell the company, he did so for a handsome $3.4 billion. But Celtel was just the tip of the iceberg.
The market Ibrahim, and a few other innovators, created triggered the growth of a vast and far-reaching mobile telecommunications industry in Africa. From just a handful of mobile telecommunications operators in Africa a couple of decades ago, today there are more than 100.
In addition to supporting more than three million jobs, the sector now generates almost $15 billion in taxes annually and adds an estimated $130 billion of economic value to the continent.
The i3 initiative intends to do for access to medicines what Mo Ibrahim and Celtel did for access to mobile phones.
Market-creating innovations are more than products or services, they are systems. That’s why the i3 initiative is developing a network of partners to support this initiative.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is providing the $7 million in funding to support the design and evaluation of the initiative and also grants to the promising innovators. Organizations such as Merck, AmerisourceBergen, the WHO, the African Union Development Agency and others are providing access to market support. As the program develops, we hope additional African institutions such as Afrexim Bank will provide loans to further help the innovators scale.
The i3 initiative has also partnered with some of Africa’s most successful innovation hubs–Impact Lab, Co-Creation Hub, Villgro Africa, and Startupbootcamp–to provide a home for the entrepreneurs. These innovation hubs will be responsible for selecting the most promising healthcare organizations into the program. In addition, the hubs will design and operationalize a program that will support these organizations as they scale.
In the two years of the i3 initiative, we hope to build a strong enough network and program that attracts the attention of investors who will further provide growth capital for most of the innovators.
It is only by developing a system which finds, funds, and fosters Africa’s market-creating innovators that the continent can truly accelerate access to medicines. This, we believe, will result in prosperity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed Africa’s vulnerability. Although the continent seemed to avoid the massive deaths that experts predicted, it wasn’t spared from the economic shock that resulted from stay-at-home orders and curfews. As such, Africa will struggle to recover. It is bold initiatives like this that seek to build robust systems for African innovators that will transform Africa from a continent of scarcity to one of abundance.
Applications for the i3 initiative are now open and will close mid-August. I invite companies to apply and potential partners to check out the i3 initiative. Join us as we work to build the next generation of Africa’s healthcare innovators.