My Life In Tech is putting human faces to some of the innovative startups, investments and policy formations driving the technology sector across Africa.

Tito Ovia is passionate about Nigeria’s healthcare sector. Technology just happens to be a tool that is enabling her and her team at Helium Health address a very key aspect of the sector: collecting and organising data. In this edition of MLIT, Ovia discusses the challenges of her role at Helium Health, founder relationships as well as how the pandemic has impacted the business.

Nigeria’s healthcare industry is not “sexy”, in Tito Ovia’s words. There’s very little about its current state or future prospects that inspire faith. Be it in the availability of funding, facilities, staff, equipment, supplies, or in its processes, there is a perpetual shortage and disarray as a whole that means a large percentage of Nigeria’s 200 million are at its mercy as it were. 

Ovia has always thought, though, that there was some small contribution she could make towards improving some aspect of the sector. Helium Health just happens to be a very significant path through which she is making this happen. 

“For me, it’s always been healthcare first and improving healthcare in Nigeria and West Africa,” a spirited Ovia tells me on our call. 

Born in the US and going on to study in the UK, Ovia’s earliest understanding of how starkly below standards the healthcare system in the country was, was being able to compare it with what she had seen living and studying abroad.

Co-founded alongside Adegoke Olubusi and Dimeji Sofowora in 2016, the technology-enabled company provides medical institutions with EMR (electronic management records) solutions that enable them digitize their records and streamline their processes. More recently, medical institutions, buoyed by clear and proper records, can access loans for their facilities through the platform, an addition it made after raising US$10 million in a Series A funding round in May. 

Conversations about the raise began around July 2019 as the company planned to expand. Two years prior, it raised a US$2 million seed round and has established itself as a leader in the EMR space following mergers/acquisitions with MedicPlus and SmartDoctor. 

Leading business growth at Helium Health

Ovia heads public sector growth at Helium Health where she interacts with the company’s clients that are public-sector facing. A role she enjoys as someone who loves to interact with people. With more than 60% of medical institutions publicly available, Ovia’s role is very critical to the growth of the business as a whole. This impact is also reflected in the large percentage of the population, low to middle income earners, who often rely on these public institutions for their health needs and so are better able to enjoy some semblance of quality care.

“This is just as simple as saying, you’re not waiting an hour when you’re in an emergency for someone to find your medical record file,” she says. Or losing a day or two worth of payment from your job every other time you need to visit the hospital.

Convincing public healthcare institutions to move away from traditional set ways and processes to adopt tools that may at first seem too technical to use can be challenging. 

One way Ovia navigates this is the employment of local contract staff in the locations where the institutions are to foster a sense of ownership and camaraderie when driving training and adoption. This proved particularly effective in deploying its solution across Akwa Ibom state in southern Nigeria in partnership with the state ministry of health. 

Also critical in driving adoption is user experience. There is a strong leaning towards simple user interfaces that are easy to learn and use with even the most basic digital skill sets. Sometimes, this is where the adoption begins: providing basic digital training for potential users (medical staff).

Of course, patients are forever keen and excited about changes that are forward-looking and offer them hassle-free visits to the hospital time and time again. 

For governments, mostly the ministries and other such parastatals, the value proposition remains the ability to gain more insights into the numbers across public health institutions hence increasing the chances that whatever little funding is available for the sector within the national and state budgets actually goes to where they are needed.

On the cover of Forbes, cofounder dynamics

Last year, Ovia and her co-founders made it to the coveted Forbes 30 under 30 list under the healthcare category. They had an inkling they had made the list when a day prior to the announcement, they had received an email from the Forbes team asking to confirm their full names and dates of birth. 

“I was excited that people were excited for me,” Ovia says recalling the events that followed the announcement including a celebratory dinner organised by her close friends. While she loved being celebrated, for her, the work and recognition she desires more is to make and continue to impact the health sector in the country through the work Helium Health does.

“Goke and Dimeji are my brothers,” she says of her co-founders, and all the eccentricities of sibling relationships are at play here. All three share a deep passion for the healthcare sector and the business but also disagree with as much intensity. 

“For a long time, it took us a while to find our rhythm,” she says.

“But we had to realise that we weren’t fighting because either of us wanted the downfall of the company but because we had very passionate and differing points of view.”

While they’ve grown and learnt to be brutally honest with each other, Ovia says one phrase they have refrained from completely is “I told you so”. There is no room for gloating. 

As a woman in a male-dominated space, Ovia has had her share of gender-based bias. Aggressive, greedy and stubborn are names she’s been called in business meetings. It is not unusual to go for meetings and have clients insist on speaking with one of the male co-founders, conversations which they typically must have with her as the head of business growth. Her co-founders are often quick to redirect the clients back to her, she says. 

“They do not actually encourage that kind of behaviour.”

This has trickled down to how the company navigates the testy topic of gender inclusion. Currently, about 45% of its work staff are women, and policies/cultures that make the work space a safe zone for females also extend beyond the office and colleagues to ensuring client interactions are always professional and safe. 

Coronavirus and Helium Health

Medical tourism, like all local and international travel, ground to a halt in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Nigeria’s political elite (and those up the echelons of wealth) accustomed to trips abroad for health reasons, from annual body checkups to lifesaving surgeries, were, for once, stuck with the medical care systems their lack of care and political will had created. When we speak in May, Ovia is of the opinion that the pandemic will force changes in the sector post-pandemic because it has made the shortcomings of the sector even more glaring particularly for the political elite who have always had more quality alternatives and hence no incentives to make them work. 

These changes will not come easy and will take as much time as it has taken to run things to the ground. And they require multifaceted intervention. How can healthcare workers who are migrating in droves be encouraged to stay? How can more budgetary allocations be made to the healthcare sector? How can technology be used more and more to make up for certain shortcomings? How can innovation drive growth in new fields completely? 

“If there was ever a time to show off as a  company, this is it,” Ovia says about the pandemic and how it validates the company’s vision. 

This, she says, has been a highly motivating factor for the team during this period despite increased workloads even with new staff members. In April, Helium health launched a free telemedicine solution to its clients and as many who needed it and spent a better part of the weeks that followed attending to a deluge of calls from both existing clients and those seeking out its services for the first time. .

“You can’t go back and tell your investors that as a healthtech company, you didn’t at least scale or maintain business during this period,” she says. 

Like many tech-enabled healthcare startups in the country, Helium Health is playing a long term game. Ultimately, the goal is to streamline processes for just about every medical facility in the country and proceed to do same around the continent while gathering and collating useful health data that can be instrumental in driving much needed change in the sector. 

Personally, Ovia’s immediate long term goal is to transition into advising on policy development on local and global levels using insights and data gained from digitizing medical records across public and private healthcare sectors, and she is well on the right path.

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