There are certain people you come across in life that are truly inspirational on a number of levels, but medical doctor, pilot and healthcare entrepreneur, Ola Orekunrin is certainly one of those.
Ola Orekunrin’s startup story is truly remarkable. She was originally born in London and grew up in a foster home with her sister in the small seaside town of Lowestoft in the south-east of England. With a passion for medicine, she studied at the University of York in the UK, graduating at the incredibly young age of 21 as a qualified doctor. Her meteoric rise in the field of medical studies took her to Japan as a result of her being awarded the MEXT Japanese Government Scholarship. There, she conducted clinic research in the field of regenerative medicine at the Jikei University Hospital. However, the catalyst for a major life and career decision came when her sister became very, very ill on holiday whilst staying with relatives in Nigeria. The local hospital was unable to manage her sickle cell anemia condition, and as a result, Ola and her family started to search for an air ambulance so that she could be safely transported to a suitable medical facility in the country. The tragedy for the family was that there were no air ambulances to be found, even though the search took them from Nigeria, to Ghana, Sierra Leone and Cameroon, and across West Africa. The only one to be found was in South Africa, 5 hours away, but by the time the logistics had been arranged, Ola’s sister had died of her condition. The real tragedy is that she didn’t die because her condition was unmanageable; she died of a condition that could have been managed with the right medicines in the cupboard of a highly efficient Accident and Emergency hospital ward – it was just a problem of access. The death of her sister and the circumstances that caused it, broke Ola’s heart, so she left her job and took the decision to move to Nigeria where she could try to make a difference to the lives of other patients and improving healthcare in the country as a whole.
“I just think that we need to start thinking outside the box and be more confident in the concept of African innovation.”
She started to study evacuation models and air ambulance services in other developing countries before launching her ambitious entrepreneurial venture, Flying Doctors Nigeria Limited, which today enables her to combine her deep love for medicine and Africa with her growing passion for flying. Ola is also a trainee helicopter pilot. Ultimately, her motivation for starting the business was to find an effective way of facilitating people who were critically ill, getting them to see the right doctor at the right facility within the right time frame for that particular illness. Today, her business, Flying Doctors Nigeria Limited is the first air ambulance service in West Africa to provide urgent helicopter, airplane ambulance and evacuation services for critically injured people.
She says of the experience of setting up the business in the early days: “When I arrived in Nigeria, I decided to start an air ambulance, not just a specialist pediatric air ambulance, that would cover Nigeria and West Africa. It took a huge amount of work to get started with a lot of mistakes and a lot of completely dead ends.”
“Sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s smallest number of motorized vehicles but the highest rate of road traffic fatalities, with Nigeria and South Africa leading the pack. Trauma has become a silent epidemic in Africa, an epidemic that will only spread as the economy grows. More and more Africans are buying cars and working in heavy and dangerous industries. At the same time, infrastructure is poor, safety laws lax, and cars badly maintained.”
However, Ola’s persistence, hard work, and gritty determination paid off, and today her company is well-established, well respected, and has won the applause and admiration from around the business world and from across the medical profession. The business now has a mixed-pool of more than 20 aircraft that are used for different types of evacuation, and about 30 staff all employed in different capacities and branches in three major cities in Nigeria. Importantly, since the launch of the business, hundreds of lives have been saved – not just in Nigeria, but across the African continent. The Lagos-based company has so far airlifted around 500 patients, using a fleet of planes and helicopters to rapidly move injured workers and critically ill people from remote areas to hospitals. From patients with road traffic trauma, to bomb blast injuries to gunshot wounds, Ola and her company are helping to save lives by moving these patients safely, rapidly, and providing a high level of care en route.”
“… we take pride in being the first Nigerian indigenous company to do this … We are training more people to go into the air ambulance sector and I think our paramedics now have a huge amount of management skills. I just think that we need to start thinking outside the box and be more confident in the concept of African innovation.”
Over the past few years, the honours and accolades for Ola’s work have begun to flow, with the prestigious World Economic Forum recognizing her considerable achievements by naming her amongst its prestigious Young Global Leaders class of 2013, a group it describes as the best of today’s leaders under the age of 40.
Her mission for Flying Doctors? She hopes this is the beginning of a healthcare revolution across West Africa.