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Melissa is the founder of Access Afya, a primary health company building tech-enabled health delivery for millions of Kenyans who are uninsured.

Five questions with Access Afya

25 November 2020

4 minute read

Melissa is the founder of Access Afya, a primary health company building tech-enabled health delivery for millions of Kenyans who are uninsured.

Melissa is the founder of Access Afya, a primary health company building tech-enabled health delivery for millions of Kenyans who are uninsured. Access Afya is an urban health startup that is providing accessible, affordable, high-quality healthcare to slums in Kenya. We do this through a network of tech-enabled health clinics supported by a digital health app that remotely consults with and coaches our patients.

Access Afya runs one of the first fully licensed virtual clinics in Kenya. By owning the full patient journey from clinical care and diagnostics to digital engagement, AA is able to delight its patients and also fill a massive gap in the current health delivery system in Kenya. Access Afya was named the company with the best customer experience in Kenya in 2019, and its work has been recognised by MIT Solve, Making More Health, Google for Entrepreneurs and the IFC Tech Emerge program.

Melissa’s background is in affordable housing and urban development, which led to her interest in slums and how they develop around the world. She started Access Afya to bring safe, affordable and effective healthcare to slums everywhere. Melissa has been a Forbes 400 Philanthropy fellow and a Cartier Women's Initiative Award finalist, and has served on the board of Young Women Social Entrepreneurs Nairobi. Melissa lives in Nairobi and likes to kitesurf on the Indian Ocean on the weekends.
 

01. What was the inspiration behind your company?

Through working in low income communities in the United States and Africa, I realised that systemic problems need systemic solutions. Singular interventions — a technology, a medicine, a program — can’t scale without a system.

My focus on urban poverty led me to have a particular interest in urbanisation and slums. In Kenya — like many other places — poor quality medicines were being provided by the market as a substitute for effective healthcare for families. And people were buying.

I moved to Kenya and have been working on Access Afya for eight years. I have built a world-class team and seen firsthand the impact we have had on tens of thousands of patients. And, I realise that our model isn’t just useful in running our chain but can be used by people everywhere.

02. What do you find is the most difficult aspect of being a female founder? How do you feel being a female founder gives your startup a unique advantage?

The disparity in access to capital and treatment by investors has been well documented. I’ve certainly faced differential treatment that slows down the company’s ability to raise capital and grow.

The silver lining for Access Afya is that being an empathetic female founder of a healthcare business is an advantage. Women are crucial in making decisions about family healthcare: 60% of Access Afya’s customers are women.

I’ve built a commitment to diversity into how we structure our team. We are 55% women, and one-third of our team grew up in informal settlements, meaning that we are including our target market into the design of our team.

03. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned since first developing and launching your startup?

You have to be passionate about the problem you are solving, but not any one product. A lot of work goes into launching each product. I built an embedded clinic product that brought together the right mix of devices, sensors and medications to build clinic corners inside of schools. It was hugely impactful and really an innovative, fun product to build. However, a lot of families still wanted to come to clinics for healthcare and small Kenyan schools were difficult to bring onto long-term contracts. We had to kill the product to save the company and focus our time and resources on building out our core tech-enabled micro-clinic product.

04. How has the pandemic impacted your company?

As a primary healthcare company, it has impacted us deeply. We started 2020 seeing 10,000 people every month in person in our clinics and pharmacies. Immediately, we focused on re-writing our protocols to keep our care providers and our patients on the frontlines safe. This meant stocking up on PPE, running online education, changing patient flow and more. We have stayed open all year and are playing an important role by screening, escalating suspected COVID-19 cases to the government for further testing and educating the communities we work in on how to stay safe and look out for risk signs.

This year also presented us with a big opportunity. For the first time ever, the Kenyan government created an open and transparent licensing process for digital health companies. We now run one of the first licensed, fully virtual clinics and are seeing patients through our app, consulting, writing prescriptions and coaching our non-communicable disease patients.

05. What is the one piece of advice you'd give to other women thinking about starting a company?

Build a great team. As a solo founder, this took me a while, but when you do get it right, it makes all the difference. Our team is on a mission to replace the informal health sector with accessible, affordable, high-quality healthcare. When your team is really committed to a shared vision of the future, and believes your company is the solution to get there, it makes all of those roadblocks, surprises and long nights easier.
 

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