Harnessing the Superhero Power of Healthcare Innovation

The International Partnership for Innovative Healthcare Calls for Corporate Investment and Expertise

When one thinks of comic book superheroes, colorful characters saving the world in spandex and capes often come to mind. But one afternoon in Washington, D.C., I came across an entirely different kind of comic book superhero: Nia. Nia, whose name means “purpose” in Kiswahili, is a friendly, motivated, adventurous student and the dynamic superhero created by ZanaAfrica, a social enterprise-hybrid-organization that provides affordable sanitary pads and relevant health information to women and girls in East Africa. On the pink and purple pages of the comic book, Nia and her friends explain, in a fun and interactive way, what happens to a girl’s body during menstruation, providing advice, encouragement, and loads of information.

At the International Partnership for Innovative Healthcare Delivery (IPIHD) Annual Forum, Megan Mukuria, the founder of ZanaAfrica, explained why her project matters. In Kenya, 65 percent of girls cannot afford sanitary pads, which results in extended absences from school that hinder academic performance and future opportunities. The Nia comic, which will be distributed in sanitary pad back-to-school packets for young girls, is part of a larger effort by ZanaAfrica to create opportunities for women and girls to thrive as focused students, productive workers, and informed mothers.

Mukuria, herself a visionary superhero, blew me away with her idea, but even superheroes need help. She explained that ZanaAfrica needs support in developing a long-term marketing, communications, and design strategy. The ZanaAfrica team works tirelessly on outreach efforts for all of their programs, but would benefit from input on how to scale their idea, brand the campaign, and deliver the product to make the most impact on women and girls in Kenya. How can our superhero package Nia’s message to reach the girls who need it most?

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IPIHD brought dozens of pioneers like Mukuria together with businesses who could help answer these questions. During the three-day forum, innovators, corporate supporters, foundations, investors, and global health leaders discussed investment opportunities and new solutions to major global health issues. Social entrepreneurs pitched to impact investors and panels discussed topics like empowering women, strengthening regional health systems, and adapting new technologies, among other breakout conversations.

It was an inspiring and informative event, highlighting the frontiers being breached through amazing new products and services. Throughout the Forum’s activities, however, one common thread shone through: the global health community lacks access to quality talent and expertise, which is restricting the scalability of new technology, products, and services.

“We need more corporate investment in terms of expertise,” said Peter Gross, Africa regional director of MicroEnsure, when asked what big changes are necessary for healthcare transformation. He explained that the global health community needs to learn from the Unilevers and Proctor & Gambles of the world and ask, “how do we get a bar of soap into everyone’s hands across the globe?”

Groundbreaking innovations alone cannot reach all of the individuals in need across the globe. To have that kind of scale and reach, small businesses and social enterprises pioneering novel health approaches would benefit from collaborating with experts with critical expertise in delivery method, marketing and communications, supply chain, and more.

Many effective nonprofit organizations [or NGOs] around the world struggle to achieve optimal performance because they lack access to talented healthcare professionals. The North Star Alliance, for example, builds health clinics out of shipping containers at transit hubs across Africa. Executive Director Luke Disney said that finding and training junior healthcare staff is one of the biggest challenges he faces. The potential for creating talent exists, and experts who can spark talent creation are available. How do we match these two groups together to foster quality capacity building and sustainable access to talent?

Global pro bono, or corporate volunteerism programs, have the ability to bring some of the world’s top business talent closer to the innovators on the ground. Professionals with skills and experience in business and operations lend those capabilities to organizations in underserved communities in order to address their core business challenges. For example, PYXERA Global, In partnership with the Public Health Institute, supports the implementation of the USAID-funded Global Health Fellows Program II by matching corporate pro bono experts—Global Health Champions—with projects that reflect and directly contribute to USAID’s global health priorities. This direct link provides corporate professionals with the first-hand insight into needs and opportunities around the world. And it helps organizations in under-served communities build capacity by filling their need for the increased access to talent that Disney describes.

Many effective organizations and social enterprises around the world struggle to achieve optimal performance because they lack access to talented healthcare professionals. One such organization is Jacaranda Health, a company that is creating a self-sustaining and scalable chain of clinics to provide reproductive health services to urban women in Kenya. Jacaranda Health availed itself of “Global Health Champions”:  two Merck employees from the Merck Fellowship for Global Health worked directly with the organization for three months in Nairobi, developing a communications strategy, which included creating a messaging platform and encouraging greater exposure and outreach of the Jacaranda model in the global health space. Both Jacaranda Health and the Merck participants emphasized the impact this project had on the current success of Jacaranda Health and on the participants, who now act as ambassadors for these types of corporate investments.

The impressive network IPIHD has created will continue to encourage the collaboration of public, private, and social actors to invest in solutions that will bring lasting change to the world’s most pressing health issues. The 4th Annual IPIHD Forum reminded us all how important these types of collaborative initiatives are in bridging the knowledge and skills gaps that persist in the global health field. Through purposeful investment on the part of global corporations, the healthcare industry can foster innovative ideas, allowing global health’s superheroes to continue to positively affect the lives of many around the world.

Photos by ZanaAfrica

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