Dr. Amit Thakker’s Mission to Build a Healthier Africa
By Rola Tassabehji, Contributor
Africa continues to suffer from fragile health systems, and for Dr. Amit Thakker, YPO member and Co-founder of Africa Health Business, the potential to improve health care for all and create a healthier Africa has never looked brighter.
His optimism stems from more than two decades of entrepreneurship in the continent’s health care sector, starting and leading several health care and medical organizations in various countries in Africa.
“Kenya, and Africa in general, are currently at their highest investment readiness state in health care,” says Thakker. “Opportunities in digital health, primary health care, supply chain innovations and medical education, coupled with an elevated political goodwill, are enhancing the enabling environment for the sector.”
A beleaguered health care system
Today, less than half of Africans have access to adequate medical facilities and more than 11 million are falling into poverty annually as a result of medical expenses. According to the International Finance Corporation, health care in sub-Saharan Africa in particular remains the worst in the world, with few countries able to spend the USD34 to USD40 a year per person that the World Health Organization considers the minimum for basic health care. Despite widespread poverty, half of the region’s health care expenditure is financed by direct payments from individuals.
“Africa, a continent of 1.2 billion people, has needs that outweigh supply. Coupled with this is the large challenge of poverty. At least half the population remains uninsured and cannot afford basic services,” explains Thakker. “The other half is a mix between social family support and insurance, with less then 10% formally insured. So 90% of people are relying on some kind of support structure and half are left out.”
An early calling to serve
Thakker is a third generation Kenyan with deep family and community roots. “I always knew that I had a passion to serve and do good, and science was my strength,” says Thakker.
In 1995, after obtaining his medical degree, he founded Avenue Healthcare, which offered mobile clinic services. The first of its kind in Kenya.
As with most ventures, the beginning was challenging. “We started with a very small team. Most days, I was both the driver and the doctor,” recalls Thakker. But opportunities opened up after corporate clients started testing the mobile clinic model for their staff. Organic growth followed, with expansion to new cities and an outpatient clinic in a hospital serving as a base.
“The methodology was based on the hub-and-spoke model, with services from an anchor hospital and satellite clinics. We became the specialists who took health care to people, setting up clinics in large factories, institutions and companies, and improving quality and convenience for their staff,” explains Thakker. “This provided a multiplier impact effect on people’s lives and allowed the business we were serving to become more productive, as absenteeism reduced because their employees were healthy.”
Ten years after founding Avenue Healthcare, Thakker was able to secure strategic partnerships that fueled further growth of the company. In 2014, Avenue Healthcare was acquired by an international private equity firm, with Thakker serving on the board of the new company, Avenue Group, for several years as a non-executive director.
Thakker then began to diversify his leadership skills across the region, launching and scaling different ventures. He teamed up with innovative companies in the health care sector, including medical insurance, bio-technology and hospital management companies. “It was an interesting time and allowed me to work across the continent on innovative solutions, and gave me the opportunity to connect with many different stakeholders.”
Focusing on private-public collaboration and dialogue
Between 2013 and 2015, Thakker shifted his focus to volunteer work, dedicating his time to leading a business organization he started in 2008, the Kenya Healthcare Federation.
Since 2013, the federation, which Thakker still chairs, has become a recognized body that unites the private health sector in Kenya so that engagement with the government can happen through one voice. “This model became so successful that we were able to adopt it in five other countries in East Africa,” says Thakker.
In 2015, while continuing to lead the organization, he recognized an unmet need and launched Africa Health Business (AHB), a private advisory, consultancy and investment firm for the health care sector in Africa. Thakker adds, “The company is a facilitator and catalyst to health organizations. It is also a link that provides private health companies with growth opportunities and facilitates engagement with government.
One of the various activities launched for strengthening the private health sector is the annual Africa Health Business Symposium, a three-day Pan-African conference that has in three years emerged as Africa’s largest health business event. “The platform has created strong ties between the public and private health sectors, given the African Union an avenue to engage with the private health sector and fostered the business of health care in Africa,” says Thakker.
Optimism for a healthier Africa
Thakker acknowledges that the continent still has plenty to do to address the health care gap between those with means and those without, as well as the financial gap for internationally agreed-upon health goals. Nevertheless, he is more optimistic than ever that the sector is seeing significant changes and has identified the key factors that will help accelerate the progress.
“First, we need to be more efficient in resource management and strengthen control of waste,” says Thakker. “We cannot afford to lose a single dollar of resources. Waste can come in different forms due to irregular practices, including counterfeits, corruption and conflict.”
He also recognizes the huge need to provide primary health care, including addressing the high rate of maternal and new-born mortality in the region, which are the highest ratios in the world. “This is the largest area of concern in Africa,” says Thakker.
Another key priority is to continue to build closer partnerships among the three key stakeholders, the private, public and development sectors. Thakker emphasizes that each of these sectors needs to continue to collaborate and become more trusting of each other while the continent shifts away from donor dependency.
“Governments and leaderships are changing in Africa. In health care there is more political goodwill then ever. Presidents and ministers of health understand the requirement of engaging with the private sector,” he adds.
Thakker also believes taking care of the growing youth population and ensuring the brightest medical students don’t leave is critical. He adds, “We have a youthful continent with an average median age of 19. We need to ensure we develop the youth and find employment for them.”
For Thakker, all these opportunities translate into exciting times in the effort to create a healthier Africa. The continent is enjoying a prolonged period of economic growth. “This continent is on the rise. Recent discussions around the African Union, not only in health care but in the free movements of goods and inter-African trading, show that we are no longer a continent to be exploited but to be partnered with as a strategic partner on the global economic stage.”
As for his own future, Thakker wants to continue to build on his passion to serve, championing an integrative approach to health care by mobilizing African governments as well as private capital to help fund quality and equitable health care systems across Africa.