Abimbola Adebakin studied Pharmacy and did an MBA, both at the University of Lagos. Currently completing her doctoral research at Cranfield University, she practiced as a pharmacist for a few years, understudying during holidays at Tabade Chemists and post-graduation with M G Ross, a sister company to Bola Chemists. She is a Certified Performance Technologist who has acquired a diversified knowledge base on things to do with organisational designs, thanks to her consulting background in Accenture and also at FITC. An entrepreneur at heart with a can-do spirit, she jumped right into operationalising one of the most remarkable and recognised entrepreneurship development programmes in Africa, when she was head-hunted to work as the Chief Operating Officer of the Tony Elumelu Foundation. Currently, Abimbola Adebakin is providing aggregation support services in the pharmaceutical industry, working with small business owners and also key stakeholders.
CN: What inspired you to set up Advantage Health Africa?
I set it up initially in 2010 to address a concern I had with lone retail pharmacies struggling with their businesses. I had an understanding that there is power in numbers, one that we had not yet tapped into in the health sector, by being on our own and not actively collaborating. The need for all stakeholders to promote and actively help to build prosperous retail pharmacies, clinics, medical laboratories – all working at the grassroots level to address humongous health challenges – cannot be overemphasised.
It is when you are buoyant that certain temptations to cut corners or under-serve your community will become unattractive. When hard up, I tell you, even saints may bow, despite your ideals when you commence. But beyond that, it is the promoter of a prosperous venture that can think of growth and actually achieve it; can think of adding value and not be in too much of a haste or overcharge; can explore new services that will really address health issues, conduct business research into trends observed and actually tailor solutions to address these.
To me, with a preponderance of struggling health service providers in Nigeria and indeed across Africa, we are still joking with good healthcare for all. The government hospitals are overburdened, and most people walk into a pharmacy first, before they think of going to a hospital.
So, because of this, and my prior experience with owning three marginally successful retail pharmacies, I set up Advantage Health Africa to help those who are genuinely keen to serve the people. To me, this is a catalytic approach. I have now returned after a hiatus of a few years, to take up what I started then, with some changes and new approaches.
CN: How would you describe your ideal clients, and what services do you offer?
My ideal client must be hungry for two things – growth as a business and improvement in quality of services offered. The promoter of the business must infuse energy into his/her team members, that makes them feel troubled when they have not run a successful venture AS WELL AS rendered valuable, cherished professional services.
For me, that is the ultimate. Healthcare solutions are rarely complete without medicines. Thus, it is a no-brainer that those who are charged with handling medicines need to be well equipped, accountable, and supported to deliver superlative services within the medical team. We cannot afford to be isolated nor to isolate ourselves.
So, we have put our service offerings under three buckets –
- Performance Improvement Consulting that addresses mainly strategy and process support leading to reduced losses and increased revenues.
- Technology enabled services where we are commencing with an electronic ordering system to galvanise distance requests for medicines and order fulfilment in a professional manner.
iii. Programme Management where we serve the industry right now in two key sector-wide programmes. The first aligns with our dream of having a more cohesive and coherent retail pharma world that attracts the needed investment – grants and private equity, and capacity support needed to grow the sector. The second programme is set to build capacity in the professionals in a manner that stems the exodus of young pharmacists (to other sectors and other countries), enhances their entrepreneurial and leadership skills so they become problem-solvers for pharma world, and then promotes the sector amongst its peers and other stakeholders.
CN: What is the most challenging aspect of being an entrepreneur, for you?
Challenges come in numerous ways, and I am yet to determine the most daunting one – still a work in progress but I can talk about different challenges.
First is having a team that you can rely upon, through thick or thin. I am very fortunate to have people who work with me that believe in this dream I am carrying around. They seem so patient and assured that there is a success story in the making here. They also believe it is scalable across Africa and there’s true value that will be actualised through staying the course. Several entrepreneurs do not have such a team, and I can suggest you try unorthodox methods sometimes. For example, I met one of my team mates via Twitter, and engaged his services for months without a physical meeting (we were operating in different cities). No formal interviews, no CVs, just a perception that he understood what I wanted, and where he thought he could not do some things I wanted, he was upfront, and I urged him on with examples and guides. He proved himself to be a quick learner. Others have come in various other non-traditional ways, and for me this is fine. I improvise a lot.
Another challenge I think entrepreneurs face is aligning solutions to meet needs that clients are willing to pay for. Somehow, we need to be flexible with our pricing strategy. I first offered free services and somehow, understood better what the clients needed. Then I arranged my fees to match results. No results, no fees. But that does not work in all services. IF however you can, it may jumpstart your venture with more clients than you would ordinarily have. I can understand people’s distrust – they can’t stand overpromising and under-delivering. You have to be conscious of that, especially in a service setting. So, tie some of your own reward to backing your mouth with your money!
Third may be issues around growth. I can say, have a number of solutions with different gestation periods. Some will gain traction quickly, while others need more time to connect with the target. That way, you don’t get desperate to water down your offerings, you simply have version 1, version 2, etc. Again, this works for some types of ventures and not all.
CN: You’ve worn several hats as your career has progressed. What are your primary responsibilities in your current role as boss of your own organisation?
Yes, in my career, I have been a fortunate person. Studying Pharmacy gives you many choices to practice, and while in school, I gained experience during most holidays assisting in a popular community pharmacy. The owner was also a major importer of medicines, so I learnt a bit about that and he set up a high tech laboratory for drug testing, which is where I served my internship. Later, I worked during NYSC in a hospital up north, and thereafter, went into Sales and Marketing and even new product launch. However, I became frustrated with pharmacy. It seemed to promise so much, but fell short of delivering on its promises.
By chance, I was ushered into the world of consulting and came alive. Consulting forces you to think several steps ahead. You naturally start to plan and design solutions to problems, because you are taught that problem is another name for opportunity. You are not fazed by downturns, you are made to understand a consultant is important during a boom (to help you manage the upside) and during a burst (to manage and mitigate the risks of the downturn). I think that shaped me largely, that consulting background. Projects took you round the world and from a young age, you stood shoulder to shoulder with top decision makers. Then I learnt to look deeper into functions, organisations and industries with a system perspective – to see the connectedness in it all.
Now, as CEO of Advantage Health Africa, I think I bring that interconnectedness perspective the most. I link stuff in my head (sometimes not so nice for the AHA team, these turns and twists). I work to assure them we are on the right course, and I try to bring my network to help us get where we are going. In a broad sense, that is what I do. I am not a programmer, so, someone else covers that bit. I constantly envision more efficient systems and ways of doing things, and try to communicate these designs for the experts to produce. Though I make very good public presentations, I am not your best mingler or people-person, since I am introverted; so, other team mates really help with that. While I know the basics and can build a really good financial model from scratch, I would not jump to do it, so, others tend to handle that. My team really is made of entrepreneurial minded professionals who add value in their own right.
I think my role is really about working to connect all together!
CN: Based on your professional experience as an employer and an employee, how necessary would you say it is for an aspiring entrepreneur to work for someone else before setting up their own business?
If you need to gain strength with structure and discipline, working for someone else, a large corporate or mid-sized company, may help. You can see what standardised processes look like. If you are fortunate, you get to be a part of building it up from scratch. For some, by their family background or through holiday jobs, they were able to learn these fundamentals early, so, it might be sufficient to start on your own earlier than others, and learn more along the way.
Neither option guarantees success! Each entrepreneur needs to work out a wholesome journey.
We all must learn to have a good balance between being enterprising, curious, and innovative versus focusing on the integrity of processes, reliability, reproducibility and sustainability through administrative prowess. So, for me, the goal is to achieve that balance. If working elsewhere before or during your entrepreneurial journey (or even never) will get you there, by all means, do it and don’t be too concerned about what people think.
CN: What top professional would you love to meet, and why?
I would be excited to have face time with Strive Masiyiwa. From what I can see, he thinks in a manner that gives me confidence that “all is and will be well”. He has gone through so much! He is so positive (about enterprise, entrepreneurs, Africa, his field, his family, people, and so many things), and he appears quite balanced in view. If it is an image that is only public, it’s still an image I admire. If it is a true reflection of the man himself – I say WOW!
CN: What is your long-term vision for Advantage Health Africa?
I want Advantage Health Africa to (i) play a vital role in catalysing efficiency and greater cohesion in the healthcare world, starting with the pharma industry; to promote innovation, collaboration and adoption of technology to address our own business growth needs, attract needed support and use these to serve the people better. (ii) to grow across Africa, using a model that adapts to each new area and that adds value to their own context of developing a safe, inclusive, stable and encouraging health sector.
It is too worrisome and depressing to sit by, and comprehend the waste and lost opportunities in this sector. We really hope to achieve these two goals, and where possible, help many others along the same journey.
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This article was first published on 3rd July 2017 and updated on November 6th, 2017 at 12:47 pm