A 29-YEAR-OLD woman who founded West Africa’s first air ambulance service has been named on Africa’s 30 Under 30 list as one of the continent’s most promising entrepreneurs.
Ola Orekunrin, who graduated from the University of York as a qualified doctor at 21 – one of the youngest ever to take the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath in Britain, founded Flying Doctors Nigeria after her younger sister’s death.
The doctor recalls her family’s desperate attempts to save her sister when she fell ill while traveling in Nigeria.
The 12-year-old girl needed urgent care but the nearest hospital couldn’t deal with her condition
Orekunrin said she and her family immediately began looking for an air ambulance service to rapidly transport the youngster, a sickle cell anemia, to a more suitable healthcare facility, but found there were none in the whole region.
“The nearest one at the time was in South Africa,” she told CNN. “They had a 12-hour activation time so by the time they were ready to activate, my sister was dead.
“It was really a devastating time for me and I started thinking about whether I should be in England talking about healthcare in Africa, or I should be in Africa dealing with healthcare and trying to do something about it.”
She sold her assets and left a high-flying job in the UK to set up Flying Doctors Nigeria, the first air ambulance service in West Africa, transporting victims of medical emergencies, including industrial workers from the country’s booming oil and gas sector.
Orekunrin, who grew up in a working class foster home with her sister in Lowestoft, a small seaside town in south-east England, then went on to study evacuation models and air ambulance services in other developing countries before launching her ambitious venture, which enables her to combine her “deep love for medicine and Africa” with her growing passion for flying.
She is also a trainee helicopter pilot.
Currently in its third year, the Lagos-based company has so far airlifted about 500 patients, using a fleet of planes and helicopters to rapidly move injured workers and critically ill people from remote areas to hospitals.
It has helped hundreds of patients, particularly employees in the country’s oil and gas sector, who are among Flying Doctors’ top clients. (The for-profit company’s client list also includes governments across West Africa, wealthy individuals and corporations.)
“From patients with road traffic trauma, to bomb blast injuries to gunshot wounds, we save lives by moving these patients and providing a high level of care en route,” says Orekunrin.
“Many of our roads are poorly maintained, so emergency transport by road during the day is difficult. At night, we have armed robbers on our major highways; coupled with poor lighting and poor state of the roads themselves, emergency transport by road is deadly for both patients and staff.”
The company now employees around 30 people across three branches in Nigeria and has won a number of awards and accolades.
Orekunrin was recognised by the prestigious World Economic Forum in its 2013 class of Young Global Leaders and she is also a member of the American Academy of Aesthetic Surgeons and the British Medical Association.
On the future, the entrepreneur hopes to keep improving access to treatment and focusing on pre-hospital and in-hospital management of injuries.
“Eighty percent of the world trauma occurs in low-middle income countries just like Nigeria,” she says. “I feel there should be more focus on the trauma epidemic that Africa currently faces.”
Subsequently, she says being back in Africa has given her a chance to “re-integrate myself back to my roots”.
“I really do love Africa and Nigeria in particular because it is my identity. I have since realised that the earlier I re-integrate myself back to my roots, the better for me,” she told Financial Juneteenth.
“I grew up in all-white environment and went to an all-white university. To be honest, until I moved back to Lagos, I never ever thought that Nigerians were capable of doing or achieving anything on their own.”