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Can business cure Africa's health care crisis?

From Maggie Lake, CNN
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Liza Kimbo, Carego Livewell
  • Carego Livewell is a for-profit organization that says it can provide affordable healthcare
  • Private hospitals in Africa tend to serve the very rich, says CEO Lisa Kimbo
  • Micro health insurance can help those on low incomes, she says

Marketplace Africa speaks with Liza Kimbo, CEO of Carego Livewell, a health care company that targets people on low incomes.

Nairobi, Kenya (CNN) -- For Africa's poorest a chronic shortage of affordable health care is costing lives. But one organization is convinced it can make treatment affordable, and make money at the same time.

While availability of health care varies greatly throughout the continent, the World Health Organization says Africa as a whole has just two doctors per 10,000 people -- compared to 33 per 10,000 in Europe -- and even fewer pharmaceutical personnel.

While private hospitals provide quality healthcare for those who can afford it, those facilities are beyond most people's means.

Kenyan Liza Kimbo is CEO and co-founder of Carego Livewell, a healthcare company that focuses on people with low and medium incomes in developing countries. She believes it's possible to bring affordable health care to more people, while turning a profit.

"We are confident that it is possible because there are profitable healthcare businesses in Africa," she says.

She adds: "The profitable healthcare businesses in Africa, unfortunately, have tended to serve the well-to-do and the rich, and those are growing. You've got large hospitals that cater to the very rich, and those are doing very well.

The profitable health care businesses in Africa, unfortunately, have tended to serve the well-to-do and the rich.
--Liza Kimbo, CEO Livewell Kenya

"All we're saying is, take models that have been proven around the world that are affordable low models and apply them to healthcare ... and in that way reach many, many more people, but at the same time cover your costs so that you can be profitable."

Carego's first initiatives have been rolled out in Kenya. Kimbo says that while many African countries lack trained health workers, Kenya has a large pool of trained community nurses.

So far it has opened full-sized "anchor" clinics in Kayole, an urban area near Nairobi, which Kimbo says will be supported by four smaller "satellite" clinics in the future.

"Those have to be self-sustaining," she says. "They have to break even and be able to sustain themselves for us to now build on this model and deal with issues of scale and taking it out to more and more places.

"We're very well on our way to breaking even on our units, so I'm encouraged by that," she adds. "With that first hurdle accomplished, then we can build on this."

Kimbo, who started her career in banking and went on to establish a private retail pharmaceutical and distribution company in Nairobi, admits that finding funding has been a challenge. But she believes it is important to pursue a for-profit model instead of relying on donors and aid agencies.

She argues that it is largely a matter of convincing investors that although, as a business, Carego is targeting low-income groups, its volumes are potentially huge.

"Show me one person in the world who doesn't need health care," she says. "The volumes are there -- it's a matter of providing the care in a way that people can be able to pay for it."

What is lacking, Kimbo argues, is the kind of medical insurance that would allow poor Africans to afford quality healthcare.

She says: "The answer is going to come from coming up with innovative micro-insurance programs that are accessible to the low-income groups and in that way they can access care whether they have money in their pocket or not.

"The volumes are there ... the inputs are there, the human resources are available, the medication is available -- all the inputs you need to provide the good primary care are there.

"What we need is innovative health-financing mechanisms. We're really talking partnerships, looking at insurance companies who can come and bridge this gap and enable low-income (people) to be able to pay for their care."