The Nigerian Entrepreneur Who Runs ‘An Amazon For Blood’

Temie Giwa-Tubosun’s business uses data and technology to get urgent blood supplies to hospitals and to save lives.

Temie Giwa-Tubosun had an epiphany 13 years ago when she met an expectant mother who was about to lose her baby. Giwa-Tubosun was working as a 22-year-old intern with a health services organisation in northern Nigeria, doing surveys of rural people seeking care. The family of the mother-to-be thought she would die in a complicated labour because the baby was upside down in a twisted breech position. This wasn’t an unrealistic fear, in a country where one in 22 women perish in pregnancy, during birth, while undergoing abortions, or afterwards.

As it turned out, the woman got surgery and survived. But her baby didn’t, and that death shook Giwa-Tubosun deeply. She didn’t leave her hotel room for four days and barely ate. “I thought it was so unjust that women could die in childbirth,” she recalls. “That got me hooked on maternal healthcare.”

That incident, as well as the difficult birth of her own son later on, got her thinking about blood. Giwa-Tubosun had been contemplating a career that was health related in some way, and she knew that postpartum haemorrhaging was the leading cause of maternal mortality in Nigeria, which records nearly eight times the global number of 211 deaths per 100,000 live births. That is partly because decent healthcare in Nigeria is elusive to all but the rich; the World Health Organization (WHO) consistently ranks it among the worst globally.

In 2010, Giwa-Tubosun won a fellowship at the WHO in Geneva. She went on to work on various health projects, including in Uganda and in Minnesota in the United States. In 2012, she made the leap and founded an NGO known as the One Percent Project, whose raison d’etre was to educate Nigerians on blood donations and distribute them better throughout the country. This led to the creation four years later of LifeBank, a distribution business that uses data and technology to get urgent blood supplies to hospitals. It serves as a bridge between donors and clinics.

Giwa-Tubosun’s work has earned her praise across the globe including from the World Economic Forum, and she has spoken on influential platforms – such as the TedxEustonSalon – about her vision for tackling blood shortage on the African continent. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said after meeting her in 2016 that “If she actually pulls it off, then she’d show a model that will impact not just Lagos, not just Nigeria, but countries all around the world.” Giwa-Tubosun is pulling it off rather well. Working with over 150 accredited blood banks and 142 employees, LifeBank serves over 600 hospitals across Nigeria and has recently expanded into Kenya, according to Giwa-Tubosun. She says she has distributed enough blood to save more than 100,000 lives.

This social entrepreneurship is all the more significant considering that female executives are few and far between in Nigeria – to which Giwa-Tubosun simply says, “We get to save lives and we get to rescue people.”

Bikes, trikes and drones

Even over Zoom, Giwa-Tubosun exudes power. Al Jazeera catches her at the end of a very long day before she’s had dinner. Yet her energy is high. Even without makeup and in a casual African print dress, she gives off the sort of authority that’s kept her successful in a sector where very few women are visible.

Based in Lagos, the nation’s economic capital, the 35-year-old speaks from the guest room of her house. The walls behind her sport framed pictures of her husband, Kola Tubosun, a linguist and writer, as well as a painting of their son, Enaife, by the prominent essayist and artist Yemisi Aribisala. Not that Giwa-Tubosun spends that much time at home; she works six days a week.

Giwa-Tubosun began LifeBank as a startup with two employees to facilitate moving blood from labs across Nigeria to patients and doctors in hospitals. It began with her personal funds. The company was simply an app then. In 2016, a pre-seed investment of $25,000 enabled the company to move to the premises of a business incubator, CcHUB, in a suburb of Lagos.

She initially envisaged a distribution system for blood from labs to hospitals, focused on mothers. LifeBank’s innovation was to leverage technology to collect inventory data from blood banks and supply blood that had already been screened by the labs to hospitals based on request. Hospitals call LifeBank to place orders 24-7. Initially, LifeBank relied on dispatch riders. The company has evolved into a digital medical distribution company that delivers other critical medical supplies apart from blood, such as oxygen, plasma, and vaccines, to hospitals in every region where they are present.

Giwa-Tubosun is intentional about the areas where the company spreads. “We look for large markets with disorganised health-supply chain systems where our innovation could drive significant impact,” she says. She plans to expand to Ethiopia soon. LifeBank offers a round-the-clock service for the over 500 hospitals in its network and aims to provide access to safe blood in under 45 minutes using bikes, boats, adult tricycles and drones.

Being a 24-7 operation across nine states in Nigeria presents security challenges such as abductions and killings in places like Maiduguri in the north of the country, where Boko Haram is active. Giwa-Tubosun says the company has managed to solve these issues by seeking the protection of local communities. During the street protests in Lagos, in 2020, LifeBank motorbikes ferrying blood were blocked by what some claimed were hoodlums and others the police. After outrage on Twitter, the road cleared for them to drop the supplies at hospitals treating people hurt in the protest.

Al-Jazeera.com