by Pamela D Bongkiyung
They are three Cameroonians based in the Diaspora (USA and UK) who came up with the idea. Meet Leslie Asanga (CEO and Co-founder), Roger Souke (COO and Co-founder) and Tama Ndumu (CTO and co-founder). The idea came during a trip to the car wash by the CEO, Leslie Asanga who received a call from the COO, Roger Souke about merging their expertise in pharmacy and IT respectively to provide a solution to this familiar problem – finding medication availability at pharmacies locally.
The CEO, Leslie Asanga decided to pursue the idea aggressively as a thesis for his Masters at Yale on Global Health and Entrepreneurship. His project won him the Thorne Prize for Social Innovation in Health. This helped the team secure funds to improve on the product and launch. The plan was to aim for impact over profits.
In Cameroon, like many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, it is not unusual for people to die from lack of locating the prescribed medication in time. This is because pharmacies are only physical and require that you take a tour of several pharmacies before one can locate certain medication. This sometimes leads to the death of patients who were perhaps experiencing a crisis and needed instant medicine to alleviate their pain. The co-founders decided to leverage their expertise: Leslie Asanga’s pharmacy industry knowledge, Roger Souke’s IT and fintech solution background and Tama Ndumu’s over 17-years experience as a software engineer to create UrPharm App.
According to Mr Souke, the team vibrated on the same frequency regarding this project and they decided to come together to provide a solution to this pressing issue which they or their families had faced at a given point.
Mr Asanga and the team realised that there was scope to provide a solution that mimicked the money transfer model by transposing it into a medication collection setting. UrPharm App allows those in the diaspora the opportunity to purchase medications for those back home without sending them the money. This saves money that otherwise will be spent on transaction fees and allows for easy purchase of repeat prescriptions. For those back in Cameroon, UrPharm saves them from the trips to multiple pharmacies searching for medications. With a search on the app, they can locate the nearest pharmacy that has a stock of their required medication.
‘It has been a rollercoaster of a journey,’ according to Mr Asanga. He emphasised that they had plans to deliver the solution regardless despite the painful journey as a start-up. The team started by rolling out a customer survey to see if their solution spoke to the needs of the people on the ground. This initial release of the product has been to trigger feedback from core users, according to Roger Souke, co-founder and COO of UrPharm. He added:
“Cameroon being a difficult market has helped us, which is why we are not stepping with our two feet on the ground. We have so many beautiful stuff that we want to get into the market bit by bit.”
The team would soon learn that there was no such solution in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. Cameroon was selected as the test country because it is one of the toughest places to launch a start-up. Analysis favoured countries such as Nigeria, Ghana or even Kenya but the team felt they would like to start in Cameroon where they come from. UrPharm hired people on the ground to sign-up pharmacies to the project. The team sold the idea on the added advantage of getting access to a wider base of customers as most pharmacies operate on only walk-in customers in Cameroon. In addition, they would get customers from the diaspora who purchase mostly online. Despite the hurdles, the team succeeded in getting some pharmacies to sign-on. Referrals helped in increasing uptake but it was hard convincing people to share their inventory with an unknown start-up.
“In Cameroon, people like to touch and feel,” said Mr Asanga on the difficulty in convincing people. “When people log-on and see their competition on the app, it makes them rethink their decision to join and we have gotten through to some, this way,” he added.
In our interview with Mr Asanga, we asked him about his background; he admonished it had been a long journey which took him over 8years to complete pharmacy school. According to him, he does not come from a wealthy background. It, therefore, took him longer to complete his course due to lack of resources to finance his education. He advised those in Cameroon to go to pharmacy school in Cameroon which costs a fraction of the costs in the USA. On his journey to Yale, he explained:
“I am an entrepreneur at heart. I am not someone who really respects the status quo. I am always that kind of person who is about fixing things. Even one of my mentors told me he would never hire me to become an employee because I would be one of the worst.”
Roger Souke admitted that the team’s expertise and industry experience in each sector helped tremendously. But admonishes above all that in order to succeed in the Cameroon environment, a laser-like focus is required.
“To deliver solutions like this in our kind of environment, you need a different kind of level of grit, belief in oneself and be as patient as possible. At the same time stay focused and hungry 24/7,”Mr Souke said.
The team has applied the Agile enterprise framework solution to streamline activities. Mr Souke said of their teamwork: “The same mindset and the same drive is what brought us together.”
Is Counterfeit medication detection included?
The team says not and have withheld this element for strategic reasons as they intend to let the pharmacies and the government of Cameroon take charge of that area. Mr Asanga did talk about how they hoped their app would encourage pharmacy medication purchases as opposed to going to quacks by the roadsides who sell medications stored under poor conditions, or worse – expired, to sick people. He emphasised the focus of their mission to ensure that Cameroonians and Africans in general had access to safe medication.
“UrPharm’s mission is to give people easy access to authentic medication. As a public health professional backed by the Yale School of Public Health; the school is backing us not because of the business side of things, but rather the impact, which is what they care about most,”said Mr Asanga.
According to this article in the Journal of Intellectual Property Law and Practice published in June 2020, the international trade in counterfeit pharmaceuticals is to the tune of over 4.4 billion USD, with Africa accounting for the highest prevalence of falsified and substandard medicine. This poses a huge risk for pharmaceuticals companies in terms of great loss in revenue and major health risks for consumers. With Coronavirus, there has been a surge in demand for certain medications touted as a possible cure such as chloroquine.
Mr Asanga by way of addressing the issue of counterfeit medication highlighted that UrPharm was partnered with Valid9 anti-counterfeit software, which is a proprietary software used across the industry. This will be integrated later on the platform but for now, the team is only focused on people being able to access their medication. The team is trying to phase the release of medication authenticity checks in the early days as they are trying to avoid being seen as a ‘medication police‘. This could constitute a huge deterrence for uptake by pharmacies if this feature was deployed this early, Mr Asanga explained.
We asked the team what they thought of the supply chain and how it impacted on the circulation of counterfeit drugs. The drugs in Cameroon come through two to three major players who provide all pharmacies with their medications. They are Laborex, UBPharm etc.
“We are leaving it up to the government to vet these pharmacies. Later on, we can introduce other solutions. Counterfeit medication is a huge problem and it is part of why we (UrPharm) are in business.”explained Mr Asanga.
Looking to the Future
The founders of UrPharm are using their app to collect data to facilitate forecasting of inventory by pharmacies, based on demand for certain medications and seasons associated with such demands, including the regions.
“We are providing pharmacies data as part of our solution, to be able to better forecast inventory and order prescriptions in advance, so as not to run out of stock.”according to Mr Asanga.
He also believes that their data should be able to generate market intelligence to highlight what medications are not in stock to sufficient quantities. For every search that goes through the UrPharm app, it registers those that were fulfilled and those that were not. With this information, pharmacies and suppliers can be signalled on which medications are lacking, thanks to machine learning and artificial intelligence being deployed by the team.
“We are relying on feedback from the users because users will be the ones to make this app great. In a nutshell, the goal is to ensure that no one dies of lack of access in Cameroon to authentic medication. So please get out there, and download UrPharm.”Mr Roger Souke added.
You can watch the full interview here – https://www.facebook.com/MimiMefoInfo/videos/744574602831303/
UrPharm app is available for download from the Apple Store and Google Play Store.