The large medtech companies seem to talk endlessly about emerging markets delivering their top-line growth targets, and they are not just talking about BRICcountries anymore. During his recent visit to Africa, President Obama stumped for increased trade with “the world’s youngest continent”, and companies like Covidien are seeing the promise of Africa, too. Selling in Africa seems like a natural step for some of the industry giants, but what about the little guys? Can emerging med tech companies turn the large African populations, improving healthcare infrastructure, and growing middle class into valuable markets?

Not to be outdone by Obama, last month I traveled to sub-Saharan Africa for an S2N client seeking to understand regional customer requirements for a novel medical technology. This medical technology is funded in part by a foundation grant, hence the African twist. While there, I visited several health centers and was able to get a sense of how care is delivered and by whom in this part of the world. These observations, admittedly from one country (Ethiopia), underscore both the potential and challenges of African markets for healthcare technologies.

The key customers are governments.

Government sponsored clinics and hospitals serve the majority of people in Africa, often providing care at no charge or for a nominal fee. However, private health clinics do exist for those who can afford a fairly modest fee for services. While in Africa, I visited a brand new private health center with 40 inpatient beds and 2 ORs. This center was well supplied, exceptionally clean and had its own IT department. This private center was actually funded in part by the local government because the public one was struggling to keep up with patient demand. Indeed, the public clinics were busy and waiting areas were full. In many African countries, the government may be your first call point, and official buy-in will be important when introducing any new technology more broadly. The government not only influences purchasing but also practice, care delivery and technology use.

Unlikely healthcare workers perform procedures.

Because of a shortage of trained MDs, it is healthcare workers, with widely varying skill levels, who are the primary providers of patient care. One of the public clinics I visited had throughput of ~300 patients per day, managed by a staff of 14 healthcare workers; the one MD on staff had been on medical leave for several weeks. In both the public and private clinics I visited, the workers were clinically knowledgeable, keenly interested in learning about new technologies, and articulate in describing their needs and capabilities as care providers. Many healthcare workers with 2 – 4 year degrees could deliver babies and perform small surgical procedures (e.g. wound closure and episiotomies). Most of the healthcare workers I encountered in the urban and peri-urban clinics spoke English, although I was grateful for our counterpart who spoke the local language.

Preventative care is challenging, and cell phones may help.

In Africa, patients often go years without seeing a doctor or other healthcare worker. The concept of a general check-up, especially if you are healthy, is almost non-existent. For patients who do make it to the clinic, healthcare workers commented that follow-up appointment cards may be given for 3-5 years out, but there aren’t really appointments – long lines are the norm. Many patients also travel great distances to the nearest health clinic, so governments and NGOs are focused on ways to bring care closer to the patient. Ethiopia is a pioneer in training health extension workers to provide basic care, for example vaccinations and family planning counseling, in the more rural areas. With mobile phones nearly ubiquitous, even in remote villages, m-health solutions are also receiving attention and funding for preventative care and treatment in Africa.

While a single experience in one African country does not tell the whole story, I hope and expect to be traveling to the emerging markets more frequently for my emerging medtech clients, particularly for those medical device cost-disrupters who can meet the low price points demanded in Africa. Certainly getting into the field to visualize the environment and talk to the people who may someday be using your technology is an invaluable first step in the right direction.