Nigeria has a major blood shortage. With a massive shortfall in donations, and poor delivery logistics, many patients die before they can receive the blood they require. This is one of the factors behind the country’s high maternal mortality rate – a shocking 814 deaths per 100,000 live births.
In 2016, Temie Giwa-Tuboson founded the e-health enterprise LifeBank with a view to connecting blood banks with hospitals and mobilising voluntary blood donations. Since then, the app has moved 15,700 units of blood and saved thousands of lives. It has also received funding to expand its service, moving into other essential medical products such as oxygen. Ifeoluwa Olokode, partnerships and growth lead at LifeBank, explains why this service is so critical and how it works.
Abi Millar: LifeBank has been able to decrease blood delivery time from 24 hours to less than 45 minutes. Why did blood deliveries take so long in the past and what kind of problems did this cause?
Ifeoluwa Olokode: It took a long time in the past because there was a disconnect between supply and demand. Nigeria doesn’t have a centralised blood supply body like the UK does with NHS Blood and Transplant – if you needed blood in the UK, the NHS would find that blood and get it to the hospital, without you needing to think about it. In Nigeria that’s not the case.
The blood supply system here is fragmented – the private hospitals rely on private blood banks, and those private blood banks don’t necessarily speak to one another. So if you were a health worker in a private hospital, and your regular blood bank didn’t have what you needed, you’d have to start searching. Maybe there’s a blood bank three streets over that has it, but you’re not aware of their existence, and you have a patient in dire need who is about to die.
If you go to a public hospital, and you need a rare blood type and the hospital doesn’t have it and none of your family members and friends have the same blood type, you’re in a bind. Your loved ones would then go out searching for blood for you, and since they’re not medical professionals they probably wouldn’t know where to start.
This meant the process of searching for blood would take hours. And once you find it, the hospitals use ambulances to pick it up and there’s always traffic.
LifeBank collates inventory information from all the different blood banks, so now we have this ability to look at what’s available. We connect the hospitals and blood banks using the Google Maps platform, meaning when hospitals request blood we know exactly where to find it. We also use motorbikes to navigate busy streets.
AM: LifeBank’s founder and CEO Temie Giwa-Tuboson, realised the extent of the blood crisis after facing her own medical emergency – how did that spur her on to develop LifeBank?
IO: The execution of LifeBank happened in stages. When Temie Giwa-Tuboson was in grad school, doing a master’s in public administration, she was on an internship in Abuja, Nigeria and she encountered a woman who’d been in labour for several hours. She was bleeding, and they didn’t have the blood they needed to save her life. So that was Temie’s first face-to-face encounter with a blood emergency as it relates to pregnancy and maternal mortality.
A few years later, she was in the US, where she had a difficult birth of her own. She figured that, if she’d been in Nigeria, she too might have been one of the casualties of post-partum haemmorhage. She started thinking about how blood could be made more readily available for the treatment of post-partum haemmorhage, because that’s the number one cause of maternal mortality in Nigeria.
Her first idea was to increase voluntary blood donation, by starting a non-profit to encourage people to be blood donors. In Nigeria, the blood supply makeup is only about 10% voluntary donors, so they still rely on paid commercial donors. But, she realised that if you increased voluntary blood donation that would make more blood available and reduce maternal mortality.
Soon, though, she found out that that blood supply is not the only cause of the problem. There’s also the problem of poor infrastructure, including poor blood delivery logistics and inventory management. So that’s how LifeBank came about – she wanted to solve both the supply issue and the inventory and logistics issue.
AM: How does LifeBank work exactly?
IO: We have two aspects of what we do – we have the supply side where we encourage voluntary blood donation, and a web application where people can register to be voluntary blood donors. We also have an application for hospitals, where they can request the blood deliveries they need and find what they’re lacking.
We operate in Lagos and Abuja, and give over 30 million people quick access to blood and oxygen. The quickest way to navigate these cities is via motorcycles. We’re a mobility efficient company, in the sense that our plan is to use the best mobility tool to go where we need to go, to deliver on time and in the right condition. We’re exploring other mobility tools too – we use boats because we serve the communities over the coast of Lagos, and we’re also exploring trucks. Our plan is to use the best mobility solution to save as many lives as quickly as we can.
AM: Nigeria has a major shortfall in voluntary blood donations, but LifeBank is working to increase the number of blood donors. How might this be accomplished?
IO: In the UK, the NHS Blood and Transplant has these major creative campaigns around blood donation, including print and TV ads. Unfortunately we don’t have that in Nigeria. On World Blood Donor Day there’ll be some activities, but for the rest of the year it’s crickets. So the main challenge is finding the funds to do mass mobilisation campaigns.
I think people want to donate blood; they’re just not aware of how important it is and how bad the need for blood is, and there are still myths and misconceptions about blood donation. So, a well-funded campaign will help move the agenda forward.
AM: So far LifeBank has saved over 4,000 lives. What are your aims going forward? Are you looking to expand its reach?
IO: Our goal is to be the supply chain engine for health systems in emerging markets. We’re not only focusing on blood, we also do emergency medical oxygen, so our plan is to add more to our portfolio and to reach every country on the continent, and even go beyond the continent to other emerging markets that have the same healthcare supply chain issue.
We’re also focused on safety, so we’re developing a blockchain-powered product that records the safety information of blood. At the moment, there’s opacity in the blood supply chain – you might get a pint of blood and you can’t for sure say this was tested here. So that’s what we want to do – bring accountability and transparency into our supply chain systems.
So our plans going forward are geographical expansion, expansion of our portfolio and expansion of our tech products, to include an emphasis on safety.