Building the largest network of first responders in Africa
Emergency Response Africa is a healthtech company based in Nigeria. It was founded in 2019 by Folake Owodunni. This week we caught up with her to learn more.
What challenge does Emergency Response Africa solve?
We make it possible for Africans with a medical emergency to get help at the scene within minutes and transportation to the right hospital for further care.
Through our network of First Responders, ambulances and hospitals enabled by our intelligent dispatch and communication platform, we save lives.
What‘s the story behind the company?
Sometime in 2017, my 18 month old son woke up screaming in the middle of the night. He was clearly in pain but I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
Luckily, we were living in Canada so I called 911, and in 10 minutes two paramedics were in our home treating him. Thankfully, it turned out to be a minor issue and we didn’t need to ride in the ambulance or go to hospital. He was back in his crib fast asleep in less than 30 minutes. The service blew my mind.
I knew about calling 911 from movies but seeing it live was awe-inspiring and it made me reflect on the fact that in Nigeria, and 91% of Africa, people have no one to call when an emergency occurs. Everyone has a story of someone they know who has died from not getting help in time.
I had a Masters degree in public health and I was just starting another Masters in Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology at Canada’s top innovation university, University of Waterloo.
Naturally, I started asking whether there was a better way to provide emergency medical services enabled by technology.
My co-founder and ERA’s CTO, Maame Poku met during the program, and she shared her story of losing her grandmother in an emergency in Ghana.
Before long, we figured out a model that could significantly reduce response times from over an hour to as low as 10 minutes and also reduce the cost of care.
What were you doing before founding the company?
I had worked for about 10 years in a variety of roles and industries. I had experience in healthcare, marketing communications, and management consulting in Nigeria, the US, and most recently Canada.
How did you get the company off the ground?
We had a lot of support from University of Waterloo’s Conrad School of Entrepreneurship and Business.
We also participated in a number of global accelerator programs such as the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo (Canada’s #1 Private Business Accelerator), the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund’s Lagos Innovates program, Rising Tide Africa Mentorship program, JICA NINJA Accelerator by Ventures Platform, and most recently, Google for Startups Africa Accelerator.
How much have you raised so far?
We have raised about $150K through a mix of angel investment and grants.
What went into building the early stage product?
The earliest version of our platform was a mobile application to allow first responders to receive details about an emergency case, and a simple web application for dispatching.
Our CTO pulled this together with the support of a few student interns. It did the job of getting us through an initial pilot, but we learned quickly that there was a lot more needed to bring true efficiency to emergency response.
What’s your tech stack?
We leverage several AWS and Google products.
Where do you currently operate?
We currently run a full operation in Lagos, Nigeria, with First Responders represented in 15 other states. We’ll be expanding operations in these states over the next 18 months.
What’s the existing startup landscape like in Nigeria?
Exciting and challenging. There are a lot of great founders and companies solving important problems despite the many socioeconomic challenges.
In the health tech sector in particular, we’re seeing a lot of opportunities for collaboration between players and we’re positioning ourselves to leverage that.
What’s your business model?
For individuals and families, we have an annual subscription plan and also charge a fee for first responder treatment at the scene of the emergency and ambulance transportation. For corporate organisations and groups, we have an annual retainer fee that assures them of a timely response.
What metric do you use to measure success?
Because we are in the business of saving lives, our response times are a key metric. In an environment where ambulances can take 1hour+ to arrive, we are working hard to bring that down to 10 minutes. Currently we typically respond between 10 and 35 minutes.
Can you tell us a little more about getting into Google’s Startup Accelerator for Africa?
The process took a couple of months I believe. We submitted an online application detailing our business and a proposed technical project we wanted to work on with Google’s support.
We were then invited to complete phase 2 of the application which asked for even more details about our technology and business model. The final step involved an interview with a Googler and then a welcome message. It is definitely an honour to be selected.
Companies you admire?
There are several. To keep it concise, United Hatzalah of Israel is one of our favourite organisations. I like to say that they have taken lifesaving and made it an art form, responding in as little as 90 seconds!
My co-founder and I travelled to Israel in 2019 to study them and they have been a great support and source of advice and inspiration on this journey.
Most important lesson you’ve learnt so far?
That there will be many moments where the future is completely unclear, but as the (paraphrased) saying goes, ‘just take the next step, and the rest of the staircase will begin to appear’.
Views on the African tech ecosystem?
It’s exciting. Since many African countries face similar challenges, there really is a continental opportunity for almost every startup.
The real market opportunity may lie outside the borders of your launch country. My hope is that more local and global investors recognise the opportunity and put their resources behind it.
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