Genevieve Barnard Oni realized the scope of the pandemic and the extent of her power to help as she was sending messages to China. She hit send. A woman in China would respond, with mundane but important information: Order numbers for test kits. Delivery dates.
“She would respond sometimes to me at 3 a.m.,” Genevieve says. “It felt like this cool connection. We’re all in this together to get the test kits where they need to be.”
Where they needed to be was Lagos, Nigeria, where she lives part-time with her husband and business partner, Oluwasoga Oni – who goes by “Soga.”
When COVID-19 struck, they were at the heart of Nigeria’s need. The duo, along with two other co-founders, were running a diagnostic services startup in Nigeria. By April 23, they had helped set up and started operating the country’s first booth-based mass testing site, a facility where they collect swabs and send them to labs for testing. Working in Ota, Ogun State, they have collected more than 500 samples in . As cases in West Africa are expected to rise, they hope to open more testing sites, and have received funding for one more.
“What we saw early in the epidemic is that we’re going to be need to be able to test a lot more people,” said Soga. “ We collect more samples than anywhere in the state. We’re hoping to be able to do a lot more of those.”
There have been 7,526 cases in Nigeria, according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker. But the Nigerian government has been criticized for slow testing, and The New York Times reported on an outbreak in Kano that appears to be larger than official numbers suggest.
“There’s a tension between wanting to stop the spread … but there’s a recognition that people are losing their livelihood,” said Soga. “It’s an impossible situation. In Nigeria, the country cannot afford to be locked down.”
A Likely, Or Unlikely Duo, Depending On Your Perspective
They met in Boston, when Soga was studying at MIT. He’d had what he calls a quarterlife crisis after being in the working world for a few years and discovering that he wanted more meaning in what he did. (Disclosure: I’m a fellow at the Legatum Center for Development & Entrepreneurship, where Soga was also a fellow). Genevieve, meanwhile, was working at Babson College after a stint working in the public health sector in Uganda. They had their first date in Central Square. They discovered they had a mutual interest in global health and entrepreneurship. “It was definitely a niche interest,” Genevieve says with a laugh. “For our second date, Soga invited me to class.”
The couple still jokes about how the other sticks out in their respective hometowns. “I am one of three black people in Dover, (Mass.),” says Soga, who was born in his father’s hospital in Ikare-Akoko.
The two co-founded MDaaS, Medical Devices As A Service, along with Opeyemi Ologun and Joseph McCord, in 2016. They have raised a total of $1.4 million. A $1 million round last year was lead by Consonance Investment Managers, with participation from, among others, Techstars, FINCA Ventures, the Fund for Africa’s Future and Greentree Investment Co.
They pivoted away from the original business model, which was supplying medical equipment to the private hospitals that are the backbone of health care in Nigeria. MDaaS now has 45 employees and operates four diagnostic centers offering a range of procedures, including ultrasound, X Ray, ECG and EEG, and was on track to open more.
As the pandemic headlines started to wash over the world in late February and March, the couple wondered, first, what they could do, and then, whether turning their energy toward helping Nigeria in the pandemic was the right thing. After all, they were a startup themselves.
Soga lay awake at night thinking about how much runway the company has.
Eventually, they decided that as long as they were still driving toward the company’s mission of delivering health care to Africa’s next billion, they couldn’t go wrong. By late March, according to the couple, Lagos was in a restrictive lockdown. “The cops were checking everybody,” Soga said.
Because of its experience with Ebola and Lassa Fever, Nigeria was able to get a strong contact tracing program up and running. But testing was a problem.
The Flying Doctors Investment Group’s Dr. Ola Brown approached the MDaaS founders about running a centralized testing facility. The swabs from the collection site are sent to labs; if a person tests positive, they’re put into an isolation ward, and contact tracing begins.
“Before we were there, the testers had someone’s number and went to the neighborhood to test … they hated it. Everyone had PPE, so it was obvious what was happening,” Soga said.
The couple said they’ve been moved by the dedication of government workers, who are putting themselves on the frontlines to do the testing.
MDaaS has donated about $10,000 of protective gear and committed $5,000 to a fund to supply more gear to health facilities in the centers where it works. The team also published a guide to help other health facilities set up mass testing sites.
The Entrepreneurs Adapt
As the pandemic affects people’s ability to travel for diagnostic tests and ability to pay – only about 5% of the health care market is paid through insurance – MDaaS saw its traffic decline by about 40%. It developed its own safety protocols and kept its three standalone centers open.
But it’s adapting in other ways. “We added free transportation for our facilities,” Genevieve said. “We’ve offered home sample collection.”
One key is that it is looking to build smaller diagnostic centers, that it can integrate into existing facilities. It plans to add three of those, bringing the total to four; and build one more standalone center.
The volunteer work, the stress of running a startup through a fast-changing crisis, and the personal sense of the tragedy, which the couple shares with people around the world – all have taken a toll. “It’s been exhausting. This has made us rethink some of the things about this business,” said Soga. “This whole thing has brought the timelines a lot closer. We cannot wait to get everything perfect. We’re doing it like, today.”
MDaaS has receive grant funding to establish another booth-based testing center from the Mulago Foundation. Meanwhile, in Nigeria, people are settling into the new normal, Genevieve said by email. “Many of the very restrictive lockdowns have been lifted, but there are still curfews in place. Schools remain closed, restaurants can only offer delivery services and there is restricted inter-state travel.”