Orekunrin now 30 is one of Africa’s most successful pioneering entrepreneurs, and oddly enough, her name “Ola” means “wealth” in Yoruba, a native Nigeria language.
From Ilawe-Ekiti in Ekiti State of Nigeria, she was born, raised and trained in the UK. Becoming a doctor at just 21-years-old made her the youngest doctor in Britain ever.
After graduating as a qualified doctor at just 21-years-old, Ola was awarded the MEXT Japanese Government Scholarship after a meteoric rise in the field of medical studies. Studying at Jikei University Hospital, Ola conducted research in the field of regenerative medicine.
While she was studying to become a doctor in the UK, her younger sister fell seriously ill while traveling in Nigeria. The 12-year-old girl, who’d gone to the West African country on holiday with relatives, needed urgent care, but the nearest hospital couldn’t deal with her condition.
Orekunrin and her family immediately began looking for an air ambulance service to rapidly transport the girl, a sickle cell anemia sufferer, to a more suitable healthcare facility. They searched all across West Africa but were stunned to find out there were none in the whole region.
“The nearest one at the time was in South Africa,” remembers Orekunrin. “They had a 12-hour activation time so by the time they were ready to activate, my sister was dead”.
“It was really a devastating time for me and I started thinking about whether I should be in England talking about healthcare in Nigeria, or I should be in Nigeria dealing with healthcare and trying to do something about it.”
Motivated by the tragic death of her sister, the young doctor decided to leave behind a high-flying job in the UK to take to the Nigerian skies and kissed her political aspirations of becoming president of the British Medical Association and minister for the conservative party goodbye, sold her car and her house, and bought a one way ticket to Lagos, Nigeria to address the vital issue of urgent healthcare in Africa’s most populous country.
Ola believes Africans can do for themselves without needing a handout from outside governments or agencies. She states, “I just think that we need to start thinking outside the box and be more confident in the concept of African innovation.”
Determined to make a difference in medical practice and health care delivery system in Nigeria, Orekunrin decided to set up Lagos-based first air ambulance service in West Africa, “Flying Doctors Nigeria” transporting victims of medical emergencies, including industrial workers from the country’s booming oil and gas sector. It basically provides critical care transportation solutions to both the private and public sector by selling yearly air ambulance cover plans to states, companies and individuals.
With her medical and aviation training, She was turned down multiple times for funding but was eventually able to secure some to use as capital along with her savings.
Ola’s decision to go ahead and start Flying Doctors was a direct result of her fascination with helicopters, trauma medicine, vehicle accident kinetics and pre-hospital medicine. She also reports that having the unique skill set she does also influenced her decision.
In the early days of starting her business, Ola states, “When I arrived in Nigeria, I decided to start an air ambulance, not just a specialist pediatric air ambulance that would cover Nigeria and West Africa. It took a huge amount of work to get started with a lot of mistakes and a lot of completely dead ends.” Starting an air ambulance company proved to be a capital intensive venture into a delicate business.
Her gritty determination and passion has helped her company reach a place where it is well-established, well-respected and internationally admired by both business and medical professionals. Trauma injury has become a silent epidemic in Africa, with sub-Saharan Africa having the highest rate of road traffic fatalities despite having the smallest number of motorized vehicles, and Flying Doctors is helping to address it.
Ola points out that, “Eighty percent of the world trauma occurs in low-middle income countries like Nigeria. I feel there should be more focus on the trauma epidemic that Africa currently faces.” The company also helps get pregnant mothers experiencing complications to a suitably qualified doctor in enough time to save both the mother’s and baby’s life.
In its first three years, the air ambulance service airlifted some 500 patients, providing injured and critically ill people in remote areas transport to hospitals using a fleet of more than 20 planes and helicopters. Ola’s goal of finding an effective way of facilitating people who are critically ill, getting them to the right doctor and facility within the right time frame for their particular illness has been reaches.
In describing Nigeria’s medical care infrastructure, Ola states, “There was a situation in Nigeria where there were only two or three very good hospitals and they were sometimes a two, three, four-day journey away from the places where incidents happened. We also have a huge oil and gas industry and at that time there was no coordinated system for moving people from the offshore environment to a hospital to receive treatment.”
There are some major differences the company had to overcome compared to other air ambulance services. One included the longer distances that would need to be covered, which impacted the types of aircraft and staff required to run the business successfully. There also is a difference in the spectrum of illness and injury seen by Flying Doctors staff. Part of what has helped Flying Doctors save so man lives is the high level of care patients receive en route to the appropriate medical facility.
Flying Doctors has also had to find a way to keep costs down despite aviation business being extremely expensive in Nigeria.
The company now employees around 30 people across three branches in Nigeria. Of her company’s accomplishments, Ola states, “…we take pride in being the first Nigerian indigenous company to do this…We are training more people to go into the air ambulance sector and I think our paramedics now have a huge amount of management skills.”
The company has won a myriad of awards and accolades, including Ola being recognized by the prestigious World Economic Forum in its 2013 class of Young Global Leaders. She is a member of the American Academy of Aesthetic Surgeons and the British Medical Association. Ola says her mission for Flying Doctors is to lay the foundation for and start a healthcare revolution in Western Africa.
Ola’s future goals include improving access to treatment and focusing on pre-hospital and in-hospital management of injuries. She says, ““I really do love Africa and Nigeria in particular because it is my identity. I have since realized that the earlier I re-integrate myself back to my roots, the better for me. I grew up in all-white environment and went to an all-white university. To be honest, until I moved back to Lagos, I never ever thought that Nigerians were capable of doing or achieving anything on their own.”