By every standard, Adesimbo Ukiri is an accomplished woman. The Obafemi Awolowo University trained Lawyer has over 20 years’ cognate experience cutting across different sectors of the Nigerian economy. Over the past nine years, she has been with Avon Healthcare Limited where she currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer. We sat down with here recently to hear her story. She also answered numerous questions pertaining to the health insurance industry in Nigeria, including what the company is doing differently from the competitors. Enjoy the conversation.
BEA: It’s nice to meet you, Ma. Do tell us about your background and experience prior to your current position.
Adesimbo Ukiri: I was initially trained as a lawyer. I also have a Master’s in Management from London Business School. But my background is pretty diverse. I worked in the financial sector. I worked in manufacturing as well; fast moving consumer goods. I’ve also worked in telecoms. I worked in Oil & Gas for a bit and then finally in healthcare. And I think healthcare is the one I love the most. This is where I’ve been for the past thirteen years now.
BEA: What is it about healthcare that is so interesting?
Adesimbo Ukiri: I think I like healthcare because in Nigeria, it’s a sector that still needs so much done. It’s also a sector that has so much opportunities and so much rooms in which to make an impact. And if you are the kind of person that likes to work in a sector where your impact can be felt immediately and you get a thrill from seeing the impact you are having, then healthcare is the sector for you; because you will see the good impact you are making on a daily basis. You can almost get a heat from the good you are doing. That is why working in the healthcare sector has become almost addictive for me. You can see the good you are making and you see it touching people’s lives on a personal basis. It’s a great feeling.
BEA: Can you tell us more about Avon Healthcare and what the company is doing differently from its competitors?
Adesimbo Ukiri: We got a license in 2012 but we actually opened our doors to the public in 2013. So, we’ve been around now for nine years. We came into the market determined to do things differently. Prior to that time, Nigerians didn’t really trust HMOs because HMOs had a really bad reputation as people who took money but never paid hospitals. Services were not trusted. And we really wanted to ensure that health insurance could become something that Nigerians can really embrace and something that the average Nigerian can plan/budget for, more or less the same way that they keep money aside for their rent and education. That same way, we want them to be able to put money aside to buy health cover for their families. And that’s something we hope we’ve been able to make an impact on on the minds of Nigerians over the past nine years. We’ve definitely seen the trust grow and more and more people becoming aware of what taking out a health cover can do for their pockets as well as for their health.
On what sets us apart, we are not a financial services company. We see many players in the industry who are health insurance companies who very much see themselves as offering a financial product. We are much more than that. What we offer is financial access to healthcare services. But inasmuch as what we are offering is partly a financial service, what we are also offering is quality healthcare services as well as the financial services with which to have it when you need it. That said, we see ourselves as a partner to you, you being either a corporate organisation, a group of people, the head of a family or an individual, in looking after your health and ensuring a healthy fuller life by reason of your partnering with us. And we see it as our responsibility to empower you. That is why we are very heavily focused on preventive health. So, we are not only focused on providing you with a cover that takes care of you should the unforeseeable happen to you health wise, we are also very big on telling you what to do, what not to do, how to do and how not to do in order for us both to ensure that you are healthy.
BEA: Last year, the COVID-19 Pandemic affected so many people and different companies. I’ve been wanting to know – how exactly did it affect those in the HMO space like yourself, considering the fact that you probably must have paid lots of claims.
Adesimbo Ukiri: It was a tough period for us. I look at it from two perspectives, the first being how it affected us internally as a company. We all had to adjust to the new way of working, you know. There was this lockdown happening and staff couldn’t come to the office; they had to work remotely. And that had its own effect on the emotional and mental wellbeing of our staff. It also had its effect on our operations because suddenly our call centre had to work remotely. Even the doctors and nurses who, prior to this time could case-manage the members who were on admission in hospitals by actually going to see them, provide support and supervisory oversight to the treatments they were receiving, could not really do that anymore. The client managers who used to be able to go to clients’ offices and give health talk and provide on-the-spot health check to clients… all these activities that we used to carry out, we couldn’t really do those the way we used to do them. So, it affected us in that sense. Also, the ability to really bond as a team wasn’t there anymore.
But we all found ways to cope in order for business to continue. We also found ways to support ourselves so the effect on our mental and emotional health wasn’t too adverse. But what it did was that it opened our eyes to see that if we were going through this, then our clients were also definitely going through this as well. So, it made us to also start thinking of ways we could support our clients. We therefore started a series of webinars around emotional wellness and coping with COVID. And that became something that our clients really appreciated.
Now, because many people were very weary of going to the hospitals during this period, we decided to start the “AVON Online Doctors” forum where clients could call in and be able to have virtual consultations with our doctors. And since we already have existing relationships with diagnostics centres and pharmacists, we could always find one that was near enough you in our network where you could go in and do some blood work. The results could be submitted electronically to our doctors. Your drugs could also be delivered to you at home.
We had to also invest in some infrastructure which we didn’t have before to enable this virtual ecosystem come alive. These were some of the things we had to grapple with during the lockdown period. But it had opened our eyes to new ways to serve our clients and members. Hopefully, as a society we will continue to learn from this and evolve.
BEA: What would you say is the biggest challenge facing HMOs in Nigeria?
Adesimbo Ukiri: I would say it’s education and awareness. But that is rapidly changing. The average Nigerian is very reluctant to get a health plan for themselves. And some people would argue that it is a disposable income issue; some people don’t even have enough money to eat. True, there’s a large proportion of our population living at poverty or below poverty line. Therefore, a health cover is not something that is important to them. But then you look at the amount of money these people spend on airtime and data for instance and you also look at the amount of money that they spend on alcoholic beverages and whatnot and it makes you wonder like ‘really and truly, people can actually afford to spend more on health if they choose to’. The question then is how do we educate the population to know that health is something that you should set money aside for? You should contribute into a pool of resources that would go towards looking after you if and when you do fall ill. Because at some point or the other, someone is going to need it. So, you shouldn’t resent the fact that you are not ill for a while and other people are using what you’ve contributed because the day you fall ill and need it, you will be using what other people have contributed. So, that is the greatest challenge we face.
BEA: How are you changing that perspective? In Nigeria today, a lot of startups do not have HMO packages for their staff and their excuse is always that they don’t have enough money and HMOs are expensive. What is your company doing about this mindset?
Adesimbo Ukiri: We are doing what we can. We are very active on all the social media channels. We also do quite a bit of advertising on radio in particular. And we believe that it’s just a matter of time before this mindset people will begin to change. For now, we are focusing more on the young, upcoming professionals because we believe that they are the ones who are mostly internet savvy and also the ones whose minds can be changed because they are most open to these ideas. And quite frankly, they are also the future. So, this is where a lot of our investments in education and awareness is going to. And we believe that the tides are shifting in our favour.
BEA: Just a follow up question to that. As you, many Nigerians don’t have healthcare plans. And just like you’ve mentioned, the complaint is usually about the cost. Now, when you look at it actually, some people really don’t have enough money to put aside just in case anything happens to them. It’s usually when something happens that they start running around looking for money. So, do you have packages that are affordable to such people?
Adesimbo Ukiri: Yes, we do. We have packages that go for as low as N20, 000 for the entire year. If you divide that by twelve it’s about N1, 600. The plan is also accessible through third parties who allow you to pay monthly. So, at N1,600 per month, you can subscribe to a health plan.
BEA: Now, what would that cover? What treatments can someone receive with that kind of health plan?
Adesimbo Ukiri: That would cover what we call General Out Patient (GOP) Services. If you have Malaria, Typhoid, Upper Respiratory Infection…all your normal ‘I’m feeling ill I need to go to the hospital’ would be covered. That would also cover your normal everyday surgeries such as appendectomy, hernia, you need to have your womb sutured, simple fracture, admission in a hospital for a normal of days, etc. These are things that you would normally spend like fifty N100, 000, N180, 000 or more. So, think about what you’ve paid and compare that vis a-vis the limit you are covered for.
BEA: Let’s talk about you for a moment. What has your experience been like since you started working here?
Adesimbo Ukiri: It’s been quite interesting. Like I said, we started in 2012 and the company opened its doors to enrolled members in 2013. And initially, there was myself and three other people. From there we’ve gone to about 100 people today. We’ve continued to grow. Now, we have enrollees across all 36 states of the federation.
You know, a startup is never easy in the beginning. But it’s very fulfilling when you look back over the years and you can see how the contribution of everyone who has ever been a part of this journey has had such an impact. And the gratitude you feel is not just for what the company is today, but for the people who have been a part of the journey with you and how much of a blessing it has been to have them on that journey together with you.
BEA: As you know, there are very few women across Africa who are occupying top corporate positions like yours. And there are millions of young ladies out there who are aspiring to become like you, although circumstances aren’t always in their favour. What advice do you have for such people?
Adesimbo Ukiri: What I would like to say to young girls is that they just have to believe in themselves and believe that there are actually no limits to what they can accomplish. The first requirement is to believe in yourself and to believe that everything you desire is possible. As a matter of fact, not only is it possible, you have to believe that it is going to be because it is what you desire. Nothing is too big for you to dream. Nobody should be in a position to tell you that what you are aspiring to become is too big for you. Don’t ever allow those kinds of thoughts to be in your space. Whatever it is that occurred to you as a vision of yourself is utterly valid and doable. Just work towards it. And I also have to tell them to be prepared to pay the price. And ‘pay the price’ is just work for it. The price is work. God will bless your work, but you have to put in the work first.
BEA: How has the company been performing financially?
Adesimbo Ukiri: I’m very pleased with our financial performance. And I will like to say that whichever you look at it, we will be counted as the top three in the industry today. And that’s major accomplishment because we met quite a number of players on ground when we started who had been around for up to ten years or more before we came into the picture. To be able to be where we are today is a testament to the people of AVON as well as the customers and members who continue to put their trust in us. Even the customers we have in the hospitals have contributed immensely to our growth. I’m really grateful to them.
BEA: What are your growth projections for the rest of the year?
Adesimbo Ukiri: It’s been tough and the market is only getting tougher because as you know, the economy has taken a bashing from COVID. In the meantime, our industry has continued to become more competitive. There are new entrants that have come in this year. Currently, there’s a war on talent. And the good people in this industry are not very many and there is more demand for good people. So that’s a challenge.
This industry also continues to have players who do not play by the rules, players whose books are not the way they should be. Players who cut corners, thereby damaging our respective standing in the eyes of the Nigerian populace; eroding the trust that we are trying to build. So, it’s a very tough environment in which to operate. But we are hopeful. We have a regulatory who, in the past few years, has consistently show signs of trying to sanitise the industry and push for growth. We also have hope in the new regulation that is going to be passed soon to make health insurance compulsory for all employers. We really do believe that things will get better for us in this sector. And when things get better for us, it augurs well for the entire healthcare ecosystem because what our sector does is that it guarantees hospitals and other healthcare facilities a steady, predictable source of revenue so they can invest more and run their facilities properly.
BEA: Any last words from you, Ma?
Adesimbo Ukiri: Go get a health plan.
EDITOR’S NOTE: You may watch the interview by following the link below.