The idea of a business built on blood was preposterous to people Temie Giwa-Tubosun met when she started LifeBank in 2016. Even her husband went, “What?”
A logistics company that delivers blood where it is needed seems more aligned with an NGO, Giwa-Tubosun agrees. But she envisioned scale whereas others stopped at aid. She also had a bold dream: Ensure maternal death during childbirth becomes something of history so every woman who carries and gives birth to a baby gets to watch her child grow up.
LifeBank uses data and technology to collect blood, then delivers the bags to hospitals in Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia using motorbikes, tricycles, trucks, boats or drones. It is an affirming example of how when women pull out all the stops, they break new ground and what seems impossible becomes possible, and sustainable.
“Our business model allows us to have capital and be able to scale with that capital. LifeBank’s revenue last year was a couple of million dollars. We have a model that can inherently exist and, at the same time, be impactful and help more people,” says its Nigerian-American founder.
Giwa-Tubosun was one of three first-place winners of Cartier’s new Impact Awards, presented at Dubai Opera in the desert country on March 6 to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Cartier Women’s Initiative. A former fellow of the CWI (2020, Sub-Saharan Africa), she won under the Improving Lives category, beating Nneka Mobisson (2017; a fellow from the same region) and Rasha Rady (2020; Middle East & North Africa), who were placed second and third respectively.
Top winners for the Impact Awards’ two other categories, Preserving the Planet and Creating Opportunities, respectively, were Charlotte Wang (2020, East Asia; founder and CEO of Equota, which combines artificial intelligence and big data to deliver energy-efficient solutions) and Fariel Salahuddin (2019, South Asian & Oceania), whose UpTrade enables smallholder rural, off-grid farming communities in Pakistan to use goats as currency for purchases such as solar water pumps, seeds, fertilisers and things they cannot afford.
The categories are based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The first three winners from each category took home US$100,000, US$60,000 and US$30,000 respectively in grants. The nine awardees will each receive human capital support valued at US$10,000.
Dollars and sense drive LifeBank’s medical supply chain business, which Giwa-Tubosun started after she approached someone at a blood bank to ask if it needed donors and was told, “No. In fact I’m going to incinerate a couple of bags because I have too much.”
The incongruity of blood, which can only keep for six weeks after which bacteria begins to grow, being discarded while women were bleeding to death because they did not have it, floored her. She thought back to her own terrifying experience when her son was born seven weeks early in the US, and how immediate access to an operation saved her life.
In South Africa, 34% of maternal deaths are a result of postpartum haemorrhage, says Giwa-Tubosun. “If the blood is not available or cannot be delivered on time, women can die within 20 minutes to two hours.” On average, there are five to 20 such deaths for every 100,000 babies born in developed countries, where healthcare systems, technology and durable supply chains are in place. In underdeveloped countries, the figures run into thousands, which need not be because there is a solution to this problem.
“Once the bleeding starts, if you get blood into their body, four out of five women will survive. That’s what we do every day — use data to predict demand, match demand with supply and have drivers deliver the blood to hospitals where they are needed.”
The company also runs an online platform that helps people become donors and has begun investing in technology training for hospitals struggling to manage their inventory.
Business has expanded and LifeBank delivers emergency oxygen canisters, platelets, plasma and vaccines, phototherapy machines for newborns, and gloves and personal protective equipment (PPEs) for health workers. Drones to speed up delivery were suspended during the pandemic and she hopes to restart that service soon.
Cross-subsidisation — charging the rich hospitals a lot more than poorer set-ups — allows her to scale her business and ensure that she can subsidise supplies for those she cares about.
LifeBank is focused on setting up branches across Africa to tackle maternal health at home first, she adds. “If you push me, I would tell you I want to be a worldwide business. I want to operate in South America, Southeast Asia, India, Central America” and eventually become a profitable public enterprise.
Since 2016, the company has transported 155,569 units of blood and other medical products, served 1,200 hospitals and saved more than 40,000 lives. What says even more are the names of those it has saved, printed on a card and hung on a wall.
At heart, what drives the business are the unnamed people who work round the clock to get the blood where it is needed, fast. Giwa-Tubosun relates how one rider who had passed a bag to a doctor was asked to turn back and bring another, quickly. But before he could return to the hospital, the patient died. “He had a meltdown and we had to offer him counselling.”
This impact entrepreneur’s vision of “a world where zero women die from postpartum haemorrhage” keeps her in Nigeria, when she could be making more money elsewhere and living the American dream. She recalls being on the hospital bench, wondering whether she would see her boy after eight months preparing for him. “When I go back to that room where everything started before LifeBank, I get the energy I need because it’s that personal.”
This article first appeared on Mar 21, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.