mPharma, a telehealth pioneer out of Ghana, gets physical with 100 virtual centers across Africa

The potential for telehealth across Africa is vast and promising as mobile connectivity deepens, and innovations that could potentially bridge the doctor-patient ratio gap increase, according to a Deloitte report.

One company that is planning to drive the wave of telemedicine across the continent, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, is mPharma, a Ghanaian health tech startup that is set to open 100 virtual centers across seven markets in Africa over the next six months.

As it rolls out these centers, mPharma said its end goal is to deliver quality primary care in communities they serve by providing medical examinations, a service the startup’s co-founder and CEO Gregory Rockson said lacks in most telemedicine structures.

“We saw this as an opportunity to leverage our pharmacies as virtual doctor offices so that patients could get examined remotely during a virtual consultation. This is what makes mPharma’s telemedicine unique,” Rockson told TechCrunch.

He said that mPharma already provides about 10,000 physician consultations to patients at the startup’s network of pharmacies, and that the new system will enable them to do it electronically too, reaching more people.

Originally founded to manage prescription drug inventory for pharmacies and their suppliers, mPharma also runs retail pharmacy operations and provides market intelligence to hospitals, pharmacies and patients.

Founded in 2013 by Rockson, Daniel Shoukimas and James Finucane, mPharma is one of the well-funded startups across Africa, raising over $50 million since inception; this includes a Series C round of $17 million, led by U.K.’s development arm CDC Group last year. Other existing investors include Silicon Valley backer Jim Breyer of Breyer Capital, Shravin Bharti Mittal of Bharti Global Limited — an Indian Conglomerate, Social Capital and Golden Palm Investments.

MPharma also enjoys expertise backing from well-experienced professions in the pharmaceutical industry. They include Helena Foulkes, former president of CVS, the largest pharmacy retail chain in the U.S. and Daniel Vasella, ex-CEO and chairman of Novartis; both are members of the board.

The tech startup plans to use its network of pharmacies to build what they describe as a digital primary care service. It will offer all-in-one diagnostics services using digital “stethoscope, otoscope, thermometer, and examination camera with built-in illumination for high-definition skin and throat images powered by Tytocare”, a telehealth service.

The doctor will also be in a place to request rapid diagnostics tests to be carried out, a service that will be supported by a licensed community health nurse as the medic consults remotely.

Patients in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda and Ethiopia, where mPharma has a presence, are set to benefit from the virtual consultations. It is raising more funding to further grow its business across the continent.

“We currently have five centers open. We have done an assessment of all our pharmacies and plan to establish the Mutti Doctor locations (the virtual centers) based on the needs of the community. We have already identified the first 100 locations,” said Rockson.

The tech startup’s efforts will add to services of tens of other startups across Africa offering variations of telemedicine, like Vezeeta, an Egyptian doctor appointment booking startup. Vezeeta fast-tracked the rollout of home-visit solutions, teleconsultation and online pharmacies across Egypt and Saudi Arabia last year after landing $40 million in Series D funding.

Quro Medical, a South Africa startup, also offers home care complemented by telemedicine service, a step it had to take following the COVID-19 pandemic to reduce the exposure of COVID virus on patients and the doctors. The health startup received $1.1 million in April this year to help the company increase its reach and improve care among its patients.

Rocket Health, with a presence in Uganda and Kenya, also offers consultation, pharmacy and lab services electronically and through a USSD service, making these services accessible to people without internet connection too.

As the pandemic rages on, the industry is expected to continue growing, especially in emerging markets with poor health infrastructure and where the doctor to patient ratio remains grim, when compared to the richer nations.

According to World Health Organisation data, countries across sub-Saharan Africa have an average of 0.23 doctors for every 10,000 people. This is against the best ratio of 84.2 doctors in some of the most developed countries.

Telemedicine is envisaged to bridge this gap and inspire partnerships and birth more startups like Bima, which provide other ranges of services, including health insurance policies. The Europe-based startup, which offers services in emerging markets, recently received $30 million in funding.

The African pharmaceutical market is also expected to grow exponentially as the population balloons, thus providing a space for innovation and a market for startups offering mobile health solutions.

Across Africa, the Deloitte report says, East Africa is the most promising region in terms of healthcare investment owing to its integration and the growing economy, supported by various sectors, including agriculture and tourism. Increased demand for services and products as consumers get more spending power will also increase in healthcare and telecom spend, it said.

As more startups are launched, a market intelligence report by Salient on innovations in healthcare across sub-Saharan Africa said that they will need to come up with ways to retain customers as competition grows and also come up with methods to partner. The partnerships could be with e-commerce companies for the faster distribution of products and to develop digital ordering, payment and fulfillment systems.

“If mHealth’s opportunity is to be fully exploited, stakeholders will need to proactively seek strategic partnerships, public-private or otherwise, and build cooperative and sustainable business models,” the Deloitte report said.

Deloitte remains upbeat that the industry will take off and recommended that startups such as mPharma use data for better public health supply chain planning and visibility, to forge partnerships and to inform company growth.

Rockson hopes that other telemedicine services can utilize the infrastructure his startup has set up to improve the services they offer to patients.

“We are not looking to compete directly with existing telemedicine providers but rather enable them to plug their service into our remote medical examination solution to close the gap they currently face when providing a teleconsult.”

MPharma, which employs 400 people, says it is set to create an additional 340 opportunities over the next six months by employing a wide-range of specialists, including engineers and clinicians.

It recently entered the ninth market after it was contracted by the Gabonese government to build a drug supply chain infrastructure. This comes months after the company entered the Ethiopian market with plans to franchise its brand and focus more on building and refining its infrastructure for a seamless sourcing and distribution system. This in the hope of solving the challenges facing the pharmaceutical market across Africa, including unpredictable supply chains, exorbitant prices and low orders.