She earned the definition and status of the pride of Africa’s women entrepreneurs. She floated the very first air-operated emergency medical service – Flying Doctors, in West Africa, an uncommon vision she pursued with passion, tenacity and, without exaggeration, aggression. An African of Africans Olamide Orekunrin was born in 1987 in London, England and grew up under the care of foster parents in Lowestoft, a small seaside town in the South-East of England. Ola did not only graduate from Hull York Medical School at the age of 21, becoming one of the youngest medical doctors in the UK, she specilised in trauma and pre-hospital care and also broke into field of trainee helicopter pilot. Dr. Ola, as she is fondly called, acquired practical knowledge at the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK where she worked for almost a decade.
Her meteoric rise in the field of medical studies took her to Japan as a result of her being awarded the MEXT Japanese Government Scholarship. There, she conducted clinic research in the field of regenerative medicine at the Jikei University Hospital. However, the catalyst for a major life and career decision came when her sister became very, very ill on holiday whilst staying with relatives in Nigeria. The local hospital was unable to manage her sickle cell anemia condition, and as a result, Ola and her family started to search for an air ambulance so that she could be safely transported to a suitable medical facility in the country. The tragedy for the family was that there were no air ambulances to be found, even though the search took them from Nigeria, to Ghana, Sierra Leone and Cameroon, and across West Africa. The only one to be found was in South Africa, 5 hours away, but by the time the logistics had been arranged, Ola’s sister had died of her condition.
That incident sparked off the vision she pursued with passion and aggression even without a dime to start with. She was also inspired to assuage the problems of emergency medical services in the Nigeria. Undaunted by difficult challenges, The rocky beginning That she pioneered West Africa’s very first Air Ambulance Service – Flying Doctors Nigeria, a thoroughly professional healthcare dedicated to bringing trauma care to the most remote parts of West Africa would be like telling her story from the end back to the beginning.
Hear a bit of the extremely rough beginning that scripted the lyrics for the song that made her a symbol of courage, a model and a challenge to any African still struggling with their visions: “Getting your business funded can be an exhausting process,” she wrote in her entrepreneur play book. “It’s the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, without a doubt. Now my company is actually running I can laugh at all the times I spent carrying my laptop around sourcing for funding and coming home in tears.
A member of the American Academy of Aesthetic Medicine, Ola addressed one of the biggest obstacles that contended with her vision and she eventually ‘hacked’ it down. “Foreign investors looking at Africa often say that while the prospects are exciting, the infrastructure is lagging. I believe that existing infrastructure can be hacked – which in itself is a huge opportunity.
“So I reasoned that the term ‘hacking’ means modifying the features of a system to achieve a new goal. In development, it can describe rapid changes made by a society to advance without going through the intermediate stages. Rather than following developed nations’ roadmap to progress, Africa can leapfrog by experimenting with emerging tools, models and ideas. Controversy In her passion to get healthcare wherever possible for needy patients, Ola has been accused of trying to get free NHS treatment costing £45,425 for a gas worker who suffered severe burns in an explosion in Nigeria at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham. She had told the General Medical Council tribunal that she had told a QEH doctor that the burns victim was to be treated as a private patient but said that he ‘misunderstood or misremembered our conversation.
“Sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s smallest number of motorized vehicles but the highest rate of road traffic fatalities, with Nigeria and South Africa leading the pack. Trauma has become a silent epidemic in Africa, an epidemic that will only spread as the economy grows. More and more Africans are buying cars and working in heavy and dangerous industries. At the same time, infrastructure is poor, safety laws lax, and cars badly maintained.” On her dream project, Flying Doctors: “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. I just think that we need to start thinking outside the box and be more confident in the concept of African innovation.”
On her capacity to deliver: “We have a mixed-pool of more than 20 aircraft that we use for different types of evacuation, and about 30 staff all employed in different capacities with us and branches in three major cities in Nigeria.” Author and editor-in-chief of London based publication Melanie Hawken, said of Orekunrin: On any level, Ola Orekunrin is an inspirational Lioness of Africa, making not just a difference to the lives of patients in Nigeria, but across Africa and the globe through her example. She is a successful woman entrepreneur and inspirational leader in a world that needs more like her.
Currently in its third year, the Lagos-based company has so far airlifted about 500 patients, using a fleet of planes and helicopters to rapidly move injured workers and critically ill people from remote areas to hospitals. It has helped hundreds of patients, particularly employees in the country’s oil and gas sector, who are among Flying Doctors’ top clients. (The for-profit company’s client list also includes governments across West Africa, wealthy individuals and corporations.) “From patients with road traffic trauma, to bomb blast injuries to gunshot wounds, we save lives by moving these patients and providing a high level of care en route,” says Orekunrin.
“Many of our roads are poorly maintained, so emergency transport by road during the day is difficult. At night, we have armed robbers on our major highways; coupled with poor lighting and poor state of the roads themselves, emergency transport by road is deadly for both patients and staff.”
The company now employs around 30 people across three branches in Nigeria and has won a number of awards and accolades. On the future, the entrepreneur hopes to keep improving access to treatment and focusing on pre-hospital and in-hospital management of injuries. “Eighty percent of the world trauma occurs in low-middle income countries just like Nigeria,” she says. “I feel there should be more focus on the trauma epidemic that Africa currently faces.” Subsequently, she says being back in Africa has given her a chance to “re-integrate myself back to my roots”. “I really do love Africa and Nigeria in particular because it is my identity. I have since realised that the earlier I re-integrate myself back to my roots, the better for me,” she told Financial Juneteenth. “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.”