Awele Vivien Elumelu: Investing strategically to redefine healthcare delivery in Nigeria
The story of Awele Vivien Elumelu is not just that of another bright mind that studied medicine in order to get work as a doctor and save lives. She has pushed her dreams even further, by becoming one of the big players in Nigeria’s healthcare sector, investing in both provisions of medical services as well as health insurance.
She is currently the chairperson of Avon Healthcare Limited, and chief executive officer of Avon Medical Services Limited, overseeing the healthcare investments of Heirs Holdings. She is also African Ambassador for Gavi, the vaccine alliance driven by a public–private global health partnership committed to increasing access to immunisation in poor countries.
Vivien Elumelu holds a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degree from the University of Benin. Her experience as a medical doctor includes medicine, surgery, paediatrics, obstetrics, gynaecology, and emergency medicine. In Nigeria, she has worked with the Lagos University Teaching Hospital and, in the UK, with Grantham and District Hospital, Grantham.
Avon Medical Practice, where she is CEO, as noted on its website is a multi-specialty private hospital group with centres in Surulere and Lagos Island, as well as in Delta State and Abuja. As part of the Heirs Holdings group, the company’s says it maintains a culture of continuous learning, improvement, and excellence. With the dearth of standard medical facilities in Nigeria, as well as Africa as a whole, Avon Medical says it is committed to providing world- class healthcare that can cater to the needs of every individual in Nigeria.
It runs a network of full service clinics and onsite facilities with corporate institutions, with medical professionals providing a wide range of specialist services from cardiology and internal medicine to orthopaedics and surgery.
“In all that we do, the overriding interest remains our patients,” reads a message from Elumelu on the company’s website. “They are at the centre of and the reason for all we do. Frm gestation and infancy through to adulthood and seniority, we provide end-to- end care that covers prevention, diagnostics, management and recovery for our patients. Your well being is how we measure our success.”
Avon HMO, her other health concern, was registered by the National Health Insurance Scheme ( NHIS) to operate as a national Health Maintenance Organisation ( HMO) in October 2012 but commenced operations in 2013. It is also a subsidiary of the Heirs Holdings Group, an investment company described as committed to the economic transformation of Africa.
In an earlier interview with Businessday, Vivien shared her vision behind setting up Avon and the brands underneath it, describing it as a simple vision of “Being able to provide affordable healthcare of what I believe should be of global standards.”
Speaking about healthcare is one Vivien does passionately, and as she emphasised, Nigeria is in dire need of quality (and affordable) healthcare. “We know there are issues with healthcare,” she said, and having come to this conclusion, decided it was somewhere she could come in and play a part in helping to improve the economy. “Because, whether we like it or not we need a healthy workforce. We need a healthy nation to be a wealthy nation,” she said.
Coming into the healthcare space was for her, an opportunity to address some of the many issues bedevilling the sector, by investing in the provision of health services, and enabling access to health care delivery through insurance.
Her strategy was to venture into healthcare delivery both in providing healthcare, as well as in providing access to healthcare. This she planned to do through setting up a HMO and also providing healthcare through the hospitals and the clinics. The vision she reiterates was simple; just wanting to be able to help provide affordable, quality healthcare to Nigerians.
Nigeria’s health insurance coverage ranks among the lowest in the world with less than 5 percent of the population covered. This also implies the country continues to lag in terms of Universal Health Coverage. According to Elumelu, one of her strategies in improving this index is through advocacy.
Realising that beyond private sector intervention ( where she already plays), there is a need for the government to support the health sector. This has formed the thrust of her advocacy, including the need for government to support the healthcare act, and being able to provide the system and infrastructure for people to be able to access healthcare.
“In insurance, they need to make it such that people understand the importance of it,” she said. “I think for now, as you said it is just 5 per cent coverage. The government needs to step in and do something about it to ensure that more people are enrolled in insurance; more companies take part in insurance, and make sure that more employees are insured for proper health coverage.”
According to her, even as health insurance companies, they continue to have engagement to see how things can be improved. Again, this goes back to the advocacy in getting government to do more and even amongst private sector providers; that they also do more. She has also been committed to strengthening the relationship between health insurance agencies and healthcare providers. “We need to be able to work together to be able to deliver healthcare at the level that we would all like it to be,” Elumelu said.
Her businesses at least as indicated on the Avon Medical Practise website, are a proponent of ‘Africapitalism’, the principle which says that Africa’s future depends on private institutions like them to invest long-term in healthcare and other sectors, creating jobs and generating local wealth as well as having a positive social impact on the African society.
Vivien Elumelu’s role in healthcare also extends to immunization, where Nigeria is again, notoriously poor in terms of coverage. As African ambassador for Gavi, she leads advocacy in ensuring proper coverage, particularly for children. As she explained, “We also need to continue to get the message out; we need more companies to come in and support, we need the parents to be enlightened as to the importance of vaccines, we also need the government to provide more support.”
Married for 26 years to Tony Elumelu, she described it in an interview as a journey, though not easy, but a fulfilling, and exciting one. Her husband she said “is someone who believes strongly in whatever ( goals and dreams) he believes in. This makes it easy for you to believe along with him because he does not give up, he does not get tired, and he is tireless. It has been one hell of a ride as they say.”
For younger women and girls with aspirations like her, she advised; First of all, you should be genuinely interested in improving yourself and improving the society around you. A bit of selfless interest, I would say. I wanted to talk about contentment but then, I would say even though you should be content with what you have, at the same time, don’t be content. This is especially when you see that things are not going the way they should, with mediocrity or with things that you feel could be better.
In addition, Vivien Elumelu advises young women to persevere and not give up. “I know we have a lot of challenges in our society, in our country, but persevere. It is only through persevering that we will all get there.
“If we all fold our arms and say there are too many challenges and there is nothing we can do, we will not make any progress,” she said.