Out of the (modular) box thinking to address urgent health needs

By Femi Akinrebiyo

Global Manager, Upstream — Manufacturing, Agribusiness & Services at IFC

Image courtesy of Imperial

COVID-19 is placing increased pressure on already weak healthcare systems around the world, making poorer communities even more vulnerable. The private sector is stepping up to address this challenge with innovative solutions.

One example of this is South African-listed, integrated market access and logistics solution provider, Imperial. In high density, low-income areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, access to quality healthcare is limited. Residents often have to travel long distances to get basic screening for COVID-19 and for other health services. To improve access to quality care, IFC has partnered with Imperial on a new solution: designing, manufacturing, and deploying prefabricated, modular healthcare units that can be set up quickly where the need is greatest through partnerships with governments and private operators.

These modular healthcare units are currently being piloted in South Arica with Unjani Clinic, a nurse-led network of clinics that provides primary, affordable healthcare. The pilot with Unjani Clinic, launched last month with four units in greater Johannesburg, will increase COVID-19 screening capacity and will also contribute to building up healthcare infrastructure in underserved communities.

The lack of access to quality care is an issue that the African continent is dealing with. Sub-Saharan Africa scored 42.2 out of 100 in 2015 on the Healthcare Access and Quality Index, a global measure of deaths that could be avoided with correct and timely medical care. This compares to a world average score of 53.7 and a high-income country average of 83.1, indicating a substantial lack of effective medical care in the region.

Modular clinics may be one route for expanding healthcare, especially given the strains on public budgets due to economic fallout from the pandemic, but we need additional innovation and more private sector involvement if we are going to deliver widespread access to health services. This is where IFC’s new Upstream work, like the partnership with Imperial, comes in.

Image courtesy of Imperial

IFC’s Upstream corporate strategy is about tackling the world’s most urgent and difficult development problems and working with governments, private sector companies, and development partners to find, develop, and deliver innovative solutions. It means we don’t just wait to finance projects that are ready for immediate investment. Instead, we work upstream in the project life cycle to create new opportunities for investment. It’s about working with partners over the medium- to long-term to catalyze change and close development gaps; it’s about thinking outside the box.

In healthcare, our areas of priority for Upstream work include health service provision, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices and equipment. We engage in early-stage project development of innovative solutions to create markets. What does that mean? The solution offered by Imperial is a great example, as we expect this to open the door to more public-private partnerships that could operate using less capital-intensive business models. We are actively working to replicate these models via public-private partnerships, investment projects and by working with the government to adapt regulations. Those new models would contribute to a more robust healthcare market. And a more robust healthcare market would ultimately decrease the per capita costs of health service provision and improve accessibility and quality of services for the population.

This work will also support the Global Health Platform, a US$4 billion financing vehicle that IFC launched at the end of July to increase the access of developing countries to critical healthcare supplies and services required to fight the pandemic. As part of this, IFC is engaging partners to develop local healthcare manufacturing and service capacities, not only to fight the pandemic, but also to increase the longer-term resilience of countries through strengthening healthcare systems.

We’re excited about expanding our partnership with Imperial in other countries in the region, including Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria. In line with our Upstream approach, we will start with the country-specific needs and develop business models that address urgent gaps and can be scaled up through private healthcare service operators and government partnerships.

Other early-stage project engagements that IFC is developing include co-funding feasibility studies and pre-development activities, all with the aim to increase the pool of investable projects tackling development challenges. In addition to healthcare, our team is also actively seeking opportunities in the manufacturing, agribusiness, and services sectors. To learn more about IFC’s Upstream work, please visit IFC.org/Upstream.

IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, is the largest global development institution focused on the private sector in emerging markets.