Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|April 29, 2021|8 Minutes|In AfCFTA

AfCFTA

How the pain of loss steeled an entrepreneur to fly relief through the African stars

Her dream is to cure her fellow Africans at a price they can afford. Health entrepreneur Lenias Hwenda wants to fly hope into the continent of her birth; she feels the new African Continental Free Trade Area will help her realise an ambition born of childhood pain and loss.

In the tiny Guruve district, near Marondera in central Zimbabwe , Chief Ephraim was in the life and soul of the village. He was also Lenias Hwenda’s favourite uncle.

Chief Ephraim was tall, eloquent and well respected.. In the day he would stride through the village with a word of advice here and a nod of encouragement there.

“At night he would sit down around the fireplace and tell us wonderful stories. He was a young man during the bush war in Zimbabwe – our village was in the thick of it – and he would tell us of what happened. Of how the young men got into trouble and out of it again!” recalls Hwenda, who grew up in the village the daughter of a cattle farmer, who also worked at a metal processing company in Harare.

One day, early in 1995, her uncle was struck down by an enemy he couldn’t see – HIV AIDS. It was a family tragedy that was to send the pain of loss through the family and change Hwenda’s life.

“It was devastating to see what happens to people when they are that sick and the extent to which an illness can reduce a once tall strong man, “ says Hwenda.

“He really believed in me. When I was going to go to England to do my A-Levels, my mother said I was too young, but my uncle argued that I was sensible. He believed in your ability to make the right decisions.”

Yet the illness was unforgiving. The clinic did all it could, then sent Chief Ephraim home to suffer a swift, painful, death- simply because the drugs needed to treat him were scarce and too expensive.

“I had grown up with the belief that I should change things I don’t like. My uncle died a painful death simply because we couldn’t find not pay for the medicine to ease his illness. I decided to dedicate my life to trying to change this by going into medicine.”

True to her word, on completing her A-levels at Roundhay High School in Leeds, she went to study biochemistry and immunology, emerging with a PhD from the University of Aberdeen. In postgraduate studies, she worked on vaccines for malaria and influenza at Oxford University.

In her working life she was the co-chair for the World Health Organisation in multilateral negotiations over the transparency of markets for medicines. She was also a health policy advisor to the Zimbabwe mission to the United Nations in Geneva.

Yet the tragedy of her favourite uncle back in the village stayed at the back of her mind and spurred her on to become an entrepreneur in the health business in 2012.

“I wanted to make an impact and provide affordable medicine for people in Africa,” says Hwenda.

With this in mind, Hwenda launched Medicines for Africa and spent years studying prices and data from the world markets for medicine.

“We are nowhere near we would like to be, but we are getting there. We started with working on HIV treatment working with Botswana and Nambia and Zimbabwe…The business model was centred on pooling procurement from Africa countries buying for very small population buying power was very weak, but you can get  better prices by getting countries to buy together,” she said .

“I brought four African countries together to focus on access to cancer treatment: Zimbabwe, Kenya, Botswana and Zambia . We get good prices from Indian manufacturers and manufacturers in Asian countries like Vietnam in China… You give them volume and say you are looking for 1 million units – what is your price?”

Hwenda then brokers a price to match the pocket of the customer in Africa.

“One of the services we provide is getting the product flown straight from the factory to the hospital cutting out the middle men. We charge a service fee.”

It is business that is likely to flourish in the new era of the African Free Continental Free Trade Area that plans to bring down tariff barriers and increase trade.

“ I do hope it works because always with countries there is not often a shortage of policies it is a question of whether they are implemented . I think countries will I think it would be a game changer if it does work in that it will promote trade and create jobs,” says Hwenda.

“I hope it will work, but I don’t know there seems to be a lot of political momentum and rhetoric. It will be tough and a big challenge. If you have a few countries implementing it well and showing how it will work, I hope this will encourage other countries to follow suit.”

As for the COIVD-19 pandemic, Hwenda paints a fairly bleak picture of the vaccine that again is likely to divide the haves and have nots.

“We are nowhere near able to produce the quantity needed globally how similar situations have played out . Counties wealthier able to throw a lot of money at it and are more likely to the get the vaccines first. Poorer countries are not going to get it so easily and that is something countries should think about,” says Hwenda.

The vaccine conundrum is Surely food for thought for another mission for a health entrepreneur dedicated to getting medicine to her people at a price they can afford.