Resonance’s Jay Chikobe and Marissa Gilman spoke with Gregory Rockson, co-founder and CEO of mPharma for our third episode of the Inclusive Innovation Exchange. Rockson shared his journey to reduce the cost of high-quality medicine across Sub-Saharan Africa through mPharma, a health social enterprise that received the 2019 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.
African patients often pay three times more than patients in Western countries for the same medicine. Gregory Rockson is on a mission to improve the health of all Africans by addressing critical vulnerabilities in the continent’s pharmaceutical supply chain.
Through mPharma, Rockson works with major drug manufacturers such as Novartis, Bayer, and Pfizer to keep the shelves stocked in mPharma’s network of over 400 pharmacies. The company eliminates upfront payments for pharmacies, negotiates lower prices on high-quality drugs, and uses predictive modeling technology to increase supply chain efficiencies and anticipate consumer demand. Through this innovative model, mPharma is lowering the cost of medicine in six Sub-Saharan countries.
When Rockson sat down with Resonance, he reflected on his journey as an entrepreneur and shared his guidance for health innovators and donors:
- Make it personal. Focus on shaping your innovation for just one person, rather than trying to solve for everyone’s challenges all at once.
- Monitor the market closely. Ensure you’re capturing the right business and impact data to drive decision-making. Regularly review consumer trends and behavior in response to your products and ecosystem.
- Tell the financial story. To attract capital, go beyond articulating impact to clearly outline how your products will create a financial return.
- For donors: Enable the market. Rather than competing with the private sector as a service provider, support startups and growing companies with grants and low-cost loans.
4 Best Practices for Global Health Innovators
1. Make Healthcare Personal
Innovators often feel they must be all things to all people in order to succeed. But leaving no one behind is easier said than done—especially in the healthcare industry when many patients can't afford to pay. As a growing company, mPharma must continuously balance its long-term financial sustainability with its impact on people's lives. However, Rockson is adamant that patients are always the North Star—a sentiment echoed by another Inclusive Innovation Exchange speaker, Ruchika Singhal. Rockson pointed out that, in the end, the consumers mPharma serves will determine whether or not he has a job.
“Consumers don't lie. If you're creating value, they'll vote with their pockets,” he said.
Rockson reflected on a common global health mindset that detracts from this focus on patients: that healthcare innovations must reach scale. Practitioners often start their journeys by attempting to design innovative solutions for millions of people. Meanwhile, they forget the individual patients they serve.
However, at mPharma, “We build for one person,” said Rockson. “And then they’ll tell another person. And that’s how we get to one million. We start slow and build as we gain that experience.”
2. Monitor Global Health Trends
As mPharma grows, they keep a close eye on relevant consumer and market trends. This has led to some unexpected, yet fruitful, partnerships and ventures.
In 2019, the company bought Halton’s, Kenya’s second-largest pharmacy chain. Rockson noted that the highest-performing pharmacy from the acquired Halton’s brand happened to be in a gas station. This data point helped inspire Rockson to seize the opportunity to partner with the Mount Meru Group, a significant operator of gas stations in East and Southern Africa. Through the partnership, mPharma is offering high quality medicines and health services through a large network of Mount Meru gas stations.
“When you think about it, gas stations are located at the most accessible points,” Rockson said. “Even in rural areas, there are gas stations. Truck drivers can pick up medicines to take to their villages.”
Tracking the right data helped mPharma make informed decisions and recognize opportunity—growing mPharma’s business while boosting the accessibility of health services to an entirely new, untapped base of customers.
3. Tell the Financial Story
When he sought the capital to start mPharma, Rockson shared that he was very lucky to find himself in the right place at the right time. However, his team was careful to only build what they had the capital to pay for, including the resources needed to pilot a successful partnership with Novartis in Ghana that led to expansion in Nigeria.
In winning over funders, Rockson noted the importance of storytelling—but not in the conventional sense. He said that the “impact story” was table stakes: every health innovator can tell a story about how they will affect health outcomes.
But where health innovators fall short is articulating clearly their “financial impact story.” Instead, Rockson promotes that “What you need to prove is what the financial return will be.” In designing interventions, he urged innovators to focus on designing a business model that is financially viable, with customers who are willing to pay. “If you cannot have people pay for the outcomes you want to create, it’s not even possible.”
4. For Donors: Enable the Global Health Market
Resonance asked Rockson about his perspective on how the public sector can best enable innovation in health. Rockson lamented the unintentional consequences of development partners who destroy local markets by providing vital health products and services for free.
“They have good motives, in a way, but are directly in competition with the private sector,” Rockson said.
He urged funders to resist the urge to be service providers, and instead stimulate and bolster the local private sector. Even in the poorest areas, he emphasized the importance of market-based solutions.
“I get worried about giving things for free because there are only so many free things you can give,” he said. “At some point, priorities shift and service can’t be continued because there is no investment in the long-term.”
Beyond unrestricted funding, Rockson argued that donors are well-suited to expand access to finance—particularly in healthcare, where health innovators must navigate the same financial system as other entrepreneurs, and thus pass on similarly high margins, even though their interventions save lives. One way the public sector can help is to transform the capital they provide into low-cost loans for health innovators. He pointed to COVID-19 as an example of how the public sector can spark and de-risk private sector innovation. For a COVID-19 vaccine, governments gave billions to companies who, at the time, hadn’t yet reached clinical trials. That guarantee allowed companies to accelerate vaccine development and produce two successful vaccines in under a year.