Irish-led tech could boost lives of millions in Africa

A Dublin-based team of techies has devised a revolutionary healthcare platform that will be a game-changer in South Africa and eventually the rest of Africa.

Led by Irish woman Elaine Devereux, managing director of Lucky Beard in Dublin and its chief creative officer James Nelson, also based in Dublin, Unu Health is a digital platform that uses technology to drive down the cost of primary healthcare and empower the 50 million people in South Africa that currently rely on state healthcare to significantly improve their health and wellbeing.

This platform, developed for Standard Bank Group in South Africa, aims to bring affordable primary healthcare to millions of people in Africa for as little as €7 per month.

“As it stands quality, affordable and easily accessible healthcare is currently a privilege in Africa”

It launched this month following a collaboration between a team based in Dublin and their South African colleagues.

Lucky Beard is a South Africa-founded business that in 2021 revealed plans to invest €1.1m in its Irish operations and make 10 new hires as it gears up to accelerate the digitalisation of Irish and European businesses.

Changing the narrative

According to recent reports, South Africa’s healthcare remains a two-tiered space, where access to private healthcare remains linked to the ability to pay for private medical scheme membership. Private healthcare accounts for 50% of the total expenditure on health, and supports only 17% of the population.

Seed-funded by the Standard Bank Group, the largest bank in Africa, Unu Health is initially targeting the 5.5 million formally employed population that cannot afford medical aid, with the launch of a corporate offering that enables employers to provide access to private primary healthcare for their employees

Tania Joffe, CEO and Principal of Unu Health, says the platform’s vision is to transform the delivery of quality primary healthcare in Africa, making it accessible, affordable and dignified for all. “Owing to the friction involved in accessing primary healthcare, most South Africans initially self-medicate acute symptoms while their chronic conditions go largely undiagnosed. As a result, on any day 15% of the workforce is absent – that’s 2.25 million people who are not at work.

“We’re looking to change the status quo by removing the friction and develop a hyperconnected patient-centred ecosystem linking healthcare users, healthtech resources as well as traditional in-person health resources, via an inclusive platform that is intuitive and easy to use from mobiles,” Joffe said.

The app enables people to manage all of their healthcare needs in one place, offering easy access to their health records and medical history. 

Users can get an up-to-date clinically valid health score updated each month and plug in their private health insurance plan so they can view and track their benefit use over time. They can also chat instantly to a nurse or doctor via WhatsApp or video call using a network of 3,400 private GPs, 8 000 specialists and 3,500 pharmacies across South Africa.

We spoke to Elaine Devereux about how the platform came about and the impact she hopes it will make.

What was the situation you were faced with and how did you go about devising the solution?

Lucky Beard’s client, Standard Bank Group’s innovation arm, approached us to help them create a healthcare platform that would add significant value to the lives of Standard Bank customers and the wider African population.

The stand-out stat that drew our attention is that life expectancy in Sub-Saharan African is 10 years below the global average – that’s 62. Plus with the fastest growth of  non-communicable diseases on the continent, which will be the leading cause of death in the region by 2030, the quality of life is significantly compromised for most people as they enter their 50s.

The UN has stated that access to quality healthcare is a fundamental basic human right. As it stands quality, affordable and easily accessible healthcare is currently a privilege in Africa.

Private healthcare is unaffordable for most people and the public healthcare system is overstretched. The 50 million people who access public healthcare in Africa are underserved. The solution we came up with was Unu Health which offers many benefits, including the ability to chat instantly with a nurse or doctor via WhatsApp or video call using a network of 3,400 private GPs, 8,000 specialists, and 3,500 pharmacies across South Africa.

We’re initially targeting the corporate channel with Unu ForBiz which enables employers to provide access to private primary healthcare for their employees for as little as €7 per month.

How does the technology work in practical terms?

Unu Health is a cloud-based platform, and the application is built as a Progressive Web App (PWA) using web technologies. The Unu ForBiz offering allows corporates to sign up for healthcare plans for their employees. The employer or HR manager provides employee details, who are then onboarded onto the system, triggering a welcome SMS to access the app. Unu Health will have a retail offering which launch later this year in South Africa. We also plan to expand beyond South Africa at a later stage.

What impact will this have on the long-term health needs of the region?

Ultimately, Unu Health aims to improve people’s quality and length of life. Using a digital-first, data-enabled healthcare platform to deliver quality inclusive primary care, we’re changing how people access, pay for, and experience medical care.

How transferrable is the technology to solve healthcare bottlenecks in other countries, including Ireland?

The technology is highly transferable, but a country’s regulatory and legislative environment, especially around data hosting will impact how and where Unu Health can roll out. Finding the right partners and their willingness to integrate into the platform and continuously innovate is also crucial in order to meet the Unu partner charter of care. This commits to specific principles around response rate times, utilisation benchmarks and tech integrations. Unu Health aims to provide a delightful customer experience and deliver on its promise to offer healthcare that makes you smile.

Main image at top: Lucky Beard founders Adam Oberem and James Nelson with Irish MD Elaine Devereux

John Kennedy
Award-winning editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.