By Ephraim Oseji
Obinna Osuji, is the Co-Founder/CEO of Medismarts Limited. In this Interview, Osuji who holds a degree in Systems Engineering and a Masters degree in Business Administration, reveals how hundreds of thousands of people can access healthcare at hospitals and other providers quite easily using technology developed by his team.
What was your growing up like and what are the valuable lessons that can be drawn?
Growing up was fun. My time as a kid was not as complicated as it is today with the advent of social media and the many distractions prevalent today. I loved school, loved to read, and loved math. I think it played a big part in my choice to study engineering.
I have always been fascinated with how things work under the hood and so naturally when I encounter problems, it’s fun for me to tinker with all the possibilities to bring a solution to life to fix the problem. I learned the value of using one’s mind, applying yourself and having a “never back down” attitude.
I have learned never to allow someone else to think for me, that’s why my brain is there. I keep God first place, at least until someone has a better explanation as to how everything came to be and possibly show us the universe, he/she created and runs it as smoothly as ours does. I have learned the value of loyalty, integrity and keeping to your word. This has helped keep my sanity despite the many challenges that are prevalent in Nigeria.
Tell us about the landmark events that contributed to making you who you are
A few events stand out to me. The first is my original passion to be a network engineer. I even got certifications to establish my desire to work in this field. Incidentally, at my first job after NYSC, the company planned to train volunteers to be software developers. I wasn’t there when the decision was made and so a friend indicated I might be interested and penned down my name. That’s how I went for the boot camp and found that I was quite good at programming. I had a bit of practice while in school, but the in-depth training piqued my interest and I decided to pursue that path full time. I believe God had this planned for me because if I was asked personally if I was interested, I would have said no and stuck with my network engineering interest.
The second event was my foray into the healthcare space. At the time, someone mentioned an opportunity to work in an HMO called “Hygeia” which I dismissed because I didn’t even know what an HMO was at the time. Fast forward to a few weeks later, a recruiter advertised a position without naming the company. I applied and got to the end of the interview process (after two or three stages) only to realize they were recruiting for Hygeia HMO! What are the odds? I saw this as the handwriting on the wall and accepted the offer even though the salary was far less than what I asked for.
The third major event would be getting connected to someone who I refer to as my brother – Damilola Oni. We worked in the same company before I took the job at Hygeia, and he indicated he wanted to start a business. I told him I needed the salary and couldn’t do entrepreneurship full time. We agreed that I could work on projects if he brought in the business. We registered a business name and did a few websites and web apps here and there.
An opportunity soon opened with a sister company of Hygeia, and we got the project which we and a few other colleagues executed successfully. This gave us valuable insights into the challenges in the healthcare space and Medismarts was essentially born less than two years later to focus on solving these problems full time with Damilola and me as co-founders. If he had not opted to work full time for “our idea” back then, Medismarts would probably not exist today.
The last event I’ll mention here is meeting my wife. Medismarts was a fledgling company at the time, and I was pursuing an MBA while managing my day-to-day responsibilities at the company. I got to a major crossroad and needed to decide which way to go. One path would see me remain confined to being a one-trick-pony with a steady paycheck and not much else.
The other path would free me up to pursue what we did at scale, but it was an uncertain path with the odds higher for failure than success. It also came with the threat of going broke and possibly going many days with nothing to drink but “garri”. This was a month after we got married and she encouraged me to take that step. When I brought up the risks involved, she said “well if we have to drink garri at least we’ll drink it together”. She encouraged me to take that step and looking back now, it probably saved Medismarts from certain death as a company. I think who you marry will make or mar you.
Are there things you have never told anyone about your steps to significance?
I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone how scary it can be sometimes doing what I do. I sit at the helm of affairs of a company that manages the business application HMOs and Hospitals use to take care of health issues for their enrollees/patients daily.
We’ve been attacked by ransomware which took down entire servers and I must be calm enough to execute the contingency plans. While everyone else is panicking, I’m expected to be bold, focused and calm enough to know what to do and chart the course to recovery while in truth, I’m as scared as everyone else.
I also don’t tell people very much that you’re more likely to find me in Church than anywhere else. I think God’s spirit keeps me sane and in Nigeria especially, you need it. I also don’t watch the news very much, I feel it’s always bad news that is shared and since I already know bad things are happening all over the world, there’s no surprise there, right? So, keeping my focus on positive vibes and positive energy has shaped my outlook on life in general.
Were there people who inspired you on the choices you have made in life, or you were self-motivated?
I think it is a combination of both. While I wake up every morning reminding myself of how important what we do is and how it affects at least a million lives (directly or indirectly), people who may never know who is behind the curtain of the possibilities they enjoy, I am motivated to face the challenges of the day. That said, I also admire a few individuals like Elon Musk – the man doesn’t have the word “impossible” in his dictionary.
I also admire Steve Jobs of blessed memory, his quest for excellence and building the best possible product has touched the world in ways it cannot recover from. Bringing it back home, say what you may about Alhaji Aliko Dangote, I’ve been able to filter through the noise and I see someone who believes so much in the potential of Nigeria and the African continent that he makes big and bold bets almost no one else would dare and this inspires me. Have you ever heard Pastor Sam Adeyemi speak? His wisdom is on another level and what about Pastor Kingsley Okonkwo? He says the truth as it is – no holds barred. People like these are few and these men inspire and motivate me.
At what point did you opt for entrepreneurship and how was it possible to create a niche for yourself in your field?
I think entrepreneurship is the natural outcome of the desire to solve a problem and the seemingly small steps taken daily to make the idea a reality. I can’t say there was a eureka moment when all the lights came on in my head and I figured I would start a business, instead it was a series of small steps that ultimately culminated in the birth of a company. I also won’t say I created a niche for myself but instead, I believe our focus was primarily to ensure that an impossible project succeeded at the time and that success led to creating a structure to ensure it became a going concern. The consistency over the years to continue in that direction is now the “niche” that we find ourselves in today.
What lessons have you learned as an entrepreneur which you think people should learn from you?
One of the lessons I have learned is to be careful with what you say. Words have a way of acquiring flesh and bones and taking a life of their own. A lot of people talk negatively about the country. All they see are the negative headlines – banditry, kidnappings, inflation, poverty, corruption etc. and this keeps them depressed and in sorrow most of the time. Now I don’t have my head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich to deny these things are a real problem, I only choose to look at the other realities and focus on them. Realities such as having not one but four unicorns in Africa birthed or at least incubated here in Nigeria, much more than any other country on the African continent.
I choose to see young people with a never-say-die attitude break barrier and establish businesses that have put our country on the map. I choose to see the positive side of how our doctors are brilliant enough to get jobs in any country on earth (with training from a so-called third world country) and how our tech talent is intelligent enough to land jobs in the US and Europe, earning foreign exchange while working remotely from their homes in Lagos or Abuja etc. I choose to see how our music is known the world over and how our homeboys and girls here in Lagos are household names in the US, the UK and everywhere in Africa. I have learned to always see the glass as half full instead of half empty.
I have also learned to value and appreciate people. It’s easy to look at the staff of an organization as mere tools to be used, a means to an end but I see my people as our biggest assets. I might be a talented software engineer, but I can only be in one place at one time.
I only have 24 hours in a day, and I can’t be at all the meetings. I have truly come to respect the value of time and appreciate colleagues who join me to go on this journey and trust that I will make the right decisions for our company and keep their best interests in mind all the time.
What can you consider as your greatest achievements so far?
I would say it’s the fact that hundreds of thousands of people can access healthcare at hospitals and other providers quite easily using technology developed by our team. I still get comments from people who use one of the solutions we have developed and share how it has made their lives easier. Another achievement would be our team at Medismarts – it is always a shock to most people when they learn of how few we are and yet we continue to deliver value to our various clients and stakeholders.
You have a rich background in ICT. Can you tell us what you think about technological advancement in Nigeria?
I would say we are not quite where we ought to be and at the same time, we are not where we used to be. There has been tremendous progress across several sectors with young men and women disrupting entire industries – whether it be Fintech or EdTech or Health-tech, you can point at several success stories despite the odds.
Nigeria is home to 4 out of 5 unicorns on the continent and that sums up the vast opportunities available in this country. All of these have been achieved with little to no support from the government either by way of an enabling environment (insecurity remains a major challenge in the country) or tangible improvements in the infrastructure (steady power is still a major challenge to date). It stands to reason that if a lot of the external factors were taken care of more unicorns would be born.
How do you think Nigerians, especially the youths can fully optimize the opportunities technology offers?
I think that for starters, they need to change that notion of waiting for all the external conditions to improve before starting. We live in a world where information is abundantly available regarding any subject matter, including technology. Never has it been so easy to completely change one’s field within a matter of weeks and yet that is our reality today.
You can pick up a free course online and apply yourself and become proficient enough to land a job in just a few weeks. Of course, this takes dedication, discipline, and commitment but it is possible, and many people continue to take advantage of these opportunities daily. I will continue to advise everyone to be the change they want to see. Rather than whine about a problem or tweet about it or post it on social media non-stop, think about what you can do to change the situation and naturally, that shift in mindset will get the creative juices flowing.
How can the country best deploy technology in solving some challenges, especially security problems?
While I am not a security expert, I do think that we need to be honest about a few things and chief among them is figuring out how these bad actors can fund insecurity. The best way to kill a snake is to cut off its head and, in this case, the sources of funding for insecurity must be cut off. I think we have all the levers with the harmonization of data starting with the BVN and then NIN and tying it all together with the SIM registration. It should be possible to account for all financial transactions in the system and block activities that fit a certain profile. It will be naive to think that it is this simple and I will not make those assumptions, but I do think it is a good place to start.
Can you discuss the key values and principles that have brought you this far in life?
Number one would be the fear of God. I think a lot of other values are birthed from this. A God-fearing person will have integrity – he/she will not cheat people out of what is rightfully theirs, will honor contracts and obligations as well as have other people’s best interests at heart. Loyalty is another key value for me – just being able to be trusted and not switch allegiances when it is convenient, throwing out years of goodwill on the altar of instant gratification.
The next is resilience – I think Nigeria brings this one out of all of us but it’s a valuable one. To be able to thrive in even the most difficult of conditions is an attribute that has served us well. Being able to look obstacles in the eye without backing down and figuring out a way to surmount them is an absolute necessity for me.
Lastly, people need to be able to trust you with their money. If you receive payment for a service, render that service or return the money if you find that you cannot. A lot of people cannot be trusted with money – If you ever do a deal with them, that is the last time you will hear from them or your money ever again. This is the opposite of how I like to live, if you do business with me then you should be able to go to bed and sleep with both eyes closed.
Where do you see the future of Nigeria in terms of technology and health?
This is the one thing that keeps most of us in health-tech going – the belief that one day in the not-too-distant future, access to healthcare will be universal in Nigeria (seen as a fundamental human right), sponsored through Federal and State-led insurance schemes. I believe that the budget for healthcare will be at least 5x what it is today, and that government spending will stimulate the growth of the health sector.
I would like to see technology be the bedrock of the seamless exchange of healthcare data and accessibility of data. Do you know that in most cases, people do not have their medical records easily accessible? Say someone is allergic to a drug and was rushed in the unconscious to a different hospital, how do the doctors know what to administer and what to avoid? How do they immediately know your blood type if you needed an urgent blood transfusion?
Simply being able to identify who you are should make it possible to access all your medical history and empower healthcare professionals to give the right course of treatment promptly which could be the difference between life and death a lot of times. I also believe the billions of dollars spent on medical tourism will be a thing of the past and that the quality of our healthcare will become so good that people will not see the need to travel somewhere else for good medical care.
Do you think the government is doing enough to support health care technology companies?
There have been interventions funds set up by the CBN, and many donor agencies continue to sponsor health care initiatives in Nigeria. I have also seen local companies bid for and win government contracts to deploy their solutions in government-run healthcare facilities. All these are good, but it is just the start. I think more can be done to encourage innovators to create rather than consume. We have several companies that have built various software in the healthcare industry, and I will also love to see companies build the hardware and become viable and profitable and fill the gaps in the medical equipment space as well. We have the talent and the drive to make all this a reality and so a consistent push by the government by way of funding, grants and being the customer will go a long way in stimulating growth.
What will you advice other creative healthcare technology companies to focus on?
I will advise them to play the long game. A lot of the problems in the country will not be solved overnight. It may not be wise to expect the kind of money being made in fintech for example to be made in healthcare, at least not in the short term and so passion to want to be part of the force that starts to change things should be integral in the mission statement of the various companies in this space. I will also advise for more collaboration instead of competition. There is a saying that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, then go with people. I think this is the right perspective to have in our country.