The African health sector is a tricky sector to play in because of years of underfunding, lack of infrastructure and exit of promising practitioners to greener pastures. Until recently, the health-tech sector has not fared any better. But the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an upsurge of investments in the sector.
African countries are yet to catch up with the West in solving key health problems but that narrative is quickly changing as bold innovators are treading on paths that were previously uncharted.
Nguvu Health — an on-demand teletherapy platform for Africans both at home and in the diaspora — is doing what entrepreneurs, in years gone by, would avoid; they are enabling a mentally strong Africa at affordable rates.
Mental health is a sensitive issue in Nigeria (and across Africa) as conversations around it are held in hushed tones. An average African would rather keep quiet than seek medical advice if he or any of his relatives has a mental condition. No one wants the stigma of being associated with a person who is a "Yaba left patient".
So it was fascinating to catch up with Nguvu Health's co-founder, Juliet Odumosu, she shared insights on how the startup is addressing this problem that has been previously misunderstood or point-blank ignored. The conversation has been edited lightly for clarity.
Why a mental health start-up in a health space that is still underfunded?
A major characteristic of millennials and Gen Z is that we are much more outspoken compared to previous generations. These generations are able to speak more about the importance of mental health. The Covid-19 pandemic also let the cat out of the bag and made it quite difficult to turn a blind eye to the increasing mental health cases.
Before it was easy to ignore but the pandemic saw it spiral. Now, it is up to us to take a stand and do something about it. As a result of the pandemic, there has been an accelerated impact in terms of funding in the health space. There's a slight shift in the allocation of funding as health start-ups are also getting funds alongside other technological start-ups.
Nguvu means strength in Swahili. How did you come up with the name and what inspired it?
Swahili is the most spoken language in Africa, and Nguvu health is an African focused start-up (Africans in Africa and in diaspora), not only Nigeria. A local Nigerian name would have limited our reach. We want to create an Africa, where all Africans are mentally strong.
How does Nguvu work for users and for practitioners?
Mobile phones have become a vital part of our lives as humans. We take it everywhere we go and it is the most personal gadget we use. So it only makes sense that we create a tele-therapy product. All users have to do is go on Play-store, download the app and sign up.
If you want a therapy session, you answer a quick assessment, pick a therapist, schedule your video or text therapy session and proceed to pay for your session for as low as ₦3000.
Our weekly subscription plan for Chat therapy is ₦3,000, monthly costs ₦10,000 and the plan for three months costs ₦27,000 while a year goes for ₦100,000. While a session of video therapy is ₦7500 and 4 sessions of video therapy is ₦27,000.
Some of the non-paid features users can access are free mental health screenings which are not diagnostic but indicative. The screenings can tell you the level of depression, anxiety, alcohol use, substance and PTSD.
There's also a free ranting community. When you are going through stress or experiencing burnout and you want to let it out. Rather than going on social media to rant and have people offer unsolicited and unproven advice, you can come to Nguvu health's safe haven - Rant room. Here, you'd get mature and professional advice from experienced practitioners.
You can decide if you want viewers to comment or not comment on the post. You can also decide to be anonymous or display your name. Users also get daily posts on education, affirmations and how to develop mental strength. You can also gift your family and friends a therapy session. There's also a personal diary where users can say things which they want to get off their chest.
Practitioners can also sign up on the app as a therapist. However, before you can qualify as a therapist you'd have to be a Clinical Psychologist with an MBA degree and 2years working experience. Therapists earn 70% from any session they take. It also gives visibility to the therapist, as they get to practice with clients across Africa.
You got into Google Start-up Accelerator Africa barely 6 months after launch. How has the program contributed to your development as a start-up?
We were lucky to be a part of the selected start-ups to take part in the Google Start-up Accelerator Africa. The Accelerator program was a validation of the steps we've taken even before the program and where we are headed.
Some impacts of the accelerator program include mentorship sessions (on growing a start-up, funding, marketing and pitch deck preparation to what investors are looking for), introductions to Venture Capitalist and other influential people in the health and tech ecosystem. The program also gave us increased visibility within the investment space.
What's the current range of subscribers on the app?
Currently we have close to 7,000 users and we are looking at reaching 50,000 users before the end of the year. We've had over 2,000 sessions that have been taken and over 3,500 free screening sessions have been taken by users. Nguvu Health is not one year old yet.
How has getting funds been so far, what are the funding challenges you've faced?
We recently closed an angel round last year and we are looking to raise a seed funding for the company later this year. Mental health is a new market and we are the pathfinder in that niche in the whole of Africa. Nguvu Health has grown on team funds. In the first few months, we didn't pay anybody. The team were people who believed in what Nguvu health was doing so they were willing to work without pay in the first few months.
What are Nguvu Health's broad plans to ensure a mentally strong Africa?Our plan is to ensure every African is educated on the importance of mental health and to sensitise Africans on how to develop a strong mental health. We also want to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health in this part of the world.
Africans need to know that not all mental health cases are chronic yet, and it is not a taboo. We want to break those wrong preconceived notions African have about mental illnesses. Nguvu Health wants to guide therapists and equip them with the tools and resources to enable them to serve clients better. We also plan to deliver mental health sessions to Africans at the most affordable rate possible.
What would success mean for Nguvu Health?
Success for Nguvu health would be when therapy becomes a widely accepted norm in Africa. It would be when Asante, Mensah, Bola, Umar, or Saed is depressed or experiencing some form of mental health illness, they know by intuition that the next thing to do is see a professional Clinical Psychologist. Where Africans won't be stigmatised for seeing a Psychologist. When Africans can reach into their phones, log in to their app and start their therapy sessions.
N.B: Yaba Left is an alias for Federal Neuro-Psychiatrist hospital in Yaba, Lagos, Nigeria.