June 8, 2023 in Africa

Solidarity and Fraternity: The Healthtech Startup Straddling Borders

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Bola Bardet lost her father to hypertension. In December 2017, while returning from a family holiday, Bola saw an SMS from her mother telling her to call urgently. Plummeting back down to reality from her trip, Bola learnt that her father was not only in bad health, but that he could not finance his hypertension medical bills.

It was at this time that Bola became invested in the global healthcare system. She realized that some insurance companies were rejecting the people who most needed healthcare. Bola was even more surprised to learn that this represented the majority of the population, and contrasted with her opinion that everyone deserves good healthcare.

Money doesn’t guarantee healthcare

“The World Bank estimates that US 95.6B is sent to Africa every year to care for family members,” says startup founder Bola. “Of that, US 20B is intended for healthcare. But money isn’t guaranteed to translate into healthcare, and only 20% of that US 20B was being used appropriately, so many people stopped sending money.” People financing their relatives’ healthcare in Bola’s home country Benin, from her new home in France, felt like their financial gifts were not funding the right things.

Bola decided to change this. Her passion for entrepreneurship paired with her resilience, brought Bola to lead a medical venture, Susu, which empowers people who want to help their family members overseas. 

Susu means solidarity in Yoruba, the startup founder’s native language. It comes from “Esusu” which is what informal saving groups are called by the unbanked in Africa.

Susu facilitates sponsors who wish to fund healthcare for their relatives in Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and France. The sender can be sure their money is being used wisely, and beneficiaries have access to Susu’s verified network of medical professionals.

Blog_Susu_Solidarity and Fraternity The Healthtech Startup Straddling BordersHealth is about more than medicine

Since beneficiaries can be any age and not everyone is tech savvy, Susu’s packages are reinforced on three fronts: the curative element, education, and on-demand support. This means that beneficiaries can see a doctor or nurse, read articles or watch videos on the subject, and use a chat function that connects them directly to specialized doctors, nurses, and medical teams, plus courtesy check-in calls. The latter is crucial to ensure even tech-wary users get personalized attention.

So while the beneficiary receives healthcare, they can also access lifestyle information that is tailored to their needs, created by Susu. In Bola’s words: “Healthcare is about more than taking medicine.”

Bola, of course, thought about literacy and disabilities, developing informative videos to stand in for PDFs for those who are not literate, and enabling the chat to work with voice notes in both directions. This is made possible thanks to a large customer care team.

Privacy and transparency

More than a buzzword for Susu, transparency drives the system. “Transparency is important for both payers and beneficiaries but does not override anyone’s right to privacy. The platform allows end-to-end tracking of the financial and healthcare journey if the beneficiary consents to this. Moreover, data exchanged in appointments is subject to patient-doctor confidentiality.”

Susu gives the sponsor visibility of appointments and what the money is going towards, while beneficiaries are respected and protected.

Testing and proving business validity

Unsurprisingly, Bola’s vision has turned heads. Susu joined Village Capital’s accelerator Financial Inclusion for Migrants in 2023 and, as a dual-nationality and dual-cultured startup founder, Bola was delighted to connect with a program supporting migrants that bridge the Western and African world. Bola’s team counts 10 nationalities and Susu’s essence straddles cultures. “This was the first program that fits this hybrid DNA. I applied as soon as I heard about it!”

As we know, few healthcare startups survive without external financing and mentorship. Susu is no exception and, so far, fundraising has been the biggest challenge for Bola specifically. “While it diverts a lot of time away from the main business, it is important so that I can continue to build this product that is uniting cultures and geographies.”

Today, Susu’s October 2022 funding round, investor-driven support, and the accelerator’s input are all being put to good use. Susu’s first funding round has been used to hire its tech team. Their now-CTO has been hiring developers, and Bola was able to open doors for Susu in Cameroon and Senegal, adding these two countries to the original model in France and the Côte d’Ivoire.

Expanding into more countries was key to continued success. “We had to show that Susu would work in other countries, that it’s scalable, and that fixed costs would be comparable.”

Some of Susu’s investors were concerned that comparable medical services would not even be available in the countries Bola’s team was targeting, so she and her team had to show the model had potential internationally to attract impact accelerators and investors.

Exacting enrollment of medical staff

Of course, the top task that needed to be done in-country was the recruitment of medical teams. This will likely always be an on-the-ground job, in which Susu persuades medical staff to join their mission and also evaluate the professionals on what services they will be listed for in the platform.

“Our screening process filters only qualified professionals who are well equipped and can boast a personality match.” This rigorous, currently in-person, evaluation ensures all the medical staff meet medical requirements and surpass bedside-manner expectations. “They are representing the Susu brand as well,” explains Bola.

The future of Susu

Looking forward, Bola plans to hire heavily in Africa to staff the care centers, and recruit even more medical professionals, but her tech team would likely expand within France where their CTO resides.

“We need to ramp up our entry to francophone markets, then the Northern and anglophone parts of Africa next,” says Bola. “As a pan-African company, our model would be replicable across the whole continent.”

Bola Bardet, Founder and CEO at Susu

Laying a sound foundation for her InsurTech startup, Bola Bardet is an Executive MBA graduate of HEC Paris. She created Susu aiming to improve the quality of life for Africans through healthcare.

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