Forbes magazine has just compiled its annual list of “20 Young Powerful African Women” and three Nigerian women made the list. The list, which illuminates the brightest stars and Africa’s most outstanding female game changers in their different fields, named the 20 African women who are under age 50 for their tremendous impact on the continent.
According to Forbes magazine, this generation of young African women is the most ambitious yet. They are eager to build industries, reform societies, save lives, rewrite history, and transform the continent.
The three Nigerian women who made the list have carved a niche for themselves in their various fields.
One of the three Nigerian women who made the list is Ola Orekunrin, a medical doctor and founder, The Flying Doctors.
The other two are; Tara Fela Durotoye, a beauty entrepreneur, founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), House of Tara International, and Folake Coker, a fashion designer and founder and Chief Executive Officer(CEO), Tiffany Amber.
Born and raised in England and of Nigerian parentage, Ola Orekunrin made history when at the age of 21, she became a medical doctor, thus becoming one of the youngest medical doctors in England. She started her medical degree at the University of York and passed with flying colours.
She was raised by foster white parents and went to a primary school run by Catholic nuns and her family often struggled to make ends meet. According to her, her foster mother, Dorren, was a tremendous influence in shaping her life.
Now at age 26, Orekunrin is a helicopter pilot and managing director of the Flying Doctors Nigeria Ltd, —West Africa’s first air ambulance service and a crucial link for critically injured people who, like many across the continent, are far away from hospital .
She was prompted to start the new venture after her younger sister died of anaemia. Her sister fell seriously ill while travelling in Nigeria. The 12-year-old girl, who had gone with relatives to one of the West African countries on holiday, needed urgent care but the nearest hospital couldn’t deal with her condition.
Orekunrin and her family immediately began looking for an air ambulance service to quickly transport the girl, a sickle cell anemia sufferer, to a more suitable healthcare facility. They searched all across West Africa but were stunned to find out there was none in the whole region.
“The nearest one at the time was in South Africa,” Orekunrin said. “They had a 12-hour activation time and by the time they were ready to activate, my sister was dead.”
“It was really a devastating time for me and I started thinking whether I should be in England talking about healthcare in Africa, or I should be in Africa dealing with healthcare and trying to do something about it.”
Orekunrin did the latter. Motivated by the tragic death of her sister, the young doctor decided to give up her high-flying job in the United Kingdom. She also abandoned her dreams of becoming the president of the British Medical Association and minister for the conservative party and moved to Nigeria to address the vital issue of urgent healthcare in Africa’s most populous country.
“Sometimes I would spend hours waiting in an office only to be told to come back the next day and then be turned down,” she said.
“Once, on my way to Ondo State, I was robbed of all I had and was told by my companion, who was travelling with me, not to speak or else my accent would give me away and be the basis for my kidnap. Even in the face of difficultly, I was able to get some funding in addition to what I had saved.
“The first time an air ambulance service was suggested for Nigeria was in 1960 and nothing was done about that idea. Having studied the models in Kenya, Libya, Uganda and India, coupled with my growing passion to help improve the health care system in Nigeria, which I believe is poor, I became even more determined to bring a similar service to Nigeria,” she said in an interview.
“There was a situation in Nigeria where there were only two or three very good hospitals and they were sometimes a two, three, four-day journey away from the places where incidents happened,” says Orekunrin. “We also have a huge oil and gas industry and at that time there was no coordinated system for moving people from the offshore environment to a hospital to receive treatment.”
Currently in its third year, the Lagos-based company has so far airlifted about 500 patients, using a fleet of planes and helicopters to rapidly move injured workers and critically ill people from remote areas to hospitals.
“From patients with road traffic trauma, to bomb blast injuries to gunshot wounds, we save lives by moving these patients and providing a high level of care en route,” says Orekunrin.
“Many of our roads are poorly maintained, so emergency transport by road during the day is difficult. At night, we have armed robbers on our major highways; coupled with poor lighting and poor state of the roads themselves, emergency transport by road is deadly for both patients and staff.”
“We are completely physician-led and adhere to the highest standards of medical practice supported by the East Anglian Air Ambulance in the United Kingdom. Our mission is simple—to provide the best possible standard of health care to all.”
When asked if poor Nigerians would be able to benefit from her service, she said: “What I do hope is that more states will take up cover as well as making it increasingly available to the common man. I know that as Nigeria starts to take health care reform more seriously, this will begin to happen.”