The Georgetown Graduate Student Who Is Revolutionizing Health Care in Nigeria

Jennie Nwokoye is not your average graduate student. For starters, she already has multiple degrees and has worked for the Secret Service, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, Deloitte, and Amazon. Currently studying for her master’s in systems engineering at Georgetown University, she’s now adding a new title to her résumé: founder. Having personally experienced how hard it is to get quality health care in Nigeria during her youth, Nwokoye conceived of Clafiya, a platform that allows anyone in Nigeria with a standard mobile phone to request primary care and receive it in the comfort of their own home. She took a moment away from her studies and launching Clafiya to talk about overcoming imposter syndrome, using artificial intelligence to identify outbreaks of emerging disease, and curing social inequity.

Can you tell us about the company and why you created it?

Clafiya was co-founded by Itoro Inoyo and me. It is a mobile-phone platform that connects patients in Nigeria to community health workers who provide home-based primary care services. The name means community wellness — “C” for community, and “lafiya,” which translates to “wellness” in Hausa, one of the major languages in Nigeria.

Patients dial a code on their phone’s keypad to register, indicate they need care, and pay for that care. We designed the tech that way to reach the most people possible. Nigeria is a big country — the population is about 200 million people — but most people just have access to a regular mobile phone. Internet access is limited and expensive. Allowing people to use their mobile keypad rather than requiring that they use the internet gives us a much wider reach and a more inclusive experience.

I got the idea from my own childhood in Nigeria. I was born in the U.S., but my parents moved the family to Nigeria when I was 8 years old. My mother is a nurse, and I remember all the inefficiencies in the health care system. I was there during some formative years — from 8 to 14 — and there were several times where either I was seeking health care and couldn’t find it or my sisters were in emergency situations and we didn’t really know what to do. There wasn’t anything like 911 in Nigeria, and you run into long wait times and facilities with insufficient equipment. The result is you’re spending time and money trying to get access to health care without actually receiving it.

Growing up, I knew that if I were to have any impact on this earth, it should be improving access to primary health care in Nigeria, but I just didn’t know how to address the problem. I didn’t want to go to medical school. I didn’t think I was going to solve that problem by becoming a doctor and finding myself in a hospital setting. From the patient’s perspective, there are so many steps that need to happen before you even make it to the hospital. That’s not where the problem begins. I was more interested in the big picture — identifying and addressing all those steps before the hospital, and making it easier for people to get the care that they need.

Instead of going to medical school, I got a master’s in forensic science, which led to work with the Secret Service, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense. And it was while I was working at the Pacific Northwest National Lab that someone introduced me to systems thinking. It was so inspiring. You can break down any difficult problem, no matter how complex, step by step. That was when I began thinking about approaching health care in Nigeria from a systems-engineering perspective.

What do you mean by solving the problem from a systems-engineering perspective?

Systems engineering is about looking at the big picture, and at a fundamental level, everything in society begins with health. If you’re not healthy, you can’t go to school and get an education, you can’t work and earn an income, and you can’t support a family and have a high quality of life. It all starts with health. Understanding how all those interconnected layers work together is the work of systems engineering.

For example, in the United States, for the most part, there is a robust health care system that keeps us healthy enough to go to school or work. But in Nigeria, you can’t get consistent access to health care. If you get sick and miss a significant amount of school because you can’t access health care, it sets you back in your studies. Factor in other challenges, like constant teacher strikes and power outages, and you may be forced to repeat that school year. This also holds your family back, because someone may have to stay home from work to help care for you. So you begin to see how something as simple as access to health care indirectly affects things like education, employment, families, and society at large. Health is paramount.

What I really like about systems engineering is that it helps you take a step back and consider how to solve big societal problems. What other systems are at play, inhibiting or promoting the solution you are looking for?

Looking at the Nigerian health care system this way, I started doing a lot of research into the various levels of health care — from primary to secondary to tertiary. Secondary and tertiary medical facilities often require travel and they can cost a lot more. Meanwhile, bad infrastructure itself can get in the way. Imagine trying to get to a hospital across town when the roads are notoriously in disrepair and packed with traffic. Unless your problem is serious, you may not go at all.

The solution is a community approach — utilizing health workers embedded in your immediate community. These people are already pillars of the health care system in their communities. They’re well-known community leaders. So Clafiya creates a way to connect them to patients in their local neighborhoods so they can provide services. And over time, we hope this will make the entire community healthier.

Looking ahead, we’re already able to imagine using Clafiya’s predictive analytics to identify outbreaks of emerging disease, empowering health officials to redirect much-needed resources to impacted areas.

So you launched a high-tech health care platform in Nigeria while simultaneously working full-time and studying for your degree in systems engineering. Do you ever sleep?

I’m not this person who just likes to sit in the classroom and study. I’m really hoping to make a broad impact beyond school. I think of education as a means to an end — a platform from which I can dive deep into some of the things that I really want to accomplish in my life. One of my most inspiring moments yet came while we were testing Clafiya with actual users in Nigeria. One of them said, “Oh my gosh! This is something we’ve all been waiting for. This is like the 911 of Nigeria!” Seeing that real-world impact was huge for me.

But what really inspires me are the entrepreneurs in Africa who are making things out of nothing. Some of the most innovative ideas I’ve seen have come from people trying to address very complex problems with very few resources. I’m fortunate to have this vantage point here in the United States where we have a lot of resources — where, for example, I’m able to continue with my graduate research in systems engineering at leading universities like Georgetown and George Washington, where I’ve been admitted to study for my PhD. In contrast, so many African entrepreneurs don’t have these opportunities, yet they’re still coming up with elegant solutions. They’re still succeeding. Witnessing that is such an inspiration. That’s what pushes me to keep going.

Looking ahead, what kind of legacy do you picture yourself building — and do you have any advice for others seeking to build a legacy of their own?

I want my legacy to transcend generations. Take health care: Just by helping someone get access to care, you’re helping generations after them track their medical history. That is huge. In my family, for example, we don’t have that advantage. We’re seeing medical ailments come up, but we don’t have that medical history so we don’t know where those ailments are coming from. Having access to that information allows you and future generations to be proactive about your decisions and your health.

And I don’t only want to make an impact in health care. I want to apply what I’m learning in systems engineering to other industries. I want to uplift the lives of Africans all over the continent — financially, educationally, with food security, and more.

As for advice, there are two lessons I would pass on to other entrepreneurs looking to build something that lasts.

First, know your why. My leadership coach, Joan van den Brink, helped me synthesize my reason for being, which inspired Clafiya. Know the why behind what you’re doing, and hold on to that. It will keep you focused when things get hard. There are so many things I want to accomplish in Africa, but staying focused on my why with Clafiya — delivering access to primary health care — has kept me on track.

Second, just start. I guarantee you that once you put yourself out there, people you never expected will come out to help you. Things will happen for you. Doors will open. When I put myself out there, one of the people I received encouragement from was Itoro Inoyo, someone with a lot of experience in global health, who even became my co-founder. You just have to take that initial step and put one foot in front of the other. Never underestimate the impact of taking one small step at a time.

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