Next Generation Leaders
September 12, 2014 8:56 PM EDT

From behind the wheel of her car, Olamide Orekunrin calls out an apology as she makes a rapid reverse U-turn on a street in the Nigerian city of Lagos. “A call just came in for an emergency in [the northern Nigerian city] Kaduna,” says the 28-year-old trauma doctor. “We need to load the jet for a medevac.” With that, she speeds off toward the airport.

Quick reaction times are fundamental to Orekunrin’s work. The young British-Nigerian doctor is the founder and managing director of Flying Doctors Nigeria Ltd., a Lagos-based emergency air ambulance service, the first in the country.

In Nigeria, where road and telecommunication infrastructure can be poor, and rural clinics are often unprepared to deal with emergencies, Flying Doctors has become an essential service, airlifting patients from remote areas to hospitals, and providing care en route. It has helped hundreds of patients, particularly employees in the country’s oil and gas sector, who are among Flying Doctors’ top clients. (The for-profit company’s client list also includes governments across West Africa, wealthy individuals and corporations.)

London-born Orekunrin was inspired to launch the company in the aftermath of a tragedy that struck her family while she was in medical school in Britain. Her 12-year-old sister was on holiday in Nigeria and unexpectedly needed emergency treatment. The nearest clinic wasn’t able to treat her. The family scrambled to find an air ambulance to move her to an appropriate facility, but the quickest available service was several away in South Africa. Her sister had died by the time it was available.

“There was a real sense of grief and almost anger,” Orekunrin recalls of her sister’s death. “I wanted to come [to Nigeria] and try to contribute in some way or form to the emergency services here.”

It was a daunting task for a number of reasons. In Nigeria there are only four doctors per 10,000 citizens, compared with 25 doctors per 10,000 in the United States. After studying other models of emergency air ambulances in the U.K. and other parts of Africa, Orekunrin knew it would be the most effective way to help patients access the proper facilities in an expansive region that is often difficult to travel by car.

But getting Flying Doctors off the ground wasn’t easy. Nigeria is notoriously bureaucratic, ranking 147 out of 189 countries on the World Bank’s ease of doing business index. Orekunrin was met with layers of red tape.

She turned to Segun Demuren, a Nigerian aviation entrepreneur, for advice. He was impressed with her ideas, as well as her drive. “Her motivation was personal,” says Demuren, who is currently a Flying Doctors client. “It allows you to think outside the box and forces you to think of what is possible.”

Orekunrin began by leasing aircraft as a way to keep costs down. (Orekunrin declined to comment on how her business is funded.) She then established partnerships with hospitals across Africa and abroad and launched Flying Doctors Nigeria, nearly five years ago. The company now operates a fleet of 20 helicopters and jets and a staff that includes seven senior flight physicians.

On the back of her success with private clients Orekunrin has also worked toward improving medical care across Nigeria. Flying Doctors now provides scholarships to medical students and has established partnerships with rural non-governmental organizations, such as the Starlite Hopes Initiative, in Nigeria’s Delta state, which offers care to the poor.

She’s also concerned with improving access for air evacuations in dangerous regions, such as Borno State, home to Islamist militants Boko Haram. “There’d have to be lots of security,” she says of such missions, which are impossible at the moment. “And the way we land would also have to change. You can’t do a typical landing where you start your descent early because there’s a risk of anti-aircraft fire.”

Orekunrin hopes to keep finding new ways to improve medical services in Nigeria. The young doctor knows there are challenges ahead, but as she’s already shown, not even the sky is the limit.

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