Mr Arnaud Biruta, happy to have you today. Please tell us about yourself and why you started Dot Pharma.
Hi Hamza, Thank you for inviting me to this discussion. DotPharma is a company founded and registered in Rwanda. Talking about DotPharma requires discussing the shared passion for the healthcare of its founders. The company was founded by three people with collaborative ideas, namely, myself, Roger NTAGANZWA, who holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science obtained from ULK (Kigali Independent University) and doing a master’s degree in Health informatics at the University of Rwanda. Arnaud Michel NIBARUTA who holds a bachelor’s degree in healthcare management from Southern New Hampshire University (Kepler Program) and doing a Master’s degree in development practice at Regis University, and lastly, Willine IKIREZI, a bachelor’s graduate in healthcare management concentration in global perspective at Southern New Hampshire University, Kepler program.
We all met with the idea of doing something that would help the Rwandan and, extensively, the African healthcare industry to level up. As modern entrepreneurship requires, a business should be a solution to a problem. With our experience and background, we met to define a problem we thought we could solve. We found that we often encountered people who could not get their medicine because they did not know the pharmacies with these prescribed medicines.
Some of them approached physically, others using phone calls. One day, one of our founders went to Kigali downtown to find treatment, and he left it at King Faisal hospital. The ideas arose into our minds on how these problems can be solved using the emerging technological world where smartphones look like an excellent solution to many challenges people face, including those in the healthcare industry as the central pillar of people’s living.
In addition, we often go to the clinic or any other healthcare facility, and the practitioner finds that there is a need for any medicine that is unavailable at that clinic. Therefore, the doctor immediately prescribes the medication for you to find at any pharmacy, with no guarantee that you will easily find it.
Why an online Pharmacy? And what has your journey been like thus far?
I would respond to this question from two perspectives. First, the identified problem would be solved by the availability of the needed products easier and more timely. We should have solved that problem by having a vast pharmacy where no products would be missing. However, I don’t know if that would be possible. That’s how the idea of digital technology came in. With an online platform, we can create a network of suppliers that allows us to get information about products from multiple suppliers, providing a wide range of choices and a high chance that the products will be missing.
Additionally, Rwanda, as a country, provides a favorable ecosystem for health tech. Indeed, previous examples demonstrated how far this country can go in promoting knowledge and tech to improve social services. This provides us with an excellent baseline to launch our initiative.
Dot Pharma was selected among the top 30 health tech startups in Norrsken and Novartis Foundation’s HealthTech Challenge. How important was this for you, and how do you plan to capitalize on this?
First, let me take this opportunity to thank Norrsken and Novartis for this noble initiative. I say this with gratitude because finding an incubation or acceleration program dedicated to health was tough. We have been in other programs where you were paired with businesses from pure tech, fintech, agritech, edtech, etc. While there are some aspects that startups share, each industry, and ultimately the health industry, has particularities that require additional efforts. I believe that the HealthTech Hub at Norrsken came to solve that problem. So, once again, thank you for having a particular thought for us.
It has been almost 4 months since the beta launch of the Norrsken & Norvatis health tech hub. What has this experience been like for you so far?
One of the best we have had! First, the space enables us to work productively with all the facilities provided. On that, no excuse for unproductivity! Second, the people! We have had valuable connections, and potential partnerships have been initiated. Additionally, as I said before, being together with other health tech startups provides an opportunity for frequent discussions that allow us to understand the challenges and opportunities in the industry. It became easy to gather feedback from people familiar with the health industry.
What challenges are you currently facing at Dot Pharma, and how are you planning to mitigate them?
One challenge that we have been facing is regulations. The health industry is highly regulated, and this is for a reason (because people’s health is not a negotiable matter). We go one step at a time, fulfilling all the requirements while leveraging information and connections to fasten the process. According to Lancet.com, WHO estimates that 50% of the drugs for sale online are fake, even though the online dispensaries might look legit. What measures does Dot Pharma put in place to make all medications dispensed meet the patient safety and pharmacy practice standards of the Republic of Rwanda
This is an important proof point indeed! Our partnership with suppliers and the professionals we work with addresses this. We cannot partner with suppliers unless they are certified and follow all drug and patient safety regulations. We also have our pharmacy professionals who are there to ensure that all the products are delivered with high consideration for quality.
With the huge drive for telemedicine in Africa, how does Dot Pharma uniquely position itself to win over the small Rwanda market?
Rwanda and Africa have a high promise for tech and telemedicine in general. In fact, we have the basic requirements that are people (which implies a knowledge base) and problems to solve. What’s needed after is to ensure that tools are developed and accurate to the local realities. Our unique position lies essentially in quality. We know the pain points for our users, and issues such as timeliness and accuracy are highly valued. However, we do not want to limit ourselves to the Rwandan market because what is being done here is practically needed in the whole region and continent.
With internet access & penetration still posing challenges in some parts of Rwanda. How does Dot Pharma make its services accessible?
We are aware of that and leveraging other ways that would require small to no bandwidth. For instance, now our users can order products using WhatsApp and Telegram. We also plan to make it possible for users to use a USSD code system in the future (stay tuned).
This is an important proof point indeed! Our partnership with suppliers and the professionals we work with addresses this. We can only partner with a supplier if they are already certified and follow all the drugs and patient safety regulations in place. We also have our pharmacy professionals who are there to ensure that all the products are delivered with high consideration for quality.
What does the future of your organization look like? Do you plan to expand to other African countries? And if yes, which countries are planning to scale to and why?
We hope and plan for a bright future. As I mentioned, we are not only targeting Rwanda, but we also want to expand to other African countries. In this phase, going until the end of 2023, we plan to have covered the whole area of Rwanda. Then, we will scale the region, especially in neighboring countries (Burundi, Eastern DRC, Tanzania, and Uganda). However, as I said, we must go one step at a time. Our main reason for the scale will be the need expressed in the areas we want to cover and the feasibility (such as the internet infrastructure).
Any last remarks for our audience?
A startup is nothing without users/ customers. I want to tell them that they are our priority. That’s one! Second, to my fellow startup-ers, keep doing the great job you started because Rwanda and Africa need you. One organization’s motto says, “African problems have solutions on the continent.” This is even more valid nowadays. Let’s keep solving problems!