Finding a Sustainable Business Model for Screening and Treating Non-Communicable Diseases in South Africa (Human Sciences Research Council, SOUTH AFRICA)

The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) is a not-for-profit research organization that conducts large-scale social projects that contribute to the developmental goals of South Africa and the African continent. Established in 1968 as South Africa’s statutory research agency, HSRC has grown to become the largest dedicated research institute in the social sciences and humanities in Africa, informing public policy and helping to build capacity and infrastructure. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are the leading cause of mortality globally, causing more deaths than all other causes combined, striking hardest at the world’s low and middle-income populations. Despite the efforts of many research and nonprofit organizations to seek grant or donor funds to screen, consult and treat NCDs, a sustainable model does not exist. The goal of the GAP project was to leverage existing research to identify a sustainable community-based medical screening business model for HSRC that aimed to reduce the prevalence of NCDs in the community of Sweetwaters, South Africa, where HSRC had already performed extensive research. The project could serve as a viability study to expand into other regions within South Africa as well as other countries of the continent.

The GAP team hypothesized that the poverty and unemployment in the market would result in a limited ability to pay. The team also hypothesized that despite this, customers would still be willing to pay whatever they had, as health was a main priority. Danielle Bowers and Timothy Lawrence (both FEMBA Class of 2016) traveled to South Africa and conducted focus groups and personal interviews with potential customers in Sweetwaters to ascertain both willingness and ability to pay for both NCD screening and monthly medications. Experts, suppliers, alternate providers and funders were also interviewed. Over 85 in-person interviews were conducted with an additional 40 interviews taking place by phone and video chat. The team’s initial primary research identified that in the general population of low-income communities where NCDs are most prevalent, there is no ability to pay. Therefore, a subsidy would be necessary to fill the gap between the cost of the service and the revenue the business could generate.

The team’s recommendation was that HSRC should focus on mobile site screening and bundle it with a link to care, specifically pharmaceuticals, to optimize service value. Capital plus ongoing subsidy funding would still be needed in addition to a partnership with a parent company with screening and pharmaceutical resources. As business skills are not a core competency of HSRC, the GAP team recommended that it pursue a strategic partnership with a local organization that specializes in screening and prescribing monthly medications to reduce the cost of the service and the subsidy amount required. Such a partnership would also provide jobs and training for local residents of low-income communities.

The team brought a very different skill set to the table. This was not just an academic exercise but really something that could have an impact. The Global Access Program has traditionally focused on supporting small-to-medium-sized technology firms. This was the first GAP project in South Africa and the first with a nonprofit client — a wonderful example of GAP students using their business school skills and knowledge to make a difference.