VillageReach, a tiny nonprofit in Fremont, blends technology and entrepreneurship to deliver vaccines and energy to some of the least-developed areas in the world.
How did a tiny nonprofit in Fremont attract the attention of a global pharmaceutical giant, a multinational beverage company and governments from India to Senegal, as well as a $1.4 million investment by a European venture fund?
Starting in Mozambique, VillageReach figured out how to get health care into the heart of remote communities that others had not managed to reach — the so-called “last mile” — and pay for it with a for-profit energy business.
Headed by former software and wireless executives, VillageReach exemplifies the kind of philanthropic work Seattle is becoming known for — one that blends technology and entrepreneurship to solve seemingly entrenched global health problems.
With billions of dollars being spent to develop new vaccines, bridging the last mile can mean the difference between lifesaving drugs getting stuck in a bottleneck or reaching the people who need them most.
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“If you can’t get the current vaccines through the channel, how can you get the new ones out there?” asked John Beale, strategic development director at the 12-person nonprofit.
To deliver and track the vaccines in remote settings, VillageReach used a logistics model similar to the way UPS delivers packages. In fact, VillageReach hired a veteran UPS employee to help improve its operations and industry partnerships.
In developing countries, medical supplies from big donors such as UNICEF typically reach the capital or nearest port city, and national authorities distribute them as far as the provinces. But that’s where they sit, waiting to be picked up by local health workers — when they have the time and transportation, said VillageReach President Allen Wilcox.
“It’s as if your mail is only delivered up to Olympia,” he said.
VillageReach built a network of dedicated distributors in Mozambique, freeing up health workers to focus on treating patients. It created a system to track supplies and immunizations and started a company to supply energy to the health clinics.
The enterprise worked with the government to set up a fleet of seven trucks and seven field coordinators whose sole job is to get vaccines, equipment and medicines to 261 rural health centers. It helped acquire some of the vehicles initially, but the trucks are owned and operated by the government health authority.
The field coordinators return to one of two central offices that have laptops and Internet access, and upload information into an online database. They report what supplies were distributed, how many vaccines were given out and how much inventory was left.
VillageReach has been able to assemble a detailed picture of inventory at each health center with updates every two weeks, said Beale, “so we can see the trends, for better or worse.”
VillageReach can then share the online data with partners in Seattle and with health-policy makers in Geneva. This management-information system that VillageReach has developed is receiving an award this week from the Technology Museum of Innovation in Silicon Valley.
Cars, even bikes rare
In Mozambique, one of the poorest and least-developed countries in the world, three-quarters of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day and the average life expectancy is 50. VillageReach focused on rural northern provinces, where cars and even bicycles are rare, and people walk for miles to reach medical care.
It’s important they find something at the end of the road, said Beale. “The greatest benefit we provide is community confidence in the health-care system,” he said.
The program has helped boost rates of standard childhood diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccinations from 68 percent to 95 percent, according to an independent study. The nonprofit supports its work with VidaGas, a propane-gas business that also provides much-needed refrigeration for the medicine.
In Malawi, VillageReach is working on a program to strengthen the health system using mobile phones to manage information about emergency transportation, supplies, disease diagnosis and treatment.
The vital role of energy
VillageReach started in 2000 when Cameroon-born Blaise Judja-Sato, who was working for wireless entrepreneur Craig McCaw, went to Mozambique to help with relief efforts after a devastating flood. After seeing how poor roads and other infrastructure problems prevented flood victims from receiving aid, he founded VillageReach with former colleague Craig Nakagawa.
The population of northern Mozambique lives largely off the electrical grid. Less than 10 percent of the country has electricity, so most people cook and heat with charcoal or wood.
VillageReach needed energy for critical health services such as sterilizing equipment, helping mothers through childbirth at night and keeping vaccines cold. Propane was the only viable fuel option.
Being entrepreneurs, they launched a company to supply it themselves. The alternative would have been to use donations to buy propane, Beale said, but once those dollars ran out, so would the energy upon which the health system depended. “The whole program would not be sustainable,” he said.
Fueled by propane
In 2002 VillageReach partnered with a local nonprofit, the Foundation for Community Development, to start VidaGas and sell gas distributed by trucks to villages, offering a cleaner alternative to charcoal. VidaGas is now the largest propane distributor in northern Mozambique. Besides supplying energy for the health system, it’s fueling the hotel and tourist industries, small retailers and family homes.
VillageReach is holding up VidaGas as an example of a successful business that supports a humanitarian mission. Harvard Business School recently published a study of its model for integrating global health programs with social businesses to benefit remote communities.
Luxembourg-based Oasis Fund announced Tuesday it will make a $1.4 million investment in VidaGas, which will allow it to expand its service to more customers and to build more filling stations.
VillageReach has been hired by the World Health Organization and Seattle-based PATH for a pilot project in Senegal, and by a large pharmaceutical company to conduct a health program in a remote part of India. The nonprofit is also working with a multinational beverage maker to use its vast transport networks to help distribute medical supplies.
Its goal is nothing short of a sea change in global health practices.
“What is unique about VillageReach,” said Wilcox, the nonprofit’s president, “is we are trying to enhance systems that exist and leave behind a legacy of infrastructure improvements to allow the system to sustain itself.”
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org