For Nigeria’s high-flying doctor, Ola Orekunrin, being a part of the booming global air ambulance services industry presents opportunities to save lives as well as visit places she hasn’t seen before.
Orekunrin, a medical doctor and helicopter pilot, is the founder of Flying Doctors, an air ambulance service launched in Lagos to transport patients from areas with low levels of healthcare to those with well-appointed facilities offering better medical aid.
Over the years, the demand for her organization’s services has risen due to the healthcare challenges Nigeria faces. And there are many. On top of the list is the burden of infectious diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, followed by non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. The country has a high rate of trauma-related incidents such as accidents and violence.
According to national statistics, Nigeria has the highest number of deaths from road traffic accidents in the world.
For Orekunrin, her business presents an opportunity to fulfil her desire to serve. The motivation for the launch of her company, Flying Doctors, was the loss of her sister, who had tragically died for want of urgent care.
Today, Flying Doctors swiftly moves patients from across the African continent to some of the best healthcare destinations, saving thousands of lives in the process. The job means Orekunrin is constantly on the go.
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With so much time away from home and in the air, Orekunrin has become somewhat of an expert when it comes to the most exciting destinations to visit both for business and leisure on the African continent – and beyond.
“My favorite destination in the world right now is India,” she says.
“It is a place I spend a lot of time because we have a huge Indian diaspora in Nigeria and when they get sick, they usually request to be flown back home. So I have had a lot of experience with India. I think India is in the process of cracking healthcare. For example, they take the best medical students from the whole of India and put them in one hospital. This means the [number] of procedures that get done there are a lot and the advanced medicine that is practised there is equivalent or better than what you get in some first world countries,” she says.
But that is not the only reason Orekunrin is in love with the subcontinent.
“It is such a vast country that moving from state to state, you can find different types of productivity everywhere. In places like Bengaluru, everybody is running a startup and it’s like the Silicon Valley of India. You go to a place like Goa and that is like a beach resort and you go to Kerala and it is completely different like a spa resort with some sort of Indian medicine being practised and infused with conventional medicine. So it is an incredible country where you can find so much variety, culture, language, tribes and so many successful people coexisting together and identifying as Indians. I think that is another lesson that Nigerians can learn.”
Her favorite past-time in the country is getting her eyebrows threaded and going to remote oil and gas exploration sites.
“The companies there inspire me because I think about their [the companies’] history in terms of growing from a sole proprietorship to eventually growing into the biggest businesses in the world. It makes me think about Nigerian businesses; I run my own business but I also invest in other businesses as well,” says Orekunrin.
Within West Africa, Orekunrin’s favorite destination is Cape Verde. The country is particularly interesting for medical evacuations because it is made up of remote islands and the influx of tourists to that destination means medical logistics are in very high demand.
“It is four hours away from Nigeria and is a fusion of a lot of cultures; from South America, to Africa and European cultures all in one. I visit it frequently most of the time for work. I also really love the different food. I was born and brought up in England but always had a craving for Africa. My connection to Cape Verde is the closeness to Nigeria but also some of the similarities we share in terms of the food and the culture and the music and that is a strong connection.”
In the next few years, Orekunrin is hoping to grow her medical business into a pan-African player. She continues to look forward to the travel it will entail. For Orekunrin, the air ambulance business is all about saving lives. And being at the right place at the right time – for sick patients in need.