Plastic waste littered on roads and in drainages is not uncommon in Nigeria. The recycling and waste management system in the country is inefficient. Plastic waste makes up 2.5 million tonnes of the total 32 million tonnes of waste generated in the country annually. Indiscriminate plastic disposal and poor waste management pose risks to the environment and human health. Plastics stuck in drainage systems are fertile ground for mosquitoes to breed. Nigeria alone accounts for 31.9 per cent of all malaria deaths worldwide.
In 2019, healthcare accounted for six per cent of average household spending in Nigeria. Health insurance could help improve access to healthcare, but people are too poor for that; over 82 million Nigerians live on less than $1.90 per day. Given the stats on poverty, it is not surprising that over 170 million Nigerians are without health insurance today.
In a bid to fill this gap with an effective alternative and a deviation from the convention that has proven ineffective, Nonso Oprum came up with Soso Care. Soso Care is a micro mobile health insurance startup that allows Nigerians to pay for insurance with recyclables. In this interview with Ventures Africa, Nonso Opurum discusses what influenced the business, challenges, and the place of insurtech in the health sector.
Kindly introduce yourself.
My name is Nonso Oprum, the founder and chief growth leader of SOSO Care. Soso Care provides health insurance for millions of people living below the poverty line. Since they cannot afford to pay cash for health insurance, they pay with recyclables or any other mode of payment.
What inspired you to start Soso Care?
Soso Care officially launched in October 2019. However, there was a pilot in July of that year. I was working on telemedicine solutions before I started this. One of the things I learned then was that Africa wasn’t ready for telemedicine. Initially, we wanted to bridge the gap in health care access so that the poor could stay in remote communities and access doctors online. But that is practically impossible because they do not even have smartphones.
I was on my way to Geneva for a program when I noticed some kids picking plastics while waiting for a taxi at a bus stop in Nigeria. They claimed the plastics were for their mother, who exchanges them for herbs at a local herb store. This caught my attention. We were trying to address the issue of low-income people’s lack of access to health care, and here are people who have found alternative ways of accessing traditional drugs. I figured plastic was a viable way to solve the problem, and I researched extensively about plastics. Plastic waste is a major issue in Nigeria, and insurance penetration is also low. I figured it’s best to create a system where people could pay cash or use recyclables to offset their health insurance.
The procedure has been simple. We used to have centres, but we’re decentralizing now. We currently have 19 collection centres, but by the end of the year, we hope to have 600 to 700 centres. Users donate recyclables across our drop-off centres to redeem a premium plan. The waste is sold and converted into funds used to process their insurance premium and give them access to health care across over 1,000 hospital networks.
What has acceptance been like from Nigerians?
We have had a significant response from users, and we hope to add additional 70,000 people to the number of customers. We launched with collecting just plastics, but we started to look into other recyclable items like old zincs and paper. We signed an agreement with a university to take their paper waste. Farmers also approach us to give agricultural produce in exchange for our services. Trust is a big problem in insurance. People think it is expensive and won’t work. But the moment they can access care for the first time, even if in exchange for plastic, it would be easier for them to pay cash the next time because we have earned their trust.
What are the challenges you face, and how is the regulation in the insurtech space?
The biggest problem has always been accessing capital. Capital is necessary to acquire the right talent and invest in aggressive marketing. We can’t expand to new cities unless we have money. Because of Covid-19, we did nothing in 2020. Collecting recyclables was difficult; we had to be cautious to avoid physical contact. The price of plastic was also volatile at the time.
In terms of regulation, the Nigerian government has been quite supportive. We have gotten a lot of support from the Ministry of Health and insurance regulators in Nigeria. We also have the backing of some other prominent institutions since what we are doing is focused on impact. In terms of regulation and policy, I think we have enjoyed more support from the government on various levels.
What role does insurtech play in Nigeria’s health sector?
You can’t talk about economic growth and development without addressing people’s access to healthcare. Because of the poverty level in Nigeria, many people can’t pay for insurance. Less than 15 per cent of Nigerians have insurance. They must rely on out-of-pocket expenses, traditional drugs, and self-medication because they cannot afford insurance.
Insurance is an old industry where people pay cash to get a premium, but this is not working, hence the low penetration across Africa. We had to look at how we could embed this in existing solutions. The only thing you could leverage to do that is technology. We provide seamless cover using our agent’s interface to onboard users in disconnected communities. We’re launching USSD in March to deepen access in communities. When you leverage technology, you cut costs across the value chain.
In how many states of the federation are you operational?
We have operations in Abuja, Abia, and Kaduna. We will soon be deploying in Port-Harcourt. Ibadan is another state we are looking into.
Why not Lagos?
We are interested in Lagos, but we are trying to take it one step at a time. Lagos is undoubtedly in the works. Lagos is a market of over 20 million people, and there is no way to avoid such a large market. We want to launch in a specific location and provide people with an effective and efficient solution in real-time.
How would you describe your impact so far?
I measure our impact in different ways. We are creating jobs for agents who collect these wastes across communities. We have about 20 of them currently, and we are looking at about 600 by the end of the year. We also measure impact from the health angle. Our ability to link recyclables to health care solves so many problems. In doing so, we improve access to healthcare and reduce environmental pollution. We are ensuring sanitation and changing public behaviour around recycling. In some ways, we are helping people’s finances because they don’t have to use their little income to offset their medical bills when they visit the hospital. We are excited about the partnership we plan to launch this year, which will onboard 70, 000 people for insurance and approximately 700 agents across the country.
What diseases does the premium subscription cover?
It covers basic health care, including inpatient and outpatient care. It also covers minor surgery, lab tests, and medications.
What are your prospects for the future?
We hope to scale across Nigeria. Our metrics for projected growth this year is huge. We hope to service the proposed 70, 000 customers from our partnership and onboard an additional 200,000 to 300,000 people in the next two to three years.
We work in collaboration with the government of Bangladesh, which provided us with funding last year. Bangladesh, like Nigeria, is a country of 100 million people with limited access to healthcare and a recycling problem. The government is excited about what we are doing and is willing to assist us in different ways. We want to replicate what we are doing here in Asia. We hope to help countries in need of urgent health care intervention. Recycling solves their issues.
Interview by Agbetiloye Adekunle