In this latest LEAN IN Equity & Sustainability instalment, we speak with Dr Mercy Ofuya, an entrepreneur in Healthcare in Nigeria.
Mercy, tell us about your background.
I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, and my primary school was the University of Lagos Staff School on the Teaching Hospital campus. When I was about seven years old, I wanted to be a doctor as I admired the medical students and doctors I saw around, dressed in white clinical coats.
I attended the FGGC Benin City for secondary school, a selective government-funded boarding school for girls. While in high school, I wanted to study architecture or engineering, as I loved technical drawing and physics. I changed my mind again, and I got into university initially to study Dentistry. I didn’t make the grades to progress to the second year, so I had to withdraw and change department to Optometry as it had physics components.
In my final year, while studying the analytical modules and working on my dissertation, I fell in love with research and statistics, so after practising optometry for a few years, I went on to study medical statistics.
What do you do today, and what inspired your decision to work in this role?
I am a medical statistician, and I lead a non-profit, CupArise. Currently, alongside a team of experts who volunteer their time, I am working on our main project, Mami, a mobile app and SMS service that aims to help women living in Nigeria identify breast cancer symptoms and connect with care. In 2019, when my friend died of cancer, it hit so close to home, and I recalled others who had also died within a year of diagnosis.
I researched and discovered that at least seven in 10 breast cancer patients in low-income countries like Nigeria die prematurely, primarily because they present themselves to the clinic late when the illness has advanced, and treatments have less benefit.
This inspired me to work on creating platforms to address some of the barriers to early detection of breast cancer by enhancing awareness of the disease and supporting access to care, thereby empowering women to seek medical help early and make timely informed decisions.
Beyond breast cancer, it’s about empowering women with facts and hopes as they make decisions, so they don’t feel helpless. I am passionate about women doing well, and I believe that for a disease that is treatable if detected at an early stage, where a woman lives should not determine whether she dies or survives.
Can you tell us more about the Mami app and why you became an entrepreneur?
While preparing dinner one evening, I listened to a YouTube video by Melinda Gates; she spoke about how NGOs can learn from Coca Cola, and she mentioned that no matter how remote a village, you would always find Coca Cola drinks there.
That got me thinking, and I asked myself, what is the one tool easily accessible to most low-income countries irrespective of social and economic status, lack of water or power supply even in remote villages? Mobile phones!
Since breast cancer is symptomatic and many patients are diagnosed early in high-income countries after noticing symptoms, I began to think of how we could raise awareness and understanding of the symptoms quickly in an accessible and convenient way in low-income countries.
When I initially had the idea, I thought it would be a one-off project, and I didn’t even think of entrepreneurship. I just wanted to contribute to solving a problem. However, I kept getting questions on sustainability in different contexts and the need for an end-to-end solution – from identifying a symptom to presenting in a clinic. As I gained more clarity and spoke with more people, it began to take on a life of its own.
We’re currently building the prototype for Mami and look forward to sharing the beta version soon and learning from users’ feedback. We hope that Mami will help enhance rates of early presentation in clinics and, consequently, early detection, which could potentially impact outcomes.
Do you ever struggle with confidence? How do you overcome it?
At different stages, I have felt scared or experienced self-doubt, and in tackling this, I first acknowledge the feeling and face it head-on. Depending on the situation, some approaches include positive affirmations, recalling, and celebrating past and present achievements. In addition, I would share my thoughts with someone I trust, such as one of my mentors.
Have you experienced any challenges as a woman?
I have received support from my husband, family, and friends, which has really helped me both mentally and practically. Sometimes, I have felt overwhelmed. Connecting with other women leaders has been helpful in navigating the day-to-day practicalities and creating ‘harmony’ between working to build a start-up and caring for my young family.
Also, incorporating rest times in my schedule, including taking short breaks for as little as five-ten minutes to focus my mind and take deep breaths, help me to stay mindfully present when I am with my children.
What success or achievement means to you?
While I deeply appreciate the awards and certificates I’ve attained over the years and how they encourage me to do more, success for me is fulfilling my purpose through everything I do and making a positive impact on everyone I meet every day, including situations that we may consider ordinary. Success is a journey and the cumulative experience of living intentionally every day. Waking up each morning is another opportunity to make a difference.
What advice would you give to women entering the tech field/entrepreneurship?
When I initially had the idea, I hesitated because I didn’t have a background in mobile technology. Once I realised that I didn’t need to know every aspect of mobile tech before starting, I took the first step, and I’m so glad I did. While you don’t need to have a tech background, you need to identify the knowledge gaps and then be strategic about taking steps to fill them. Identify what you need to learn to do by yourself and what you can outsource.
I am new to the technology sector, and it’s been a continuous learning process, so I would say take one step at a time. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, as it’s just another opportunity to learn not to do something a certain way.
The first step is to validate your idea by devoting time to consciously learning about the problem you want to solve. By speaking with people, including your potential users and stakeholders, you learn a lot and validate your idea at the same time. This will influence the design of the product or service you want to create while using a ‘lean approach’. Learning about the problem is continuous, so be open to the iterative process.
Where would you like to be or do in five- or ten years?
I envision myself making a positive impact on women’s health outcomes in low-income countries through my contributions to cancer control and being an inspiration to people who have the desire to make a difference in their communities.