Read the Conversation
EF: What was the mission you set for yourself when appointed in December 2020, in the middle of a pandemic?
AK: Despite the fact we were in the middle of a pandemic, we virtually set up a new company –a huge challenge- and we did it in less than six months. Organon went live globally on June the 3rd, so between January and June, we had to make the company stand up on its own –independently from Merck & MSD. Our three key objectives at that time, which I believe we managed to achieve quite successfully, were:
i) Incorporate the people who had been with MSD 10, 15 or 20 years. It was quite a challenge for them to adopt a new culture and understand our vision, considering it all had to be done on a virtual basis, but bringing people to join our journey was a top priority.
ii) Set up systems processes to support the new organization. We wanted new agility, which meant some processes had to be done from scratch with the added challenge of working remotely.
iii) Engagement with our stakeholders: customers, consumers, the government, etc. We launched a new brand in the middle of the pandemic at a time when governments and customers had bigger priorities.
EF: What were the lessons learnt creating a company in a complex environment and remotely?
AK: One of the key lessons learnt was leveraging technology to be agile. We have now been working from home for about seven months and things are going very well. It has taught me to be flexible and agile, pivoting very quickly from one thing to the next and continually adapting.
EF: If you had to create a Master in Pandemic Administration which two courses would be mandatory?
AK: Agility and resilience to deal with the uncertainty the pandemic has thrown at us in an environment that changes every day. A company needs built-in resilience to cope that goes hand in hand with the agility to adapt.
EF: You are almost entirely focused on women’s health, primarily non-communicable diseases, so how can we restore focus to non-communicable or chronic diseases in an infectious disease scenario?
AK: Because of the increasing incidence on our continent NCDs are gaining a higher priority. Traditionally in Africa, the disease burden is considered mainly to be infectious diseases but with the public and private sector collaboration, we can focus more on non-communicable diseases. There is no way one particular sector can tackle the disease burden alone so collaboration is essential. We have collaborated with governments because there is a significant role to play for non-governmental organizations; we are having conversations and starting a movement for all sectors of society to join us in this journey and to be successful we must all work together. Collaboration is vital, and as a 2021 startup, we leverage technology in our continent where infrastructure does not always allow us to access remote areas but technology does. We can deploy technology to deliver healthcare messages and health education and it is an area we are very keen on exploring. As an organization, we are very focused on e-health and fem-tech and we believe these two will transform the future of healthcare delivery in Africa.
EF: Could you elaborate on your plans for e-health and fem-tech?
AK: E-health and fem-health are healthcare delivered through mobile and electronic technology. The mobile penetration in the continent is considerable; about 70% of Africa's population has access to mobile phone technology while less than 10% have a landline. In terms of access to healthcare, clinics are focused on urban areas while rural areas lack access to healthcare services and we plan to leverage technology to deliver healthcare information and education to more remote areas. We want to find ways to provide healthcare interventions as is being done in some rural parts of South Africa and Kenya, where healthcare interventions are delivered electronically. Fem-tech is developing very quickly in diagnostics, points of care service, wearables, and there is a focus on diseases that disproportionately affect women -women´s health has been ignored and is secondary to the focus on men, and its repercussions can be observed in the continent. Once we have gender equity in access to healthcare, economies will grow, societies will prosper and future generations will be healthier. There's a need for gender equity and fem-tech is a vehicle to achieve it in Africa.
EF: What is your personal definition of access?
AK: Access to healthcare is the availability of healthcare where it is needed when it is needed and must be affordable to the person in need. When defining access, three elements are critical: it must be where and when required and affordable to those who need it.
EF: To what extent do you think the pandemic has changed the skills needed for future employees?
AK: I think the pandemic has created a lot of shifts, starting with a change of mindset. From being used to working in an office with face to face interactions, we have shifted to doing home office. Our field force has gone from seeing doctors in their offices every day to interacting remotely and digitally with customers. Those not able to make that mindset shift often experience psychological setbacks or depression. It is essential to interact with people digitally and build on those relationships in terms of the required skills. In our case, after starting from scratch, we could not introduce ourselves over a cup of coffee or a meal but had to do our introductions virtually -a skill we have mastered over the last few months. Interaction with technology is indispensable for us now and into the future, we must know and understand tools such as zoom and MS Teams and all the technology it implies (projecting, presenting, etc.), even setting it up in our homes and performing optimally. I am glad we have been able to make the transition the pandemic has forced upon us all.
EF: Did you have to introduce any specific KPIs during the transition?
AK: In terms of the field force, we had to convert many of the KPIs to digital as there were no longer face to face engagements. Still, even though we were prepared to pivot to virtual quickly, our customers couldn’t keep up with us, so it was pointless for us to be completely virtual when our customers didn’t have the opportunity to build on their capabilities. It caused quite a big disconnect. Setting the KPIs suitably was essential, we expected our teams to engage with our customers ten or twenty times a day, but they were not prepared to engage virtually. We still believe in the fundamentals of the business but in terms of the market performance with lockdowns and reduced face to face engagement, the revenues were not the same. The pandemic affected the economy, but we must develop the KPIs that show we are still a healthy and growing concern if we want to be a healthy business. We must also measure the right things, show our sustainability and make sure when we come out of the pandemic, we are not a relic of the past but have kept up with the changes.
EF: How do you plan to educate women –and men- on women's health?
AK: It is unfortunate that in 2021 leadership across the globe and all sectors is practically all-male, men make policy changes; men listen to men and as a man, when I speak about women’s issues, I am heard. We have to start interacting with men and boys to change their perception of women, of women's health, of gender equity and listen to women's voices. Things have been decided for women without hearing their voices and our organization plans to change that. September the 26th was World Contraception Day and contraception goes far beyond birth control as it has other repercussions on a woman’s body and in a woman’s life. Depression has been linked to contraception; it can affect her relationship with her partner and her weight, among other things. Clinicians or healthcare practitioners are mainly concerned with preventing pregnancy and don't focus on other aspects a woman has to cope with. Our priority as an organization is acting on these unmet needs, and we need to direct our research toward diseases that affect and disproportionately affect women. For example, polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, premenstrual pain, fibroids, etc., all issues not talked about in society but which women suffer every day. Women’s suffering has been naturalized, a woman should not have premenstrual pain and we need to direct our research to solve these problems. We have developed a portfolio that speaks to women, gives them a voice; we must raise our own voices in the appropriate forums on women’s health, gender equity and access to health as they deserve research. There is a gender data gap, interventions are based on data and throughout the healthcare industry, there is much less information on what women need and must be addressed. We want to engage in the necessary conversations to advance this issue and where there is no leadership we are willing to lead the efforts. Nobody else is doing this and it is about time somebody did.
EF: When you look back on this period in your professional career, what would you like your tenure to be remembered for, considering you led through a pandemic?
AK: First and foremost, I would like to be remembered as somebody who considered the safety of his team as a top priority. We have worked about seven months of the year out of the field precisely to protect our team and our sales force because we refused to expose them and their families to a potentially deadly virus. I would also like to be remembered as being part of setting up a movement dedicated to women’s health which I believe will grow. Finally, I will forever cherish our success in managing a startup during a pandemic.