Read the Conversation

EF: When you were appointed in January 2021 -before the second and third wave- what was your mission as General Manager for Sub-Saharan Africa?

EE:  The pandemic shone a light on the gaps in healthcare infrastructure across the African continent. It also impacted groups that had not previously experienced the gaps in domestic healthcare systems because they had previously had the means to travel abroad. With closed borders due to the pandemic, this changed. The outcome was that plans were developed to bolster healthcare infrastructure in every Sub-Saharan African country so that communities have access closer to home. A country without a single ICU bed or only ten functioning ventilators in the middle of a respiratory pandemic is definitely below standard. Against that backdrop, I came to sub-Saharan Africa to build healthcare infrastructure for the African people, to make a difference and ultimately save lives. I had previously worked in a surgery and orthopaedics-based organization on improving surgical skills in Africa, but two years into that role, I realized that without the infrastructure - hospitals, wards, beds, recovery units and theatres - there was not enough improvement or impact. 

EF: What was GE Healthcare's role in Sub-Saharan Africa over the last year? 

EE: Over the last ten years, GE Healthcare has been one of the largest investors in its businesses in Africa. We have over a thousand employees across Africa. In Sub-Sahara alone, the region I look after, we have over 350 employees, most of them, if not all, African or diaspora-based Africans that have returned to the continent. GE has focused on building local talent, localization at global standards, and finding the best diaspora-based Africans and bringing them back. The investment in localization with regional teams and working for the region creates an immense commitment and impact from the employees. Over the last year, GE has continued that trend, focusing time resources on the continent. We had to tighten our belts in certain areas, but we haven't changed our views and purpose, which is building local teams at global standards to cater to the communities where we work and live. We have to be part of the solution. The healthcare gap is immense, and as a healthcare, technology and digital organization, we have the know-how of building hospitals, oncology centres and primary healthcare centres. We have a financing organization, Healthcare Financial Services that works with a range of GE capital and hand in hand with the commercial teams on the ground to identify and finance the projects on the continent. Over the last year, we have seen a significant increase in large scale infrastructure projects across the continent that required funding. The World Bank, IFC, Afri-Exim and UK EF, to mention a few, have all stepped up to fund bankable credible projects. GE is a key stakeholder in developing projects that will impact communities, together with our customer base and partner base. 

EF: How did you attract resources from headquarters? 

EE: GE has an evolved leadership structure. We run a region-based organization, where I have a budget, I put cases forward and if they make sense, we get resources. I look after the Sub-Saharan region and make 80% of the decisions. Larry Culp, the CEO for GE globally, is all about limited corporate structure and decisions made at the lowest point possible and closest to the customer. GE's philosophy regarding managers is to enable them to make decisions on the ground in the markets they work. I get the support the business deserves; if I run a successful, profitable business, I get more capital allocated to me. 

EF: What were the lessons learnt managing a company in a complex environment? 

EE: The ability to bring in human or technical resources or components equipment from overseas cannot be taken for granted, and some formal local expertise is necessary to survive. The pandemic taught a lot of companies that localization strategy is critical for long term success. Another lesson was in resilience and the ability for teams to work together as a family to overcome tremendous obstacles. We had people whose families were impacted by Covid; however, they were still going out in the middle of lockdowns to repair equipment because they knew people were suffering from Covid in hospitals and needed functioning equipment. That alone is proof of the importance of family culture from a leadership point of view, with resilient team members prepared to go above and beyond for the benefit of our clients and partners. Traditional business models were torn up and thrown out the window; and in contrast, creativity and the ability to figure things out in record time to adapt to the environment was a huge learning. We developed and opened an onsite repair centre in Lagos, which historically takes a year to eighteen months -to go through the process, get the approvals etc.- and we did it literally in eight weeks. Because we are one of the number one global ventilator manufacturers, we had to be fast in building the repair centre in Lagos to service ventilators and other lifesaving equipment and we did it in record time. The idea of creating a repair centre in eight weeks pre-Covid was out of the question and is an example of how we adjusted to the environment, accelerating bureaucracy and focusing on what matters. Since Covid, we have learnt to look at things in a lean way, trying to cut out the waste in the system. I think it did challenge the status quo in how a business operates.

EF: Have you managed to change processes to fit the new times?

EE: The way I do business is solution-oriented. I don't take no for an answer. I try and develop teams that are creative, resilient, and if they see something is not working, they should try and change it. I am out there with my teams, looking for solutions collectively. That is my philosophy, and despite being very stressful, being in a challenging situation was my element, having to change, pivot and adjust to doing things differently. The pressure of quick decision making made a difference for individuals within the organization as it pushed them as nothing else had. Decisions that historically took a couple of weeks had to be done within a day, and crisis management mode actually made us perform better. If I look back to a year ago, there were very few bad decisions made. The power of the team is that we worked under pressure, with very short timelines managing to make the right calls. 

Team power, localization power and having diverse teams with different perspectives are essential when managing a crisis. The proof of this is in our success. 

EF: Did you design and introduce any new KPIs in terms of performance this past year? 

EE: We reduced the number of KPIs; some of our KPIs fixed poor systems or had just accumulated over time because a leader in the past thought it was a good idea to track. We went back, reviewed and realized they were no longer required. The focused, lean mindset of our leadership has allowed us to take out the waste in the system, and now the KPIs are much more aligned across every function and modality. We currently focus on aligned KPIs, and the pandemic helped us remove waste and focus on critical KPIs across procedures and modalities.

EF: Could you elaborate on GE's performance as a group in terms of operations?

EE: GE focuses predominantly on three key areas: aviation, energy, and healthcare. In the African context, all three are absolutely critical to the continued growth of the region. Despite the setback during the pandemic, we need to increase our aviation capacity; aviation is vital for African economic growth, as is power and energy. There are many countries in Africa that have areas with intermittent power or no power. I am predominantly based out of Lagos and I have four different power solutions to cover for the fact there are serious power issues. A healthy population creates value. GE's focus on aviation, power, and health means if we get all three right, Africa's potential will be tremendous.  Healthcare is critical as without a healthy population, we have nothing. 

EF: How do you rate the level of adoption of technology and digitalization in the healthcare space in Sub Saharan Africa?

EE: We have scratched the surface. There is a significant amount of investment in health tech startups coming into the continent and this has accelerated things and created plenty of activity. With the penetration of mobile money and the ability to access health services, field tech emerging into health tech is very advanced in East Africa. Pre-Covid, we had been in conversations on this issue but weren't moving quickly. Over the last year and a half, we have started to go ahead with the pandemic accelerating our actions, allowing us to scratch the surface. Fundamental to long term growth is to leapfrog and bridge the gaps: namely in infrastructure, clinical expertise, biomedical science - all of which only the use of digital technology can bridge. For example, we can train a radiographer to operate the equipment appropriately, send the reports to Freetown, where a team of radiologists can do the reporting for the whole of West Africa. That means a radiologist is not needed in every facility in West Africa because we are developing a hub of expertise conducive to fewer mistakes and clinical errors made and becoming more efficient and effective at diagnosing problems.

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? 

EE: We have an unparalleled opportunity today to have the single biggest impact on healthcare infrastructure in generations. We have a political and economic focus, a faster decision making culture, the opportunity to implement digital solutions, and rapidly evolving digital and artificial intelligence-enabled technologies that allow for access to better healthcare for more people. Funding is available to create opportunities and arrive at the right solutions. All the stars are aligned. In ten years, I expect to see the biggest ever improvement in healthcare infrastructure to date. I will be incredibly proud if I can look back and see the many firsts we managed, providing world-class standard technologies, systems and facilities for Africa. I would be proud to know I was part of that generation of change, making an impact in the incredibly diverse and dynamic communities of the continent.  

November 2021
South Africa