On June 14 every year, countries celebrate World Blood Donor Day (WBDD). In Nigeria, the story is different. It is a struggle to sensitize people on the importance of blood and the place of voluntary donation. There are few government-sponsored campaigns targeted at improving this culture and even though the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that only one percent (1 per cent) of a country’s population need donate blood regularly, Nigeria can’t seem to convince 1.8 million people to do so. This failure has resulted in thousands of avoidable deaths, which will continue until there is a culture shift. In the past three weeks and for two to come, The Guardian has teamed up with LifeBank – a Lagos-based tech startup that encourages and mobilizes blood donation – to reverse that trend, through a series of communication including infographics, videos and articles. In this interview with Lolade Nwanze, founder of LifeBank, Temie Giwa-Tubosun, discusses her organisation’s role in improving the availability of blood where it is most needed.
To live meaningfully, every man must choose a cause in life. What brought you on the blood path?
My path to starting LifeBank is a long one. I was born here in Nigeria but grew up in the United States. A few years ago, I moved back to Nigeria to be of use in developing this country that I love. I soon became a mother. My son’s birth was a difficult one, and that forced me to look deeper into maternal mortality in Nigeria. I found out that the highest cause of maternal deaths in Nigeria, Africa, and the developing world is something called Post-Partum Haemorrhage. Basically, a mum gives birth, starts bleeding, goes into shock, and dies. It accounts for 44 per cent of maternal deaths in Africa. I also found out that there are many reasons why this problem still exists. Although blood shortage is a major cause, finding the blood even when it is available, and moving it to where it is needed on time is often the main culprit. So, I built LifeBank to increase the blood available in the country through our LifeBank App that reminds and schedules donor appointments. We also help hospitals discover the products they need and we deliver it in the right condition all under 52 minutes.
Explain how the system works and the challenges to keeping blood and its components sterile, available and affordable.
The system is simple and it starts with the blood donor. The donor books an appointment on LifeBank App with the nearest blood bank. The donor gives blood at the blood bank. The blood bank transports the blood to a central screening location, where the State Government tests and screens the blood for all transfusable infections. The blood is returned to the blood bank where it sits in a cold environment until it is requested by a hospital. Blood has a short shelf life, so if it is not requested by a patient in 6 weeks, it must be discarded. That is the cycle of blood.
How would you describe Nigeria’s blood donation culture and what’s responsible for it?
I have a few counterintuitive ideas about Nigeria’s blood donation culture. First, the World Health Organization says that a country or a community needs only 1 per cent of its population to give blood regularly to have enough blood. In a country of 180 million people, we only need 1.8 million people to register and give blood 3 times a year and we will completely eradicate blood shortage. Second, it is a given that Nigeria has a major blood shortage problem but that isn’t because Nigerians do not want to give blood. I believe they do want to give. My experience is that the Nigerian people care about their community and are willing to give a little of themselves to save lives. I think we haven’t made it easy to do this in the past, and that is one of the problems LifeBank solves. In under one minute, you can register to give blood, book an appointment, and start earning rewards.
Why do so few people donate blood voluntarily?
This is simple. It is not very easy to know how, when, and where to give. Also, there are tons of myths around giving blood. Things like; it can make you sick – that is not true. Donating blood actually makes you healthier. There are other myths but the truth is, giving blood helps you save three lives and even helps you lose weight. It’s totally ‘fitfam’ compliant.
A bag of blood, depending on where sourced, can cause between N5000 and N40,000. Why is it this expensive and difficult to find?
I don’t think blood is expensive actually. I recently found out that one bag of blood in a European country costs 300 Euros and it is even more expensive in America. The truth is that, there’s a lot of associated cost in getting one bag of blood ready and safe for patients. That is the cost that’s eventually passed over to the donor. Blood is no longer hard to find in Lagos. Just have your hospital or doctor call LifeBank.
What is the gap Lifebank fills? What are your daily challenges and what is the ideal place you want Lifebank to be?
LifeBank fills the discovery gap and the quick delivery gap. Hospitals no longer need to scramble around looking for blood. With a few clicks on lifebank.ng, they can find all the blood available in Lagos State, make their order, and in 52 minutes, it’s delivered in the best condition to them. We have many challenges, mostly around the lack of infrastructure in Nigeria. Thus, we have to build a delivery fleet instead of just plugging our software into an already existing on-demand delivery platform. Our ideal place is to help all hospitals and patients in Nigeria find the essential medical products they need and deliver those products to them in the right condition.
Who’s the ideal blood donor? Is there a lifestyle that makes one a suitable candidate?
Any healthy adult can give blood. As long as you are healthy, are not pregnant, and are an adult, you can give blood. The most important thing is to start. At each donation, the blood bank will conduct a series of tests to find out if you are healthy enough to give.
When one witnesses an emergency, what’s the right thing to do?
Call 112, when in Lagos. If the hospital needs blood, ask them to call LifeBank.