Ola Orekunrin, a medical doctor and a helicopter pilot, is the founder of Nigeria’s first full air ambulance.
Long hair extensions, lipstick, mini dresses and heels are regular features of Ola Orekunrin‘s presentation. Her grooming belies the hardship she endured to get the first air ambulance in Nigeria, if not West Africa, Flying Doctors, off the ground. Once she conceived the idea to establish the company, she began to save money earnestly, about 60% of her salary as a medical doctor in England.
For several years, she denied herself a lot of pleasures, including, she told Vanguard, buying a new car. Instead, she continued to drive the ‘old banger’ she used as a student.
“People say they don’t earn enough to save,” Orekunrin said. “Everybody earns enough to save but you’ve just got to deny yourself of certain things. So while everybody was wearing new clothes to work, I wore only surgical scrubs for a year. I did not buy any new clothes. While everybody was going to the hair salon, I refused to join them.”
She would braid her hair by herself, sitting before a mirror for whole weekends. The asceticism paid off when in 2007 she quit her job and came to Nigeria with her lump saving to set up the air ambulance company which she now serves as managing director. Entrepreneurial secrets: there are a lot of ideas from the West that can be hacked and brought to Africa, she has said, and investors are more willing to partner with you when they see that you have saved up substantial amount of money yourself.
Before the establishment of Flying Doctors, if there was an emergency in Nigeria requiring airlift of victims, one would have to look as far South Africa, or even farther, for an air ambulance. Now, help is just a call away. Though it has its headquarters in Lagos, Flying Doctors has outposts across the country, with 20 aircraft and 47 staff, including senior flight physicians working in about three doctor crews 24 hours every day.
Orekunrin (middle) with some members of her crew
“Our doctors are not just doctors; they have certificates in Aviation medicine… They have years of experience in both acute medicine and the aviation industry,” she said in this Vanguard interview.
Orekunrin is herself a trained helicopter pilot. She was born in London, and grew up with foster parents in Lowestoft, England. At 21, she graduated from the University of York as a doctor. For her postgraduate studies, she specialized in pre-hospital and trauma care. In 2008, she received MEXT Japanese Government Scholarship which enabled her to carry out research in the field of regenerative medicine in Tokyo, Japan. She is a member of the American Academy of Aesthetic Surgeons and the British Medical Association.
From her undergraduate days, Orekunrin has always been interested in creative means of healthcare delivery, devising the fastest ways of getting patients to the best healthcare facilities for their particular ailments. And that was precisely the motivation for starting Flying Doctors, which combines her love for improved healthcare in Africa and her passion for flying.
The company renders services to the public through government contracts, private companies, and wealthy individuals. It particularly targets high-risk industries like construction, manufacturing, and oil and gas across Nigeria and West Africa.
Orekunrin Speaking at Africa Utopia 2014
“There’s a huge British expatriate community here and we fly them to London if they need it,” Orekunrin told Time. Though she was quick to add that most of their flights have really involved moving people within West Africa: from Niger, Chad, and Mali, to Nigeria for treatment.
As of now, their services are rarely paid for by the patients, but by their employers, be it government or corporate organisations. Orekurin has said that the challenge for Flying Doctors in a very expensive aviation industry is to keep cost of operation down so that every individual can afford their services, because for her, it is really just about saving lives.
LISTEN TO HER SPEAK ON HER PASSION FOR SAVING LIVES AND EARLY YEARS IN SCHOOL: