On September 21, 2013, four masked gunmen attacked Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall. A fire that started during the siege caused a section of the mall to collapse, killing several people. Reports indicate 71 people were killed, including 62 civilians, 5 Kenyan soldiers, and all 4 gunmen. In the massacre, about 200 people were wounded.
Aaron Ogunde, a Co-founder at Damu Sasa, claims that while the victims ended up at several hospitals, the hospital ecosystem was unprepared for the sudden influx of patients requiring trauma blood transfusions.
Although many Kenyans showed up to donate blood, the blood bags and screening reagents to examine the donated blood weren’t enough. Thus, many patients had to wait longer than necessary to receive blood transfusions.
According to Ogunde, “It was then that the idea [Damu Sasa] came to light. We asked ourselves, ‘Why couldn’t the Nairobi ecosystem get readily available and safe blood products from other ecosystems, such as Machakos or Nakuru, to shorten the lead time for transfusions, especially given the nature of the emergency?’”
The attack prompted them to research the idea, and they found that the hospital ecosystem lacked a system for exchanging real-time data.
They also discovered that, on a few occasions, a healthcare provider would leave Machakos, a town in Kenya, in search of blood without realising they could find it in a nearby hospital in the same county, shortening the wait time for patient transfusions.
According to Ogunde, "We thought it would be an amazing idea to have a collaborative platform that would enable hospitals to share real-time information on blood availability, such that hospitals could easily source readily available safe blood products from one another, even as they waited to process their own.
"We thought this could save lives by giving patients in need relatively quick access to safe blood products."
Because of this, Aaron Ogunde and Kilemi Thambura launched Damu Sasa, a Kenyan healthtech startup, in 2019.
Meanwhile, the co-founders have backgrounds in information technology. However, Ogunde claims they have been passionate enough to learn everything they can about healthcare, specifically blood services.
Additionally, Damu Sasa's team now includes several healthcare specialists, including haematologists and lab technologists, which gives them an advantage in better understanding the Kenyan market.
Life is in the blood
Damu Sasa is an end-to-end blood services information management platform. It is a platform that lists, connects, and tracks blood donors and blood units to transfusing facilities, logistics providers, and regulators in a single technology platform to save lives for patients who require an immediate blood transfusion.
Its system modernises the blood services value chain through several features, for instance, maintaining an accurate donor database, which enables continuous donor engagement and prompt donation appeals during emergencies.
Damu Sasa improves real-time monitoring and evaluation, ensures timely reporting, helps facilities locate available blood within the ecosystem, and ensures real-time observation of blood level fluctuations at facilities.
Given the complexity of the blood value chain, which extends from blood sourcing to transfusion, Thambura claims that the current mechanisms to generate timely reports regularly cause delays in decision-making.
However, Damu Sasa enhances service management by generating and establishing efficiencies at every link in the value chain for blood services. It increases the availability of blood and blood products and the visibility and efficiency of the value chain.
Damu Sasa makes its services available through its website, an Android app, and a USSD feature, with an iOS app launching soon. Users can access the service via its USSD code, *483*277#.
The startup makes sure that users conduct several checks in the labs to guarantee that the right blood unit is administered to the right patient. Individuals can also monitor the blood unit in storage in real time.
Healthcare providers can order blood, reducing wait times and keeping track of these orders. In the case of an emergency, Damu Sasa connects users to other blood banks in their area where they can request blood.
While the app only allows licensed medical professionals to place blood orders, anyone can use it to request blood for others who need it.
To donate blood, open the app and look for the "Nearest donation centre" option. For ease of movement, this function is integrated into Google Maps. Schedule a blood donation appointment — integrated into Google Calendar — then show up on the scheduled day.
"The app also provides information on how to prepare for blood donation when preparing to donate. Donors, for example, must get enough sleep, drink enough water, and eat a balanced diet.
“It also tells you what to expect during and after the donation. The app also allows users to provide digital feedback to the blood donation centre based on their blood donation experience,” Ogunde explains.
Further, the app allows blood donors to share their blood donation experience on various social media platforms, such as Facebook and WhatsApp, to encourage others in their networks to donate.
Using a software-as-a-service (SaaS) subscription-based business model, Damu Sasa allows healthcare facilities to try out all its modules for two months for free. Then, they can decide whether to pay an annual subscription fee for the entire software package or just the modules that appeal to them the most.
“This model focuses on retaining existing customers and acquiring new customers to increase the organisation's annual recurring revenue,” Ogunde mentions.
Thriving in the face of difficulties and competition
One of Damu Sasa’s competitors is Nigeria's Lifebank, which offers on-demand delivery of blood and blood products to healthcare facilities using WHO-recommended cold chain infrastructure.
Per Ogunde, Lifebank, as of publication time, is attempting to provide medical oxygen supplies in Nairobi. The company launched in Kenya in 2020.
However, he says, “First, they are not nearly as versed in the political, cultural, and economic context of East Africa as we are. Second, their business model comprises a small facet of the blood services value chain that would compete with a small component of our business.”
Ogunde mentions that Lifebank only supports the pre-hospital and post-hospital supply chains. It significantly impacts hospitals, its main clients, for whom it creates value at numerous points in their workflow.
Another competitor to Damu Sasa is American Zipline, which designs, manufactures, and operates delivery drones in Rwanda, Ghana, Japan, Nigeria, and the United States. Currently, Zipline is testing drone-based blood delivery in the Kenyan county of Kisumu.
“As a stand-alone blood delivery service, Zipline contributes little to informatics and information management, which we have identified as the main barrier to the security of blood in Kenya,” Ogunde states.
Meanwhile, Damu Sasa faces a lot of challenges, including coordinating several blood requests from various clinical areas and delaying the distribution of blood to patients.
Per the company, there is no seamless communication among transfusing facilities, resulting in the loss of lives.
Lack of capital resources is another issue it faces. But it approaches this by consistently looking for the most affordable, yet effective, options. Sometimes, it phases out several operations.
Damu Sasa has received funding from investors, including Villgro Africa and i3 Program.
With a staff strength of 8, the startup plans to expand to 12 in Q3 2023. Since its launch, Ogunde says Damu Sasa has saved over 34,000 lives through 180+ hospitals across 35+ counties in Kenya.
Besides, the platform has over 43,000 registered blood donors and more than 10,000 registered medical professionals using it to conduct various activities, including doctors, nurses, and lab staff. By the end of 2023, it plans to double these numbers.
What's more, Damu Sasa intends to grow its usage both within Kenya and beyond the Kenyan borders.