A young man named Habtamu did not wake up one morning wanting to be an entrepreneur. Instead, he watched pre-term babies dying unnecessarily in a distant hospital and wanted to make a difference in some way.

 

What did Habtamu do? In the under-funded and under-equipped bio-medical labs in Jimma, Ethiopia, he designed a prototype that could reduce infant mortality while being affordable en masse for rural Ethiopian health care providers.

 

It’s not about innovation: it’s about circumnavigation

 

Over 350 winding kilometers away from Addis Ababa in the green hills of the former Oromo Kingdom, you will find Jimma, Ethiopia. There you will meet Habtamu Abafoge, the soft-spoken bio-medical engineering student at Jimma University. To understand Habtamu and Simbona Africa Healthcare, you must understand Jimma, a city of contrasts.

 

With a population a few ticks over 200,000, Jimma is no backwater Ethiopian village. Jimma University alone enrolls over 40,000 students and is the leading national public research institution in all of Ethiopia. However, Jimma is far from the shiny high-rises and the “first of its kind in Africa light rail systems” of Addis. It is far from the Addis-Djibouti train that links Ethiopia to foreign markets. Jimma is a quiet city with a few paved roads through town, surrounded by coffee and tea plantations, cattle, all saturated with tropical rains much of the year. Little comes and goes and innovation only occasionally trickles in.

 

Understanding Jimma is key to understanding Habtamu and the success of this student who set out to make a difference in the world. Habtamu will need you to suspend your disbelief as he overcomes the barriers of location and access. The founder of Simbona Africa Healthcare realizes the potential impact of his Simbona baby warmer prototype. And so, with steady perseverance, he leaps over, circumnavigates, and wrestles with hurdles to bring his baby warmers to the market.

 

For his efforts, the 2015 African Entrepreneurship Award granted $25,000 for a project with the “Most Potential for Long Term Impact.” And now, Habtamu is on the journey of turning potential into impact, and meeting the challenges of his location along the way.

 

 

Habtamu displays an early, rudimentary prototype of his infant radiant warmers in 2015 at his Jimma University lab.
Habtamu displays an early, rudimentary prototype of his infant radiant warmers in 2015 at his Jimma University lab.

It’s not about business plans: it’s about being mentored

 

On a 2015 visit to Jimma, the African Entrepreneurship Award team met a bio-medical engineering student big on heart, but small on know-how. Habtamu admits as much and says, “Before I applied for seed funding, really I had no knowledge about business model development, financial projections, and feasibility.” Habtamu did not set out to be an entrepreneur, but to make a difference in some way. In Jimma, his prototype idea took shape. And, with Award mentoring, so did his knowledge of entrepreneurship.

 

Winning mentoring and funding from the African Entrepreneurship Award started Habtamu on the journey from idea to fruition. He wisely says, “Smart ideas by themselves can’t bring the expected impact that we spend our time dreaming about.” Award mentoring, along with fiery crucible of the 2015 Boot Camp and the Presidential Jury, made Habtamu into an entrepreneur, founder of the Simbona Baby Warmer business.

 

During 2015 Award Round mentoring, Regional mentors from East Africa and worldwide Global mentors advised Habtamu on his business idea. Mentors encouraged his idea and boosted his confidence, but another advised that he better forecast costs and his revenue.  For Habtamu, sourcing high-tech parts in Ethiopia would provide a daunting, but not impossible challenge. As Habtamu passed from Round 1, to 2, to 3, and then as he hesitantly crossed the stage a winner, the challenges of material sourcing and prototype development confronted him head on.

 

It’s not about business: it’s about changing history

 

But is this confrontation all worth it? What is the Simbona Baby Warmer prototype that Habtamu hopes to bring to the market? Habtamu confidently states: “Simbona Baby Warmers can save the lives of thousands of pre-term babies in many regions due to its affordability in remotes regions of low and middle-income families.” Habtamu wants to bring his baby warmers to the nearly 700 underserved hospitals in Ethiopia.  So far, he has four major institutions customers interested in getting the Simbona in their hands.

 

By recent estimates, Ethiopia has a population approaching 100,000,000, the second highest in Africa. And, while the access increases daily, according to the World Bank only 27% of Ethiopians have electricity, and, infant mortality is still too high.

 

With Simbona Baby Warmers, Habtamu desires to make preventable infant mortality a tragedy reserved for only history books.

 

His solar powered baby warmers provide life-saving care for rural clinics, and households with babies in need of special care as they enter the world. Habtamu eagerly anticipates the product on the market. He says, “When the product becomes available for market its social and economic impact will be high. The Ethiopian health facilities, government and non –government health centers and hospitals are beneficiaries of the project.”

 

Since winning the Award in October of 2015, Habtamu has been steadily navigating the challenges. He says that “due to some medical regulations of the country, the product has not reached the end users” and that “medical device manufacturing is difficult in the current situation of my environment.” But, he has kept pushing ahead.

 

 

Habtamu, center, with biomedical engineering students in Jimma, Ethiopia.
Habtamu, center, with biomedical engineering students in Jimma, Ethiopia.

From One Idea, to Five Employees

 

When Habtamu started the journey with the African Entrepreneurship Award in 2015, he started alone. One student, with one big idea. And now, after $25,000 of funding and a boost of confidence, this one-man show from Jimma now employs 5 permanent staff. His team works with him on design and product development. Habtamu hopes that with the launch and local manufacturing of some of the units he can “create job opportunities for many Ethiopians.”

 

Coming alongside Habtamu were also a series of mentors throughout the African Entrepreneurship Award journey. Mentors praised his idea, but, for all of the praise, there were several “however” comments from mentors. One encouraged him with “your idea is good…however, you need to be smart with your design as the existing products likely have intellectual property rights that you if you infringe upon can shut you down.”

 

In Round 3 of the Award, a round that includes a full projection of spending and revenue, another “however.” His mentor told him, “What brilliant positioning – you can’t do better than saving the lives of babies in Africa. However, in my opinion your financial plan is conservative in what it will cost to bring this product to market.”

 

Habtamu takes the “however” comments to heart and learns from them. Mentors on the post-funding journey advise him on these challenges.  The journey into entrepreneurship has been hard, and the challenge of bringing his product to market has tested him. Habtamu says, “When we involve ourselves in a significant impact for Africans, whether it is big or small, we should know the commitment and dedication is bitter and deep!” Despite this struggle, Habtamu is “eager to see the difference we are going to make for society.”

 

A new hope for young and old in Jimma

 

Jimma should keep being Jimma. Perhaps there is something special about those green hills, far from the city and far from the fast-paced urban sprawl. Perhaps Simbona Africa Healthcare would remain an idea and Habtamu would be off working at a clinic in the city. Instead, Habtamu is preparing for impact.

 

In addition to developing his product, he has launched the first of its kind, healthcare innovation hub at Jimma University. The hub is located in the newly renovated Jimma University medical center. The University, already a pioneering leader in biomedical engineering, is now a hub for engineers and business experts all over the region. Habtamu envisions an innovation hub where students, graduates, and outside experts together can “solve the Ethiopian healthcare challenges.”

 

The student, and now we can add entrepreneur, innovator, and consultant from Jimma wants to keep Jimma, Jimma, but also impact the lives of countless babies across the region.