Having the courage to start over with Nohémie Mawaka, Founder of global healthcare platform Aluuka
Joining me on the show today is serial entrepreneur Nohémie Mawaka.
We’re diving into her story of creating her first business that was started by chance, Stats Congo, and what it’s like to have the courage to step away from it all and start over.
Now she’s taking her learnings from the first time around into her second venture Aluuka, a global healthcare platform that allows you to instantly pay for medical treatments abroad, hassle free.
Nohémie was named a Forbes 30 under 30 in the healthcare space, she’s received a $100,000 grant to launch her first business and has plenty of learnings she’s sharing with us in this episode.
Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!
Nohémie, I am so excited to learn about your story and your background and why you started Stats Congo and your new venture. I'm excited to hear about it. Also, let's get started. Absolutely. Do you want to tell me a little bit about your background and what you were doing before you started the business and then what kind of led to that light bulb moment? Starting Stats Congo. Absolutely. My name is no any Mishawaka. I'm actually born and raised in kinshasa. Congo was just central of Africa Immigrated Canada to Egypt eight. I always start with that because it's really the reason why I get into what I do now. Born in a third world country. You know, you see so many social issues especially faced by women and health was always that one pivotal thing that I felt like if we tackle it more in a in a more innovative, efficient way.
00:06:12Edit These women would not die so quickly. So I went on fast forward, my parents immigrated Canada and I'm so grateful. I did my bachelors in Arts and Sciences and then I right away did my Masters in public health. Honestly I hated my masters, like I just didn't like it and I was always that girl in class that was sitting and I was like we could do this in such a, in a more efficient way, like public health could do better. Ngos can do better, like why don't we use impact, we get generate profits so we're sustainable. So I was just so frustrated and I was like we need more technology in this space. So after graduating I could not get a job for a year and a half. Very sad times. So anyone listening with going through that I hear you, but then I went on twitter and I see this post, we're looking for a young entrepreneur who wants to start an innovative project within the scope of maternal health, which is when the woman is pregnant, we're gonna give 100 grand and you just have to like come up with the innovative idea.
00:07:15Edit So I'm like, oh let me tell you, I have a lot of ideas like my hand is up, it is high, it's been up for a while, so excited to literally start applying. So I reached out to one of this one doctor, his name is dr Mukwege. He actually just want to know about prize. He's known as a doctor that saves woman because he's a gynecologist east of Congo which is a war zone. So I've reached out to him that we've established context before and I love his NGO, I've been supporting you for years and I was like I have a decision, I want to implement technology in your hospital so that you will know what are the reasons why these women keep dying during pregnancy. And in turn I will then sort of see if I can scale this as a business like where hospitals would pay me to implement technologies and then local government will pay me to sort of generate some of that population level data. And so he's like alright do it. If you have the funding to do it, this is your country, I will give you the platform.
00:08:18Edit So I applied for the grants and I won the grants grand challenges 100,000. And then next thing you know, december 2017 I was back in my native country in east of Congo in the war zone. Mind your highest rate capital in the country implementing technologies in hospitals that focus a lot of women during the pregnancy cycle that way we can monitor their health outcome. So that's sort of me in a nutshell. And then now I'm working on my new baby until I give birth to a human being, my businesses and my babies um working my new baby, which is a Luca where we aim to make medical payment transparent for immigrants living abroad, paying for their family members, health care in their home country, in African countries. That's me, wow, it sounds so cool and so amazing and it's really like, it's crazy because you're tackling these huge global problems and making significant difference to the world. It also is just a really like emotional task what you're doing.
00:09:23Edit Like how are you handling that? Especially in the beginning in the early days, it's just crazy. You were just, it's your first job essentially. Honestly, like you nailed it. It's, it's one of those things like my personality, I'm very much a risk taker and sort of all or nothing kind of person. Um I think it's definitely the passion, like you have to have passion for what I do because in the beginning you're not really making much money. 100,000 sounds great, but not when you're in charge of five people and you're trying to test this idea and so it is emotionally taxing I will be honest, but at the same time, I think coming from a third world country and see so many social issues and being lucky to leave my native country to come to Canada, I just feel this responsibility. Um and I have to because if I don't then, you know, like who else, I'm sure there's other people that were. Yeah. Yeah I'm sure there's some people that will like I don't, I'm not like a god or anything but at the same time I do think that those of us that are fortunate enough to leave or I think visible minorities, even when you are in a position of privilege more than the mass you bear the responsibility to help your own kind.
00:10:30Edit So call me crazy but I have to do it So admirable. I love it. I want to talk about the early days of you being like Okay I've won the grant. I'm going back to congo. What does it mean that you start like implementing technology there? What does that actually you know how do you spend $100,000? What are those early days like? Absolutely. And I think even take you back to like the grant because that sets you up really nicely. So when I saw the grant on twitter legitimate, I kid you not like I clicked it and I look at the requirements so they give you this sheet where they pretty much make you set up metrics. They pretty much say we're going to give you this grant for 18 months. You have to report to us every quarter, every quarter of the year three for every three months you're gonna have to report to us how you're progressing. So you're gonna be reporting specific numbers, how you're using this money so who are the stuff that you're gonna need. So in my case I stuck that accounting. So every entrepreneur who sucks at accounting, get an accountant part time. Um I knew that in Congo because I'm partnering with this hospital, they had this policy where I had to hire their staff.
00:11:36Edit So I had to have a coordinator on site who helped me coordinate the doctors, the research assistant and stuff like that. I needed a research assistant who was going to take pretty much what we were doing. We were taking paper based medical records because these hospitals are now using technology yet taking those medical records out of paper and transcribing them to technology base. So ultimately we use the open source software, free online open source software that we were trying to sort of mimic and turn it into our own little software where we restore that data internally and every month my statistician will analyze that data and tell the hospital what are some of the top causes as to why women are dying from the moment they're pregnant. So the kid is five years old. So the whole thing you call that maternal health. And so when the ground starts, you already have particular metrics. So one of my metrics was like X amount of women had to be treated at the hospital out of X. Of them. What are the common diseases? Um your staff, what are you paying them? How are you paying them?
00:12:39Edit So those are sort of in terms of sitting with Nazi, that's actually the beautiful thing about this grant. It really taught me the importance of having benchmarks um and kind of like following up on them and the importance of accounting. I can't stress enough that accounting is so important because literally just like you Quickbooks app allows you to really see how you're spending your money when you're about to go into the reds. And so that was a huge learning curve for me because I'm from a public health background, I don't know this stuff. So I really had to learn that I had to learn a lot about managing multiple stakeholders because as much as I'm managing my own small team, I'm also held accountable to my thunders, to the Ministry of Health, to the doctor's like you're literally learning, I speak french and english, but I kid you not as I was able to speak like five languages because you're speaking to different audiences who have a different agenda, but you need them. So that was another big one how to report to different stakeholders and collaborators while aligning your mission at the end of the day.
00:13:41Edit So those are my early days. And so with all of that in mind, how do you monetize the business and how does it make revenue so that you can actually keep going. So that's honest, it's such a great question and that's something that I would, and again this is, this is what being an entrepreneur is, it's all about failing but fail superfast. Um I would advise anyone that wants to start their enterprise number one thing with your business, have a clear model of how you're going to make money. So I think for me this was tricky because I started this project with a grant and I was like, I'm just going to test this idea but going in truth be told, I didn't even think about revenue. I just wanted, I was still focused on the impact, I was like, I just want to implement technology so that these hospitals can serve these women better but then six months in, I was like okay if this grant is over, we need to like make money to be sustainable. So the two revenue models that I saw was either we scale so hospitals will pay like a monthly fee for us to come in and implement the technology and stuff like that and that or the Ministry of Health who has a hard time accessing population level data with hospitals because of transportation infrastructure, we were able to reach hospitals that they don't know how to reach and so they will pay us to that both models like by the end of the grant and then even towards the end of the grant we were able to get a bit more funding by someone else like a private donor but literally by the end of it, I was like The ministry is corrupted is a corrupted government in 3rd world country, the hospitals, they just, they're just not willing to and so at that point after like a almost two years I had to pit it and realized they're just either a state and NGO or I close my doors and make my peace and then go towards something else.
00:15:37Edit And I was not willing to be an N. G. O. I worked in Ngos for years and I loved it. But there's so many limitations C N G O. S. I was like, I want to run a business that makes money but has an impact and I believe it's possible which got me to my newer baby that I'm working on. It takes a lot of courage to make that kind of call and to be like, hey, I've committed two years of my life and I'm making an impact, but I foresee what I want my future to look like as well. And this isn't it? It's tough. It's, it's one of those. It's so tough because I remember talking to one of my friends who is now my business advisor, which is another thing I always say surround yourself by people that are smarter than you and know your strengths and your weaknesses. I love impact. I love purpose mission but I don't have a business degree. I'm very entrepreneurial, very entrepreneurial and I love reading business books but I don't have a business degree. So I really surround myself by people that have that finance business background. So two of them are my really good friends and they decided to come on board as my advisors and it's, I'm so grateful.
00:16:47Edit But I remember when I had to let go of stats Congo, it was so hard. One of my friends, he straight up just said to me was like, no, I mean you can't be so in love with your idea. If it's not making you money, it's an expensive hobby, Truth, truth hurts you. So you have no choice. He's like, pick a side you either or an NGO where people would donate, which will be great. But Ngos, you have to spend a lot of time marketing in order to raise funds and you have to report to the government because tax purposes or you go towards for profit. And we come up with a new idea. And honestly it was just God sent because the next day With I had a call with someone, my, one of my partners with stats congo and this newer product that I'm working on, a Luca was born, living within 24 hours. So it was a blessing in disguise. Oh my gosh, okay, so let's talk about a Luca, tell me about the new venture, Tell me about where you're at, how that all happened.
00:17:56Edit £25, pretty quick, pretty quick turnaround super quick. Um no, I'm so excited. Better look at me. And I really think this is honestly a big piece of advice I'd give to anyone that wants to be an entrepreneur. Let's embrace failing. Let's honestly cultivate failure. It's only through failing that you learn what works, what doesn't work. And I think assessment was great, got a lot of momentum. But it's actually quite funny because I was sitting in my living room chilling with my best friend and my mom was my best friend and she was little, she just starts crying. I was like, mom, what's wrong? And she's looking at me, She's like, oh my God, she's like, I just got ripped off $500 from a family member who was supposed to take my brother in Congo to the hospital and I know he's ripping me out, but I was like, I have no choice but to rely on him because my brother is mentally ill because my uncle has a mental illness. And so I looked at my mom, my mom was like, no, amy, wouldn't it be great if you could just create a platform where I could just monitor my brother's health outcomes, that's all I want knowing me, just to pay the doctor directly and know that my brother is okay.
00:18:59Edit So then my brain got turned on because then I remember the doctors and the hospitals that I was partnered with with stats. Congo. They were telling me that about 50% of the patients that come in their money actually comes from family members that live abroad? We call the diaspora when you left your home country for a new country. So then I go to the drawing board, I'm like, Okay, I want to create a platform. Were those that live in the west? People like my mom myself because I'm an immigrant send money to their family members back home every month for health costs. This time we're going to cut out the middleman, my mom will pay directly the hospital, the lab, the pharmacy, her brother just has to step up to the hospital, get treated and then the healthcare provider gives my mom the transparent sort of outcome of her brother's health. And in turn we make a 10% commission. No, is it 10% or 8% or we agree on 8% because Airbnb does 10%, we make it 8% commission on that transaction fee. So that was born as in last October The landing page is good to go and I'll send you the link, the app is about 90% done as of next week.
00:20:11Edit It should be good to go. And we're going to start testing it and we now have a total of six healthcare providers that are partners to labs to hospitals and to pharmacies. So that's pretty much a Luca in itself again, it just sounds like such a great idea. So needed in the world, I'm curious to learn about your like go to market strategy and how you launch something like this. Like how do you find both sides of the equation? How do you get you know, all the people to to send money and to know about it? Yeah. This is actually the funny thing. This one I look at the marketing is gonna be super cheap. It's the best thing ever. So there's two people where we have two users, we have the healthcare provider. Whenever I see a healthcare provider, I'm talking about anyone that provides healthcare services. So in our case it's going to be doctors. So the hospital, pharmacy and lab. So we found two in each that way we just, we start with a small sample what I actually did.
00:21:12Edit I rely on my previous contact from stats Congo, This is why I say your previous businesses always inform your next one. I rely on my contact from stats Congo and they were all on board already had relationships with them. So it's just a matter of convincing them being like, okay, so this is a it's a newer platform so I'm adding it's a bit of a burden if you think about it, you guys already have your workload, I'm adding another platform to your, your sort of operation. But here's the thing, this is like more revenue, you're not losing anything, I'm not telling you to stop treating your customers or your patients. I'm adding more to to your sort of revenue. So they were on board with that and the way we build the application, it's so user friendly, it's like creating a Gmail account. So we really made sure that we wanted to make it seem Inglis that way the hospitals, the lab and the pharmacy can easily use it. And I'm really aware because I've worked in Congo and I'm born there, there's a lack of infrastructure. So you want to make sure that this app is not too complicated because if people sometimes don't have electricity, so we have them the second user which is our pear.
00:22:17Edit And really this is our biggest focus because this whoever pays is who you need to focus on. That's something that I had to learn the hard way. Um so our biggest fear is actually the westerner. So think of someone like my mom who left her home country came here and is financially responsible for her family back home. And what I actually did last october when my mom sort of gave me this idea, my mom being an amazing woman and so is my dad. We actually sat down and they helped me come up with a survey. We did a very quick survey like six questions asking a lot of wise. And then I told my parents find five people each of you on your WhatsApp contact list who I'm gonna send this link to and you're gonna send it to them. Ask them to fill out their survey. It's really short. So my parents did it and lo and behold within less than 10 hours we had over 55 response in this survey. And on average most people send $3,000 a month U. S. I. D. Back to Congo.
00:23:18Edit And these are just Congolese people. And it just so happened. One of the questions I was asking on the survey was like you know what are your main activity jobs? So Congolese population culturally speaking a lot of them are christians. So then what I did instead of go to market strategy to reach this customer actually targeted churches churches locally in Canada. And it just so happened. I targeted the top three churches in the dominant population where Congolese people immigrate, which is Montreal. That's french speaking in Toronto because there's more jobs here. So I reached out to these three churches, each of them has over 1000 members that are dominant Congolese. And I did a quick appearance on zoom and next thing you know, we haven't even launched yet and our email subscription list is over 500 people. So that's going to be so in the marketing of the pear, it's going to be a lot easier because the community is big on word of mouth. And another big thing I would definitely say is I also had to learn this because we're targeting an older demographic, like my mom.
00:24:25Edit Um reaching them is actually quite easy not getting them to use the app is often where you get people like myself that are the daughter of that will help their parents navigate this application. So that's my go to strategy, wow, I love it. I love that. It's like fully built around that like word of mouth moment, which of course it is, it makes so much sense and I love how you really found where your target customer was hanging out. You like, you track them down in a really great way and you were like, hey, I got this Exactly. And so when are you officially launching? What's the next steps? Yeah, I was super excited. So we are like I said we're about 90% done as of in one week it should be pretty much done. I want to start testing it with, I have a sample of 10 people in Canada that are going to be pairs that are on board And I already have the hospital in the lab. So I'm going to test it with those 10 people only to really, I'm giving myself like a one month to test it with those 10 people.
00:25:28Edit So really with apps you want to get users to test it quickly that way they can find red flags and things for my team to fix and then as of, I'm really hoping to do like an official launch in january. So from now to december, Just master the application, get those 10 people and honestly my strong feeling is If those 10 people are impressed by December, we're mostly gonna have over like 40 users most likely. But my, my focus is with those 10 people until we really master the application and then as of January two, like officially go big and then make a big announcement. But for now it's just a matter of focusing on those small users to validate the idea. And so once you've got that idea validated and then you've got the users and that kind of thing is the roadmap to expand to different third world countries, you know, potentially raise money to like go bigger on marketing, reach more people or is it that kind of like homegrown, like grassroots bootstrapped approach to business.
00:26:34Edit Have you decided which way you're going to go yet? Yeah, it's, it's, I mean Bolivia, I'm actually, it's funny this evening, I'm actually going out to dinner with my board of advisors to talk to them. Originally, I was like, ah, this will, this will interest a lot of Vcs. I've already had four VC approach me pre releasing, we're not even ready and just something already approaching me, but my experience with stats, Congo with the grants. Um, I did not enjoy it as much. This idea of having to report your finances to people, honestly, I think this is a thing with raising, it's good marketing when you're raised, it's a cute story to tell and stuff like that, but I think, oh, it's that's how you get it, you know, it's a beautiful story, but I think raising is a huge responsibility and yeah, I think with this one, I want to see what bootstrapping looks like and what has gotten us so far this far. And I've really been able to just implement my imagination and pivot whenever I wanted.
00:27:36Edit But I also do think that if I want to scale to other countries because I definitely want to tackle Asia next, um I may have to entertain raising because at that point it will be so big so that it's something that I have to revisit later on, but for now I'm enjoying the bootstrap because I also value my lifestyle. So to me that's what it is. Yeah, it's about finding that happy balance for for what you want your life to look like and what you want your life to look like in business. For sure. What is your advice for other female entrepreneurs who have a really big idea? Oh honey, there's so much, I think the number one I would definitely say is let's learn to see opportunities, not limitations. I think the reason why I see this is because it's based on my conversation with a lot of young women. Um I think this is for some mess of reason, society. I think men, I find they don't see barriers as much, maybe because they've never had to and they just, they have this sense of entitlement and that women is just, we get into this mindset of, I think to be feminine means to just be like down, put your humility feel like you're not worthy, you're not good enough.
00:28:57Edit And then when an opportunity presents itself rather than going for it, you already see limitations before starting. And I think that requires a mind shift and I'm not sure if that's like upbringing or some therapy, but whatever it takes for you to really on learn that and just see opportunities. Listen, there's always going to be limitations. Like I just told you this the stuff that I'm working on that. I mean I was in a war zone in the highest rate capital in the country. The likelihood of me being physically abused was so high. How did I make it out of that is incredible. But at the same time it's like I did it, I learned there's a huge impact and now I get to do more work with the Lucas. So let's cultivate a mindset to really see opportunities not focus just on the limitations. And I think number two, I would advise any woman that also entrepreneurship and I learned this the hard way kind of go invest your first question in terms of revenue. I think this is where market research comes in and with the Luca, we did my business advisor, one of them, his name is Reggie, I'm giving him a major shoutout.
00:30:05Edit Um he's like, he's, he's a genius. He's just like a finance finance guy who loves business, loves entrepreneur, like not so entrepreneurial, but definitely business minded and so he really helped me with market research. So find yourself people if you're not good at market research, which you can find on google how to do market research, but if you're not good at that, find yourself people who just love this stuff even in your network in university or online, find people who love doing this stuff that will research your sort of help you validate it in terms of numbers, here's what I want to do here is the market size, Here's how to approach it. And are we going to make money? So that's more what I would advise anyone that has a grand idea, but that needs to sort of start small is to really validate it with numbers. Amazing. Thank you so much. We are up to the six quick questions. Yeah. Question # one, we might have already spoken about this briefly, but what's your why?
00:31:13Edit Oh my gosh, my wife, It's questionable if I can do it. So can you. Amazing. Question number two is what's been the number one marketing moment that has made your business pop and it could be your first one or the second one, I think. I feel like Forbes was a big one to be honest. It really gave me exposure. I have to give them credit. They've been amazing. Yeah, it's, it's, it's definitely a really great website. I get a lot of my, um, I find a lot of people that I want to interview through there. It's very good Question. Number three is where do you hang out to get smarter? Ooh, I would definitely stay the mountains in a third world country. That's when I get the most inspiration. Third World Mountains, very specific, very specific. Nice question number four is how do you win the day? And that's around your am and your PM rituals that keep you feeling productive and happy and motivated and successful.
00:32:20Edit Absolutely, I have a pretty good routine to be quite honest. So I wake up at 6 30 every day without an alarm clock. Oh my God, I'm a morning person. So wake up every day. Um, and I started today with reading a book, anything, it can even be a novel or it could be like a cheesy, I don't know, some romantic novel or an inspirational book, whatever you want. I start with that and then I go either for a walk or a hike or a workout one of the three, not all three, only one. And then after that I journal. So I'm very big on gratitude. So I did come to just journal, make myself a killer smoothie always. And then after that I tend to go to like a coffee shop or my parents home office to answer my emails and then set my agenda for the day or for the week. I only tackled three things a day. Not more so I write it down, what are the top three things I need to achieve that day. And then after that if I have conference calls and stuff like that, I'll take them. And then in the evening I usually hang out with my friends, my family or by myself.
00:33:25Edit So that's, that's pretty much my life. Mm hmm. Sounds good. I like the sound of the smoothie Question # five is if you only had $1,000 left in your business bank account, where would you spend it? That's a really good one. Ah I was still marketing marketing. It's just, There's a reason why marketing gets you, customers gets, that's how you make your dollar, definitely marketing squeeze it $15 back. Yes, squeeze that. 1000 aimed for lots of word of mouth marketing. Well, uh, and question number six, final question, How do you deal with failure? And that can be either again, like in relation to a specific experience or just your general mindset and approach. Yeah. I think with failure, I mean with stats congo, I felt like I was failing every day from like the doctors sometimes not wanting to take up the technology to them finding out that like local partners are bailing out and then with the local, we're constantly running with like hurdles every day.
00:34:35Edit I'm always putting out fires and there's always that voice that's like knowing me just thought be a stay home mom. Just call it quits for the day. But I think with failure, I honestly, I've had to change my mind around failure and I think it's a quote by c jobs like tell me like I'll tell you thousands of ways that I failed in the two ways that I succeed. I think let's pixel an apple and I think I always think of that quote. I think failure, I've had to shift and see failure has lesson learned. If you don't fail, you cannot innovate. This is a space of technology literally. You constantly have to fail fast in order to keep up with what's trendy and current and number two I think failing, like I said, allows you to learn what, what you're good at what you're not good at. And I really think I get it successes more marketable. But honey, if you're not failing, I just, I just don't see how you use the current and relevant. You're going to get updated anyway. And so let's learn to just embrace failure and see it as a way for you to learn what worked and what did not work and move on from that.
00:35:40Edit It's hard. So allow yourself and I see this now, but I also want to say it's important sometimes when you feel like you've failed, allow yourself to take time to be sad to be bummed out um and just take that time alone to recharge and then get back up. So yeah, take care of the soul. Yeah, it's important. So important. Thank you so much for being on the podcast. I have loved chatting to and learning about your businesses and your mission and what you're doing for the world. I think it's so fab. Thank you so much.