Sexual and mental health stigma in Africa has evolved over decades to a point where failure to address the problem has led the continent to top the charts in terms of sexually transmitted infections (STDs) and mental health cases.
First, about 11 people in 100,000 die by suicide in Africa each year, according to the World Health Organization; that’s compared to the global average of nine per 100,000 people. In addition, the sub-Saharan region is second only to Southeast Asia with the highest incidence of STIs, with more than 80 million cases per year.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to tackling the stigma surrounding sexual and mental health in Africa, taking into account sporadic government efforts. To that end, Berry Health, a several-month-old Ghanaian startup, is throwing its hat in like many other startups after a $1.6 million pre-seed round co-led by US-based major finance Lightspeed Ventures (the first investment in Africa) and General Catalyst.
In an interview with TechCrunch, Fredua Akosa, founder and CEO of Berry Health, said the health tech startup is “bringing judgment-free healthcare in a 21st century way to a continent where stigma cuts deeper and impacts so many lives.”
Akosa has had quite a career. After moving from London, where he grew up, to Ghana, where he completed his medical training, the director practiced for five years as a general practitioner in hospitals in rural and urban areas. But at Yale, where he continued his public health studies as a researcher, and later at Oxford during his MBA, Akosa said he discovered technology’s place in healthcare to “impact lives at scale.”
“During the pandemic, I had come to Ghana to visit family and of course I had many patients, including relatives and friends, asking for free consultations. During that period, I realized a huge explosion of mental illness and disease around stigmatized health care,” said the British-Ghanaian doctor. “People were so embarrassed that they went to the hospital and talked about things they were ashamed of when they shouldn’t have. That, to me, was the origin of Berry: the realization that there is a huge need to break health stigma through technology.”
If Africa with the highest rates of suicide, clinically diagnosed depression and sexually transmitted diseases paints a grim picture of the continent worldwide, the continent’s low physician-to-individual ratio (1:10,000) paints a grim picture (as opposed to 30 physicians per 10,000). people in the US and 37 doctors per 10,000 in Europe). However, the good news is that this situation, with the help of pandemic changing behaviors, has accelerated the use of telemedicine, virtual care and drug delivery platforms in Africa, fueling investor interest in Africa’s health technology in recent years; Yodawy, Reliance Health, Healthtracka, Helium Health, Esaal and MyHealth Africa are some of the beneficiaries across the continent.
The models used by these startups have democratized access to healthcare, which has traditionally been limited to in-person, often expensive consultations. They also empower a wider range of consumers to take control of their health and well-being, removing barriers that have hindered access to quality care. As such, starting with clients from Ghana, Berry Health offers remote diagnosis — for conditions such as anxiety, depression and sexual health (e.g., contraception and erectile dysfunction), dermatology and hair loss — through telemedicine and treatment through online consultations and home delivery services. On the platform, customers can talk to a licensed physician or clinical psychologist, have a curated personalized treatment plan for their conditions, and then have medications delivered.
“These are some areas we focus on: mental health, dermatology, hair loss and sexual health issues that people generally feel too embarrassed to go to the hospital for. We are super excited about the number of other healthcare players because we know how complex the overall health issue is, I am a practitioner,” said the CEO. “But our focus is on stigma and we want to put people at ease about seeking care, not feeling like they’re being judged or like they’re wrong for seeking treatment.”
The subscription-based platform plans to charge 299GH ($26) annually for users to access all of its services and $5 per consultation with clinicians (Akosa said this fee is 25% less than what is typically charged in e.g. Ghana is charged). Berry Health — whose executive team includes professionals from WPP, Instacart and Babylon Health and a medical advisory board made up of gynecologists, dermatologists and several other specialists — has signed several doctors and clinicians and plans to come out of hiding late next month, next to Akosa.
Most of Berry Health’s executives have worked in the US and Europe for a number of years, raising some concerns that their expertise may not be suitable for the African health technology market, which has particular challenges. Addressing this, Akosa believes it was paramount for the Accra- and London-based health startup to assemble a team with “different regions, views and perspectives (including himself and several clinical psychologists on the ground) to explore the tackling healthcare problems in Africa.”
“It is more difficult for many companies in Europe and the US to deliver the kind of healthcare revolution that Fredua is trying to bring about in Africa because their medical systems are not only complicated and expensive, but there are also many regulations, rules and restrictions . But there is an opportunity to do more with Africa with a team like this,” said Paul Murphy, partner at Lightspeed, when speaking to TechCrunch when asked about Berry Health’s team structure.
After completing his MBA at Oxford, Akosa moved into venture capital as an associate at Northzone, where he worked with Murphy, including on a Series A investment in New York-based healthcare company Thirty Madison. The doctor-cum-investor-cum-founder then went on to build growth for one of Europe’s fastest-growing startups: $10 billion quick-commerce upstart Flink.
“He has a resume that you can only dream of, and we have an underserved market, a business model that we know works well in the US and Europe. These are all the ingredients for what could be a phenomenal company that helps people. That’s why we were so excited about it,” Murphy added, why Lightspeed, which has successfully supported several healthcare companies in different markets such as Aledade, Wheel and Air Doctor, made its first investment in Africa through Berry Health.
Other investors in the health tech pre-seed round include Reddit COO Jen Wong; Co-founders of Thirty Madison, Demetri Karagas and Steven Gutentag; New York tech attorney and VC Ed and Betsy Zimmerman; and former US Surgeon General under the Obama administration Regina Benjamin.