First posed some six years ago, the question was like a drumbeat that had no end. “When are we going to do something in Africa?” General Electric Corp.’s African-American employees kept asking John “Jack” Welch Jr., the company’s then chairman and CEO.
The response was the same: Africa is too unstable; nothing would be viable.
“But the team from the African-American Forum kept coming back with the question year after year at our annual symposium. When [Jeffrey R.] Immelt assumed Jack’s role [in 2001], he was approached with the same question,” says Alex Canfor-Dumas, GE Healthcare’s Ghanaian-born project manager for all of that unit’s sustaining efforts in Africa. “The second year he responded favorably. He said he was not going to build a factory in Africa, but he wanted to use some of GE’s resources to do good and provide feedback.”
Thus was born the company’s Africa Project, a five-year, $20 million philanthropic initiative to improve health-care delivery, patient outcomes and quality of life. Championed since its inception by Forum heavy hitters like Paula Madison, executive vice president and chief diversity officer at NBC Universal, another GE unit, and Michael Barber, vice president and chief technology officer at GE Healthcare, its project was launched in Ghana in 2004. Since then, it has been branded under the name “Developing Health Globally” and has expanded to include Latin America. It is overseen by the company’s corporate citizenship arm, under the leadership of Robert Corcoran, GE’s vice president for corporate citizenship.
GE had been doing business in Africa since 1894, when it entered South Africa, but it took the vision and doggedness of its employees of African descent to get the company’s first continentwide philanthropic effort going, more than 100 years later.
“If we are here just to sell products we’d be in trouble. To grow in Africa, we have to be part of Africa. We have to accept a wider responsibility to help the continent build on the progress we’ve seen so far,” says Yibrah Tesfazghi, president of GE Africa, who is based in Kenya.
To date, the Africa component of “Developing Health Globally” has resulted in 12 upgraded hospitals in Ghana and 13 newly initiated projects in countries including Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Rwanda and Senegal. Under a 2006 “Millennium District Hospitals” partnership with The Earth Institute at Columbia University, more than 30 hospitals and clinics across Africa are expected to be upgraded.
Headed by world-renowned economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, architect of the transition from state-run to market economies in Russia and Poland, The Earth Institute envisions eliminating extreme poverty worldwide by 2025 through sustainable development. In Africa, it is applying sustainable social, scientific and economic concepts in 12 so-called Millennium Villages located in 10 countries. These villages are the target sites for GE’s health-care initiative.
“We are collaborating with Jeffrey Sachs’s Millennium Villages. We’re following him wherever he goes,” says Canfor-Dumas.
Ghana was chosen as GE’s test site because the country met the criteria established by the company’s corporate citizenship team using U.S. State Department and United Nations’ guidelines: a stable government, adequate infrastructure to sustain the project and need. Ghanaian health officials identified the need for sustainable health-care equipment, power supply to clinics and hospitals and potable and filtered water. They chose a health center in Asesewa in eastern Ghana, with a population of 100,000, as the pilot site.
Getting under way entailed a complex deployment effort, for which the corporate citizenship team hired Assist International, a GE-approved nonprofit organization in California with proficiency in logistics and in addressing site-related issues. Assist Int. scoped out Asesewa to determine what modifications were needed to accommodate new equipment, mobilize local resources to make those modifications—such as building the housing unit for a generator and doing the necessary wiring—and move equipment to Africa from GE manufacturing plants around the world.
Three key GE businesses—GE Healthcare, GE Infrastructure and GE Industrial—came together for the project. GE Healthcare provided both simple and advanced X-ray equipment to enhance the facility’s diagnostic imaging capabilities, systems to monitor the equipment, maternal- and infant-care products such as baby warmers, incubators, blankets, therapy lamps and anesthesia units. It turned to third parties for items it did not manufacture, such as lab-equipment peripherals to enable printing of analog X-Rays.
GE Infrastructure, comprising GE Energy, GE Water, provided such necessities as backup generators and water purification and storage systems. In cases where no water was available, the GE Water team helped find a water source by basically digging a well, then filtering the water and sending it to the site. Where water was available, the team worked on filtration.
GE Industrial brought in wiring and switching products. “They brought the power that helped the generator to behave well. Some of these sites were so old they needed to be completely rewired,” Canfor-Dumas says.
GE product managers arrived to make sure the equipment worked properly and to train the local users. The site was then “commissioned,” meaning formally handed over to the new owners of the equipment in a ceremony attended by local stakeholders and dignitaries.
By the time the upgrade was completed, the Asesewa clinic had become a full-fledged hospital. The effort was replicated at eight additional sites in Ghana.
Engaging GE employees
Once a site was commissioned, Canfor-Dumas and his team of leaders from other GE Businesses were responsible for making sure there was “engagement” at the site with the appropriate control plans, ensuring equipment use and consumable access, providing guidance to root-cause analysis for equipment repair and breakdowns, providing audit plan for service and maintenance, and tracking key indicators for equipment use. The team also provides relationship management in the impacted communities, i.e., engage in knowledge transfer by sharing GE best practices, facilitating process improvement, and coaching and mentoring site staff.
“There are people across the company who have direct relationships with the sites. We measure things like overall patient access—how many are accessing those hospitals over time on a monthly basis; referral rates; and mortality rates. In the past, the clinic would send cases to a bigger hospital. We want to see if we were having a broader impact geared to mothers and babies,” says Canfor-Dumas.
His team also undertook community programs in health education and neonatal care, rewarding those who go to the hospital for treatment with such gifts as new-mother and baby-care kits paid for by GE employees out of their own pockets. GE employees also donated hospital mattresses, mosquito nets and bed linens for the site; they also started soccer-ball, schoolbook and school-supplies drives to keep children in the community engaged in education and a healthy lifestyle.
“The number of people accessing these hospitals has more than tripled,” Canfor-Dumas says. “We also conducted leadership skills training last year. In 2008, we are planning to provide coaching to hospital administrators on budget discipline so they can reinvest in their sites.”
All this has won over local skeptics. “No other peer corporation is doing anything similar on this scale,” says Canfor-Dumas. “When we went to Ghana first they were in doubt. One of the reasons was due to unsuccessful execution of projects by other corporate bodies. When we demonstrated that we were in for the long haul, they were surprised. Never in the history of the country had they gotten this extent of corporate support.”
Attracting local professionals
Local health professionals, who in the past shied away from remote locations in favor of urban facilities, are gravitating to the new hospitals. Africa’s shortage of health professionals, many of whom have fled to North America and Europe, is legend. Less than one percent of the continent’s population is health workers, and of that one percent, 70 percent are professionals—dentists, doctors, pharmacists—and 30 percent are paraprofessionals.
With state-of-the art equipment and power and water issues resolved, the GE-upgraded hospitals are attracting more professionals. “All of a sudden we’re getting resident doctors to stay. Doctors [at the sites] are now crying for help, which is forcing the government to have broader government funding for these sites,” Canfor-Dumas says.
“One of the things GE provided was satellite connectivity to allow the hospital staff to communicate with the outside world in addition to GE partners and also to allow them to share best practices locally among themselves. These are rural hospitals, all of a sudden they have Internet connectivity, power and clean water, so we’re getting some of the professionals to be confident about going there,” he says. “When we look at the statistics from the World Health Organization, we’re barely scratching the surface, but we’re making a huge difference,” says Canfor-Dumas.
The lives that are being saved are not just Ghanaian lives. Americans and other foreigners working in the region are flying in to get treatment at the upgraded facilities because of the capacity and technical ability at those sites in such areas as nursing and cardiology, he says
The Africa Project has created a unique learning experience for GE’s top-talent, African-American employees. “We actually send African-American employees to Africa for three- to four-week ‘bubble assignments’ as part of this initiative,” says Deborah Elam, GE’s vice president and chief diversity officer.
Seven employees were sent to four sites in Ghana in 2006 with an assignment in process improvement—showing local workers how to use the equipment more effectively to handle capacity and the influx of patients; knowledge transfer—sharing GE’s transferable best practices through, for example, basic leadership training courses for doctors at that site and others; and coaching and mentoring site staff.
Another group in 2007 was tasked with six-sigma projects, which involved tackling any unique problems around patient health and removing redundancies.
In addition, as part of its relationship management with Ghana, GE is providing grants through National Medical Fellowship Inc. to send African-American, fourth-year medical students to Ghana to practice in return for credit toward their residency program. The first group of five students arrived in Ghana in March 2007.
“There is no end to this project. The program with National Medical Fellowships has gone so well that eleven medical students will be heading to Ghana in March,” Canfor-Dumas says.
In January, Janeen Uzzell, GE Healthcare’s director of service operations and a 2005 TNJ 40 Under-Forty honoree, visited three of the hospitals in Ghana with the chief executive of the National Medical Fellowship, as a precursor to sending the 11 medical students to those facilities in March for a three-month assignment there.
How the project sites continue to function rests with the beneficiaries. Some worry that as governments restructure, the current level of commitment and accountability may be scaled back from the facilities.
“We have direct accountability on how things are going from the Ghana Health Service to the ministerial level, which is accountable to the president of the country. Hence we see involvement on a regular basis to make sure things are done,” Canfor-Dumas says. “I want that to be in place even as the government changes. This is an election year in Ghana and we remain confident that the outcome will not impact the work we have done.”
Two hospital projects are under way in Honduras, the first country selected in Latin America for the “Developing Health Globally” initiative. Decisions on additional countries will be made by the corporate citizenship leadership and the project’s sustainability will be led by the Hispanic Forum, the affinity network for GE’s Hispanic employees.
“This is what it takes to be both a good and great company in the world. It’s not just by making numbers. These are the things you have to do,” Canfor-Dumas says. “We’re not stopping in Africa and getting comfortable it’s been done. The health disparity exists in Latin American and Southeast Asia,” he adds.
By Rosalind McLymont