VAKA Health Foundation
How La Trobe’s accidental entrepreneur is improving healthcare in Africa.
Partnership at a glance
- Senior lecturer in nursing at La Trobe’s Rural Health School, Yangama Jokwiro, helped create an app to allow nurses to connect and upskill in Zimbabwe
- Thousands of Zimbabwean nurses flooded to the new platform, and Dr Jokwiro felt responsible to manage the technology and to have impact
- La Trobe’s Global Markets Accelerator provided practical skills, connected him to networks and to new sources of funding and collaboration
- La Trobe University's program also taught him to believe in the vision: VAKA Health Foundation, through its Guild Learning Centre, now operates in 16 countries in Africa and has rolled out its MyCpd platform, providing post-graduate nursing education, in Botswana.
Yangama Jokwiro is nothing if not ambitious. In 2018, he imagined a digital platform to revolutionise nursing career development in Zimbabwe and, by extension, save lives.
A registered nurse, senior lecturer and nursing course coordinator at La Trobe University’s Rural Health School in Shepparton, Dr Jokwiro knows nursing, teaching, hospitals and universities inside-out. He also understands how to get things done in his birth-place Zimbabwe.
But app development and digital sustainability? Suddenly, he needed expertise in cyber security, philanthropy and business development.
La Trobe’s Accelerator Program (LTAP) has not just plugged a knowledge gap but given him entrepreneurial skills to create an ecosystem and grow the dream of expanding across Africa.
At the beginning of this journey, we were more interested in the impact rather than the processes, but we quickly learned that there were lots of things that we needed to get up to speed with to succeed.
Born into a family of teachers in rural Zimbabwe, Dr Jokwiro trained as a nurse before travelling to Australia in 2004 to work and continue his studies. Initially based at the La Trobe University Melbourne Campus in Bundoora, he moved to Shepparton in 2019.
“Many of our students are the first in the family to go to university,” he says.
“In regional towns, students often have very difficult circumstances and nursing empowers them. You see the personal growth of people and you feel like you're creating great impact.”
But working in Australia also revealed how advances in digital healthcare have passed Africa by.
“When we trained as nurses at the University of Zimbabwe, the digital divide was small,” Dr Jokwiro says.
“Computers were not being used in hospitals here in Australia, and it was the same in Africa. But over the past 20 years, the digital advances in developed countries – in care processes, robotics, artificial intelligence – have benefitted patients. Now when I visit Zimbabwe, I see the divide.”
With his brother Addmore, a medical doctor in Zimbabwe, he created MyCpdZw, an app that gives nurses access to the vital drug information book, online and offline, to check dosages and update important health information. The brothers also saw potential for the platform to offer vital continuous professional development (CPD).
The Zimbabwean government offered implementation support, but no development funding, and also requested that the app enable nurses to renew their licenses online.
“Overnight, it pretty much digitised the profession in Zimbabwe, hosting more than 30,000 nurses, or 95 per cent of the nation’s nursing workforce,” Dr Jokwiro says.
“But there were loads of things we didn't consider, like training, site maintenance and troubleshooting, secure hosting and security. All those things cost money”.
The brothers ploughed their own money into the app and signed up to LTAP training in 2021.
Dr Jokwiro grasped the opportunities – from greater tech knowledge, confidence-building, introductions to experienced mentors and philanthropic funding possibilities – and on one surprising day, found himself pitching at a Sydney investor conference.
“Here I was, among the various venture capitalists and people who want one word sound bites, and I'm a teacher who loves telling stories… absolutely outside my comfort zone,” he laughs.
However, his stories resonated. Peter Williams, a philanthropist with expert knowledge of business in Africa, became a supporter, helped create VAKA Health Foundation and urged the brothers to think big.
“When you grow up in Africa, you always have that spirit of ‘can do’ and innovation, because the resources are not always there,” Dr Jokwiro says.
“I grew up with that DNA but making a sustainable business isn’t one level up: it’s multiple levels up.”
“We’re now working in 16 countries, providing free postgraduate training in critical areas through our Guild Learning Centre platform,” he says.
“It might be about chronic diseases, midwifery or critical care nursing, because if you get injured in Africa, in a rural setting, you might not find a critical care nurse in that region. We’re trying to change that.”
To learn more, visit VAKA Health Foundation.
To discover more about the La Trobe University entrepreneurial network and programs, contact our Innovation and Entrepreneurship team.