Gym and yoga won’t cure Kenya’s healthcare

Saturday December 07 2019

Kenya’s emerging middle class are quick to pay for expensive gym memberships while somewhat lax about undergoing basic health checks. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


The average cost of gym membership in Nairobi is roughly Sh4,000 a month.

But not everyone loves to lift weights; some prefer yoga, indoor cycling, dance and aerobics while many more just relish outdoor activities.

What is striking, however, is the ease with which Kenya’s emerging middle class are quick to pay for expensive gym memberships while somewhat lax about undergoing basic health checks that cost as little as Sh200 to look for signs of chronic illnesses.

As a healthcare and financial services investor, our firm, Leapfrog Investments, periodically studies the health-seeking behaviours and spending habits of emerging consumers to help inform our investment strategy.

The old adage that prevention is better than cure frequently gets lost in what is fashionable and trendy.

This consumer behaviour is symptomatic of how traditional health systems have been historically designed and continue to operate — with a fixation on complex, reactive and expensive solutions rather than simple, coordinated and affordable approaches that can go a long way in ensuring better quality of patient care.



A systematic patient-centred and collaborative approach among all stakeholders is mandatory if we are to solve the daunting healthcare needs of all Kenyans.

Only about 20 per cent of the Kenyan population has some form of health insurance, primarily through employment. The rest — the 80 per cent — pay cash for health services.

This is the grim reality: Over 150 million people globally fall into poverty annually due to catastrophic healthcare events and inability to pay for basic healthcare services.

According to the World Health Organisation, countries in the African continent have access to just one per cent of the world’s financial resources for health yet bear 24 per cent of the global disease burden.

African governments face a healthcare financing shortfall of over US$65 billion per year. In fact, many are far from meeting the Abuja Declaration of allocating 15 per cent of GDP to the health sector.


This has resulted in several issues, including poorly-equipped health centres, shortage of skilled healthcare workers, limited availability of quality medicine and limited use of medical technology.

The result is the ever-increasing number of medical tourists to geographies outside of Africa, accompanied by the flight of qualified medical personnel.

This, in turn, has led to depletion of resources available to local health systems.

With infectious diseases like HIV, malaria and tuberculosis yet to be resolved, the spiralling increase in chronic illnesses is a double-whammy.

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer are on the rise in Kenya and in Africa.

While deaths from NCDs are estimated to increase globally by 17 per cent over the next 10 years, the continent is expected to experience a 27 per cent increase. Soon, NCDs will be the leading cause of illness, disability and death in Africa.


That is why the story of gym membership, taken at face value is potentially relevant.

As the fitness industry grows, this must go hand in hand with investments in diagnostic and preventative health solutions that address underlying causes of NCDs.

Such investments should not only be focused on medical facilities but should include access to vaccinations, provision of clean water and sanitation, protecting the food supply chain, and most importantly, empowering consumers with the knowledge and technologies to make decisions about their healthcare needs.

We cannot be under the illusion that creating a patient-centred collaborative health system will be easy.

Progress requires the participation of policymakers, regulators, payors, health workers, medical facilities, patient advocacy groups and indeed the private sector.


Earlier this week, we celebrated a milestone for Goodlife Pharmacies, a Leapfrog investment focused on providing equitable access to quality healthcare for all Kenyans.

It is because of its collaboration with service partners that Goodlife has today grown three-fold since our investment to reach 60 locations.

It drives us towards the next set of opportunities, including point-of-care diagnostics and remote-based technologies that can provide cost-effective access to specialised care.

I firmly believe that such health systems readily found globally can also be developed in Africa. But this will only be possible if we work together.

Dr Olale is a partner and Global Lead for healthcare investments at Leapfrog Investments, an investor in financial and healthcare services in Africa and Asia.