Feke: from South Africa to Ghana and back


siphokazi feke, BW Medical Group, Ghana, South Africa “What make me a great entrepreneur? I have a curious mind. I am always asking: If I do this, what happens?” says Siphoakazi Feke. (Image: Barry Hiles)

Publishing Media Club South Africa stories - click here

Sulaiman Philip

“When I make my first billion I will go back to Lusikisiki and change lives. I am from there, I know what needs exist.” It would be easy to dismiss Siphokazi Feke as simply boastful if all you did was listen to her laugh as she speaks those words.

As she outlines the path she wants her life to take she giggles like a schoolgirl, but there is a confident edge to her voice, a strength that comes from having overcome obstacles to build a successful business.

“If I think about it, I am risk averse. Failure terrifies me. Life had other plans though. I was forced to face failure,” she says. “I have learned there is just one question you ask yourself: how do I use this experience to move on to the next level?”

Feke is the managing director of BW Medical Group, a medical travel agency that channels African – most from the DRC, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Ghana-  patients to South Africa for treatment. It also runs a dialysis and urology clinic in Ghana, where she lives for most of the year.

For the rest of Africa, South Africa remains the standard for good medical care; those who can afford it choose to have elective surgery in South Africa. “In Ghana they cut you to remove kidney stones so you’re looking at weeks of recovery. In South Africa, we use shock wave therapy that can be done as an outpatient.”

Know your market

There are no secrets to success, Feke will tell you, only hands on hard work and knowing your market. In Ghana, as it is in most of Africa, learning about your market is difficult. There is not much in the way of data to begin with, but a good entrepreneur works around that. Before sourcing the funding and founding the BW Medical Centre in Accra in 2012, Feke sought data on the number of patients needing dialysis in Ghana’s capital.

“Funders want data but no-one keeps those records. What they do have are death certificates with the cause of death listed. I looked through those records for any deaths that could be linked to renal failure and the numbers of patients on chronic medication for hypertension and diabetes, looked at the growing middle class and from that I could extrapolate from that a need existed for a clinic. After that it is gut feel and hard work.”

In two years the clinic in Ghana has gone from a start-up struggling to find funding to an established and trusted clinic treating Accra’s influential. “We are at the point now where doctors treat patients, nurse’s care for them and patients pay. It’s a self-sustaining business. Now we can set our sights on the rest of ECOWAS,” Feke says.

Africa is alive with opportunity, she explains. It is easier to convince funders to support projects in African countries other than South Africa. For many, South Africa is a mature economy with resources unavailable to more deserving African economies.

“The World Bank, for example, will fund a start up in Nairobi before they would one in Cape Town. It’s one of the reasons I moved to Ghana. As an entrepreneur you find innovative ways to find cash. You tweak your dream, you hustle. You do what you need to do to get your vision up and running. South African entrepreneurs need to remind themselves the world is open to investing in Africa. We Africans have the opportunity to build African conglomerates. We can create wealth by Africans for Africa.”

Qualified nephrologist

Feke was the first black woman to qualify as a clinical technologist with a speciality in nephrology in South Africa. In 1998, when she started working at HF Verwoerd Hospital – now the Steve Biko Academic Hospital – her race was still an issue. “Families would ask why I wanted to touch their father. No-one wanted to be treated by me. A paradigm shift was needed before I could do my job. Fortunately there were people like [senior clinical technologist] Blake van Aswegen, who went out of their way to accommodate me.”

In 2001, Feke quit clinical practice and went to work in the pharmaceutical industry. She did sales before moving into brand and product management. Impressed by her insights into the African market, her employer sent her back to school, where she went through the Gordon Institute of Business Science’s Programme for Management Development. It was an education that stood her in good stead while working for a multinational pharmaceutical company, but proved a hindrance when she went out on her own.

“I had to unlearn everything and learn how Africa really worked. It’s an unfortunate thing to say but South Africans need to make a mind shift about Africa. We can’t just turn up and expect people to listen. We need to develop an affinity for the region, learn how Africa works, how cultures differ.

“Johannesburg is the melting pot for business in Africa, but outside our borders is where the opportunities are. If you are not going to invest the time to learn, then choose to invest somewhere else. Somewhere you consider safe.”

Along the way there have been people who have assisted this global South African: the clinician who paid her rent when she arrived in Pretoria, the manager at Adcock Ingram who encouraged Feke to believe in her talents, the entrepreneur who loaned her the seed money for BW Medical and the Metropolitan Insurance Group which took a chance on her vision.

Promise of a school

Right at the beginning, though, was Nelson Mandela, the man who promised her a school. “In 1990, I was in school in Qunu, the same school that Madiba attended. I met him when he came home and he promised that he would build us a school before he became president. Not just walls but a school with an entire support system to give kids a chance.”

On her first attempt Feke failed a single matric subject – she passed the year, but not well enough to go on to study medicine. It was then that she got advice from her father that still resounds with her today. “My father suggested that I was still young enough to go back and redo matric. I still remember what he told me: failure is an event; it does not need to define who you are.”

Feke’s trajectory has unfurled not with cheery inevitably; her success is built on desire and the will to not bow to failure. She traded the comfort of her rural home for Durban, then Pretoria and finally Ghana.

She lost her fear of the challenge of the new when she moved to Pretoria to do her in-service training. “I was standing at the station at 4am with my luggage. It was dark and there was no one to meet me because the hospital was not informed of my arrival, and no idea which direction the hospital was in. For a girl from rural Transkei it does not get scarier than that.”