June 24, 2015

It’s not news that the health care systems in many parts of Africa are sorely lacking: There are great needs for more doctors, more medicine and more medical equipment. But a hidden hole in the system for many years has been vehicular: The ambulances, trucks and motorcycles that were meant to help practitioners get aid to their patients were, quite simply, falling apart. And even if you have the medicine people need, it does them no good if you can’t reach them.

Andrea Coleman, co-founder of Riders for Health, recognized that problem, and made solving it her mission. For the work that her organization has accomplished, Riders for Health was recently honored with Wharton’s 2015 Lipman Family Prize. Anne Greenhalgh, deputy director of the Wharton Leadership Program, spoke with Coleman about what Riders for Health does, how it works and the challenges of providing health care on a continent where good-quality roads are often harder to come by than good doctors.

An edited transcript of the conversations appears below:

Anne Greenhalgh: Could you begin and tell us a little bit about your organization and the kind of social impact you’ve had?

Andrea Coleman: Riders for Health is an organization we started 25 years ago. And we started it because we became aware that vehicles were being sent to Africa — ambulances, motorcycles and other vehicles — but nobody was training local people to maintain them or run and manage [them] — all the very basic things that have to be done to keep a vehicle going.

We realized that what that meant was that vehicles — very expensive vehicles — were breaking quickly and easily, which meant a waste of the money, a waste of the vehicle and a waste of lives, because people weren’t being reached with the health care that those vehicles were meant to take to them.

And, of course, Africa is 86% rural. It’s a rural continent. So, once those hard roads finish, there’s no infrastructure. Actually, there are no roads, but the vehicles aren’t working either. Even if you had all of the roads in the world, you still wouldn’t be getting to those people who desperately need the health care.

We decided that that was something we could address and really make a change to. You can spend a lot of money on developing drugs or training health workers, but if they can’t get to the people who really need it, you’re wasting time and lives.

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