Eri Machii, a 37-year-old pharmacist, hopes a traditional Japanese method of marketing medicine will take off in Africa and help improve health care.
The method is called okigusuri, in which a sales representative brings a variety of medicines to a client’s home without requiring any deposit or advance payment. The medicines are stored in a free box given to the client.
Clients have no obligation to buy any of them but pay only for what they have used when the sales representative comes around the next time. The representative then restocks the box.
Machii thought of introducing the “use first, pay later” system, which originated in the late 17th century in what is now Toyama Prefecture, because of a bitter experience she had when working in Niger in 2008 as a volunteer dispatched by the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
She was teaching the importance of infection prevention to residents of a village in the West African country. One day, a young mother asked her for money for the treatment of her boy, who had a high fever, at a hospital.
Machii turned down the request, feeling that giving money was not a fundamental solution to health care problems in Niger, where the average life expectancy is just over 50 years. The boy died a month later.
Returning to Japan with a sense of regret, Machii founded the nonprofit organization AfriMedico to offer sustainable support for the improvement of health care in Africa.
In a contest held by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government last November to support young entrepreneurs, Machii beat more than 400 rivals to win the top award for her idea of leaving around 10 kinds of medicine, such as those for colds and diarrhea, at homes in Africa.
AfriMedico has already put the idea into practice in Tanzania, where the security situation is relatively good. In many villages, residents have to walk more than an hour to the nearest hospital, and bogus drugs are in circulation.
Machii believes Japanese drugs have a good reputation in Tanzania and that the practice of okigusuri will prove popular in Africa. She also hopes that AfriMedico will pave the way for Japanese drugmakers to pay more attention to the continent.
Machii was born in Osaka and worked for a pharmaceutical company after graduating from university. She has long history of volunteer work, including at facilities established by Mother Teresa in India.
AfriMedico needs to address a large number of tasks, such as the management of medicines left to clients, fundraising and the establishment of relations with influential people in villages.
“We will settle one problem at a time to bring health and smiles to Africa,” Machii said.