Building Kenya’s ‘Uber for ambulances’

In a medical emergency, finding the right care quickly can be the difference between life and death. Flare is a Kenya-based technology company that connects emergency service providers with people in need of immediate assistance. Jeanette Clark talks to co-founder and managing director Caitlin Dolkart about the steps taken to establish the business and the growth opportunities in the region.

While working for the Clinton Foundation in Kenya, Caitlin Dolkart noticed the lack of accessible healthcare for people in the country.

Dolkart and Maria Rabinovich, co-founders of Flare, zeroed in on emergency care services and asked, “Why was it so difficult to find an ambulance when you needed one?”

“We became obsessed with this question. When we checked whether it was a lack of supply… we were shocked: Nairobi has more ambulances per capita than London.” But most of the ambulances were owner-operated and -managed. It was a very fragmented market.

Field research to build a business case

In the early days of Flare’s existence in 2017, Dolkart spent weeks riding in the back of ambulances to understand where the issues were. “The demand was there, and the supply was there, but something in the system wasn’t working,” she says.

Flare didn’t need to change consumer behaviour; people in a car accident wouldn’t choose whether to use an ambulance or not. They just needed to be able to find one. “We had patients in need of care and excess demand, all that was missing was the technology to link the two,” she says.

Flare developed a response system, which includes a hotline and mobile apps for users as well as a backend platform for ambulance companies: almost an Uber for ambulances. When a subscriber records an emergency, either through the app or via the call centre, the nearest ambulance is dispatched.

Subscription based model

One of the most significant challenges was solving how subscribers would cover the cost of the service.

“An Uber trip in Kenya would cost you around 300 Kenyan shillings or US$2.40. Ambulances are a lot more expensive and we, very early on, decided that we never wanted to ask anyone calling the service: ‘How are you going to pay today?’ That question, that friction, just could not exist,” she says.

The solution was a subscription model, which spreads the risk across multiple users and makes the service more affordable. Users pay a subscription fee to access Flare’s platform, with different levels of coverage starting at approximately $32 per year for an individual and around $103 per year for a family of four.

Flare co-founders, Maria Rabinovich (left) and Caitlin Dolkart

Organic growth

Initially, Flare signed up individual users to the service, gradually building a client base. “If the service assisted in, for example, saving a life, the client and his or her family would tell all their friends and colleagues about it. The service markets itself,” says Dolkart.

As the user numbers increased, conversations with businesses became easier, and now Flare is the largest provider of emergency services in Kenya, with over two million subscribers. Larger corporates, NGOs, and even the government have signed up and subsidise their employees.

She lists transport and mobility clients as a large potential market for Flare, due to the prevalence of road accidents in the country. “Bolt, one of the largest providers of e-hailing taxi services in Kenya, is a big customer. Any passenger or driver can press an emergency button in the Bolt app when needed,” says Dolkart.

When Flare started it could take up to three hours to get an ambulance to an emergency site. Today, says Dolkart, it takes 15 minutes.

Doctors and hospitals have also started using Flare to enable more efficient referrals and transfers between medical facilities, or to make sure patients can be transported from home to hospital or vice versa.

Branching out

In addition to its ambulance service, Flare has added roadside assistance and offers this as part of a bundled package. Dolkart explains, “We take care of your vehicle in case of a road accident and also offer support if you experience a breakdown on the road.”

“Many products can easily be added to what we already offer. Emergencies and their related service needs don’t occur in isolation, and there is an interconnected nature to different emergencies that we can cater to in the future,” she says.

As for its geographical reach, Flare is currently only operating in Kenya but hopes to expand in the region and into West Africa by the end of the year.

Artificial intelligence and the future

As a technology company that connects supply and demand, Flare is aware of the significance of the data it collects continuously.

“In every call, we have approximately 1,000 data points – the time of the call, the type of emergency, the response time, the call duration, and so on. We currently use machine learning to determine which hospital would be better suited to handle a particular case,” says Dolkart.

While using AI to predict the next emergency is still far off, Dolkart recognises the potential of technology to enhance emergency service delivery.

Flare managing director Caitlin Dolkart’s contact information

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