Darden Student Profiles: Changing Healthcare in Burundi

I recently sat in on a speech by Ed Freeman, where he shared about how to discover Inspiration. A particularly important point he made is to look for inspiration among those around us. For Ed, inspiration came from within his family.
As we think about the Darden Family, it seemed appropriate to look for inspiration within our family. With that in mind, I'm excited to invite our first student speaker to share a bit about his story.
- CJ (EMDC President)


Student: Jonathan O'Conner
Co-Founder & Vice-President
LifeNet International

Jonathan, in 2008 you co-founded LifeNet International in order to deliver health solutions to the poor in Burundi.

Can you share a bit about what motivated you to launch this organization?
We started LifeNet out of a desire to better serve the global poor and for me, personally, an entrepreneurial desire to be part of a start-up. Microfinance had done wonders in helping the poor gain sustenance in food, but little had been done in healthcare. We wanted to create something that would bring healing to the poor.

I was working in investments at the time, when a mentor approached me with his idea to apply business-thinking to healthcare for the poor. We wanted to serve the poor in a way that would be sustainable (financially) and scalable (would impact a large number of people).

Launching a business is Burundi is an unusual task. What challenges did you face in bringing LifeNet to fruition?

There were two key lessons I learned in Burundi: fail fast, and persevere. Within three months of our launch we had completely failed in our idea for nurse entrepreneurs. The government regulations significantly restricted innovation in the delivery platform and many of the local nurses had much lower levels of education than we ever imagined. But we failed fast and learned faster. Within a few weeks we had another pilot launched focused on franchising existing clinics and a few months later launched our final major pilot that further honed our idea to focus on faith-based clinics, which were strategically significant in the country.

Our final model was a conversion franchise for faith-based clinics. That means, we took existing clinics and incorporated them into our franchise network to deliver nursing and businesses education, quality control, and medicine supply.

Official NGO registration with the government is required to scale your organization, import goods and the like. This process took me 16 months to complete because we refused to pay bribes. I met with everyone from the Minister of Health to the Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs to every administrative assistant, I believe, in the entire government (so perhaps not everyone in the government, but I did meet with a LOT of people to gain our final approval). But all the work, all the setbacks, taught me a very important lesson in not giving up.
How has LifeNet impacted the health system in Burundi? What challenges remain in improving healthcare delivery?

It’s incredibly exciting to see our work continue to grow. We’re now in 40 clinics and hospitals in Burundi and our network sees nearly 50,000 patient visits every month! In our first 10 clinic partners (with one year of partnership) we’ve improved the quality of care by 63% on average. In a country of 9 million people, we feel like there’s a real chance to impact their well-being.

The challenges ahead are significant. We’re still trying to increase the financial sustainability of our operations through medicine importation, but that’s a very difficult business in a developing country. There are also significant infrastructure and educational constraints that are major problems and not quickly fixed.

What prompted you to come to Darden for your MBA?

After nearly three years in Burundi our project was beginning to shift from our pilot stage to scaled growth. I felt that this was the right time for me to make a personal transition back to the US and that’s when I applied to Darden.

My work with LifeNet taught me the power of business-thinking to create value in the nonprofit space but I was always wanted something more. I saw telecoms in Burundi that were making millions in profit and yet creating tremendous social value that nobody seemed to recognize. And that’s what I wanted to do. Create businesses that generated both economic and social forms of capital and I saw Darden as a place where I could explore these ideas.

 Any advice for those planning to enter the social entrepreneurship space?

I would take Ed Freeman’s class and begin to question the social entrepreneurship heuristic. I think we should start with recognizing the problem to be solved and then trying to understand what forms of capital are required to solve it – is it philanthropic capital, patient capital, economic capital, or something else? There are a number of great nonprofits that apply business-thinking and a (very large) number of great businesses that generate social value and each are solving meaningful problems.

If you are interested in solving complex problems using non-traditional capital – philanthropic or otherwise - core business skills are crucial. My time spent in investments prior to LifeNet was invaluable. I knew how to put together a pitch book, which helped us communicate to donors. I knew how to build a financial model, which enabled us to make mid-sized loans to local clinics. So, consulting and investment backgrounds can be a huge help. Marketing also plays a big role. A good friend is an exceptional marketer and I was constantly soliciting his help.

The last qualifier is that none of this is any good unless you’re on the ground. Be willing to go move for two or three or five years to a crazy place and see what happens. You can’t learn empathy from a case. Really invest yourself in what you are doing, go co-create with your customer, and deliver a product that changes the world. 


Jonathan O’Connor is first-year MBA student at the Darden Graduate School of Business. Prior to Darden, he was a co-founder at LifeNet International, a nonprofit that improves performance of primary care clinics and hospitals in Burundi, East Africa. Prior to launching LifeNet, he worked as an investment analyst with CNL Real Estate Advisors. During his time with CNL, he helped to originate private placement real estate funds for syndication to the retail equity markets. Prior to joining CNL, Jonathan was awarded a fellowship of the Trinity Forum Academy, a leadership academy based outside of Washington, DC. Jonathan will spend his summer as an associate at New City Capital, a private-equity firm based in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

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