Over a million people die annually, south of the Sahara from diseases such malaria, tuberculosis, cholera and HIV-related illnesses. Many of these – contracting the illnesses and dying from them – are easily preventable. However, lack of access to quality medical supplies continues to be the bane of the continent, as many of its human resources are lost in their prime.
Enter Naa Adorkor Yawson, a young, yet very experienced pharmacist, with a specialisation in regulatory affairs, technical and operations management, who is on a mission to rewrite the narrative, by using technology to make quality medical supplies readily accessible to people, especially those in hard-to-reach areas.
Below, we get an insight into what shaped her and what continues to drive her on, despite a mountain of challenges and we learn from her resilience and passion for people.
Background and early life
Born the last of three children at the KNUST (Tech) Hospital in Kumasi, to a banker father turned clergyman, her middle name ‘Adorkor’ signifies being the second daughter of the family. Little Naa Adorkor was affectionately called ‘Baby Theologian’, because her mother was enrolled at a theological seminary at the time of her conception. Aged three, her family relocated to the port-city of Takoradi, following a work-related transfer of her father.
Her basic education was largely straightforward; the entire duration of which was spent at the Chapel Hill Preparatory School. She then gained admission into the prestigious Wesley Girls’ Senior High School (WGSHS).
Speaking on the trajectory, she says, “Looking at me from birth unto Wesley Girls, I have had a similar structure of orderliness and discipline. This was in no small part due to being the child of two pastors, as well.” She further credits the school with helping develop her etiquette and public comportment.
Following her time at Wey Gey Hey, Naa Adorkor returned ‘home’, as she was accepted into the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, where she studied for a Bachelor of Pharmacy (B. Pharm) degree.
She credits her father as well as her desire to explore and not to be confined into a strict role with aiding her in making the choice between studying Medicine and Pharmacy and says that the decision has paid off in more ways than one. At KNUST, she was an active student member of the Pharmaceutical Society of Ghana.
To ensure she had a proper idea of what branch of pharmacy she would like to commit to, Naa Adorkor spent every vacation interning. This saw interns at a hospital, in community practice, in quality assurance, and herbal medicine. As a result, she was certain that her future lay in quality assurance, regulation and operations.
“I knew that pharmacy was broad, from what my dad had told me and from I had picked up, and I did not want a situation where I’d be done with school and be unsure of what I wanted to do. I knew, with certainty that the clinical aspect was not something I wanted to do as I could not bear to see people suffer and not have the complete solution for them,” she explains.
In 2017, she obtained a Master of Business Administration (MBA) in Marketing from the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA).
Straight out of KNUST, Naa Adorkor had her mandatory service at indigenous pharmaceutical firm Kinapharma in its manufacturing unit. Owing to her desire to know where her strengths lay, she explored the workings of other units, whilst ensuring she met her quota at the manufacturing unit. This incidentally reinforced her passion for regulations and operations.
Consequently, she was employed at the Regulatory Affairs department. Barely a year into her new role, the manager of the department at the time resigned to take up a new opportunity. Upon his encouragement, she applied for the role, along with some external candidates, and due to her experience and enthusiasm, she came out tops and duly assumed the role of Regulatory Affairs Manager.
Following a year in the position and two in total at Kinapharma, Naa Adorkor decided it was time for a new challenge; one that focused on the logistics of operations.
Upon recommendation and due assessment, she joined local pharmaceutical distributor of generic and brand-name drugs, Vicdoris Pharmaceuticals, as the Head of Technical & Regulatory Affairs. Describing this as her ‘training field’ she managed portfolios from different manufacturers, ensured quality control and conducted market assessment.
She was also responsible for providing technical advice on sourcing, registration, importation and distribution of both pharmaceutical and non- pharmaceutical products including drugs, cosmetics, food & medical devices. She also served as liaison agent between regulatory bodies and the company in the registration of products, whilst ensuring that Quality Assurance standards, of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Good Distribution Practice (GDP) and Food and Drugs Authority (FDA), and the Ghana Standards Authority (GSA) were maintained, monitored and conformed to.
In January of 2017, she was promoted to the position of Vice President responsible for Regulatory Affairs and Operations. In this capacity, she oversaw a complete revamp of the company’s supply chain structure – from import to distribution – to weed out existing inefficiencies.
Naa Adorkor received a message on business and employment-oriented online service, LinkedIn, and a subsequent call from medical product delivery company, Zipline, as it sought seasoned professionals to run its Ghana operations.
Due to career and personal engagements at the time, she was unable to make the commitment immediately. But following a series of consultations, and interviews, she saw that the Zipline drone delivery project was in line with her professional goal of ensuring quality medical products are delivered to those who need them the most, with cost kept at the barest possible minimum.
Further fascinated by the novel application of technology to reach this goal and seeing first-hand the potential impact of the project, Naa Adorkor made the move to Zipline as its Healthcare Systems Integration Lead.
She was instrumental in ensuring that Zipline’s service was well integrated into existing services provided by the Ministry of Health and the Ghana Health Service, so there was no duplication of services. This involved identifying gaps in medical supplies distribution and plugging the gaps.
“Through that we were able to discover the critical use cases for the service in Ghana now, when we started it was all about blood delivery, but it has gone beyond that. There are many hard-to-reach areas, like in the Afram plains and island communities that we have been able to serve. In so many parts of the country, when they are hit by floods or other disasters, we become the only lifeline to them for any form of medical products.”
Today, Naa Adorkor Yawson risen to become the Country Manager for Zipline, Ghana in charge of running its operations from the four distribution centers – Vobsi in Walewale in the North East Region; Omenako in the Eastern Region; Mampong in the Ashanti Region; and Sefwi-Wiawso in the Western Region.
She is also responsible for managing relationships with all stakeholders and ensuring Zipline meets all the metrics of its mandate, as well as looking for ways to drive efficiency of its services.
Naa Adorkor has maintained a thriving private consultancy, particularly aimed at wholesalers trying to build their distribution and supply chain services whilst ensuring quality assurance and holistic regulatory compliance.
Naa Adorkor is married to Ing. Yawson, who she met during her time at KNUST.
In her own words
On her ability to manage different groups of people, “I owe a lot of it to my upbringing; being the child of two pastors. I learnt from a very tender age how to interact with different people and how to manage them as there were always people thronging into our home seeking advice on a wide range of issues. This, I must say, has served me very well.”
On the work at Zipline, “My life goal is to provide access. When you look at my professional life, it is all centered around getting quality medical products to people irrespective of their geographical location because you realise that in the urban areas, it is easy to get the best of care, but in the rural areas, which I have had the opportunity to travel to by virtue of my work, I have been in settings where people lose their lives because they could not get access to simple products.
I have also seen first-hand, people die because they had access to products but the products were not effective…that has been my drive; if we are going to make quality healthcare available, it is not just about access but making quality products accessible and in a timely and cost efficient fashion.”