Robin Baker is an Occupational Therapist (OT) and a social entrepreneur. While getting her master’s at Howard University she did a clinical rotation in Costa Rica. It was her first time travelling outside of the United States, but it wouldn’t be her last. “Costa Rica was where I really realized that access to healthcare is not universal. Illness is universal, but access to quality health care services is not,” she recalled. This can be seen in many African countries. According to the World Health Organization, there are 1.8 doctors for every 10,000 people in Ghana and 0.373 doctors for every 10,000 people in Liberia compared to 28.05 doctors per 10,000 people in the UK and 25.9 doctors per 10,000 people in the US. As a Liberian American, Baker had a dream to improve access to healthcare in Africa. In 2016, she founded GoTherapy which operates Ghana. And, in her own words, she’s been “funding the dream with my salary” ever since.
GoTherapy is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to enhance the lives of individuals living with chronic health conditions, such as stroke, by improving their access to quality occupational, physical, and speech therapy services. The young NGO (non-governmental organization) has done important work since it was founded in 2016. In partnership with the Shai Osudoku District, GoTherapy opened the first community occupational therapy centre in Ghana, where they serve adults living with chronic health conditions and children with special needs. Through GoTherapy’s flagship initiative, the Stroke Community Re-Integration Program (SCRIP), they provide stroke survivors in Dodowa, Ghana with quality community-based occupational and physical therapy services, health monitoring, and disease prevention education.
GoTherapy has made an impact, but if Baker could go back in time to 2016, she’s not sure she would have started a non-profit. “When I started GoTherapy, I didn’t have enough insight to know that there are different ways to solve problems outside of just running an NGO. I just thought if you want to do something that’s really great for the community, you start an NGO,” said Baker. Her lessons learned are especially important as young people around the world are considering how they can do their part in harnessing the current moment to recreate a post-COVID world that’s more equitable, healthy, and economically stable than the one we are living in right now.
1) Be Patient
When entrepreneurs see a problem, they want to solve it immediately, but solving complex social issues takes time. The first time that Baker went to Ghana she saw that motor vehicle accidents were a major source of physical trauma, especially when compared to the United States. In a 2018 report, the World Health Organization wrote, “The burden of road traffic deaths is disproportionately high among low- and middle-income countries in relation to the size of their populations and the number of motor vehicles in circulation.” When Baker returned home from Ghana, she took a job at The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to gain experience because “I needed to work where the trauma was,” she said.
It can take time to build the skills that you need to lead a social movement, not just among yourself but within the community. GoTherapy works closely with educational institutions such as The University of Ghana and Howard University to build up the capacity of OT’s in Ghana. “I knew that it was going to take a long time for us to establish what we were doing because OT is a very young profession in Ghana. It’s only about three years old,” said Baker.
2) Make It Sustainable
The length of time that it takes to get a social enterprise off the ground necessitates that the organization is sustainable. When we think about sustainability in the social sector, we are often talking about financial sustainability. GoTherapy, which is primarily funded by private donations, built a low-cost model. It does not carry much overhead because the local government pays for the Occupational Therapists and the community Occupational Therapy Center was built in an old pharmacy warehouse.
When you are fighting a challenging problem that will take a long time to solve under low-resource conditions, the threat of burnout is real. The work also needs to be sustainable for the founder. “As leaders, we need to have honest conversations with ourselves to figure out what is best for the community that I’m serving and what is best for the people that I work alongside with, and then also ‘What is also best for you’?” said Baker.
3) Community Ownership is the Key to Success
These learnings showed Baker that one of the keys to true success is community ownership. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and many African countries made the decision to close their borders, expatriates in the international development sector were forced to or chose to wait out the pandemic from their home country. Despite Baker being in America, GoTherapy is still able to operate even though conditions of social distancing have made their work even more complex. “When you have NGOs from the West, the idea is that you should want to transition the work over to the people on the ground, because there needs to be buy-in. They should be just as committed to continuing the work because they own it,” said Baker. Daniela Korletey, a Ghanaian Occupational Therapist and the Program Manager for GoTherapy has really owned the work, not just continuing to provide services for their patients, but also establishing herself as a thought-leader in the OT sector in Ghana.
Baker is working to chart the path forward for GoTherapy and her role within the organization that she founded. “You can have a lot of passion, but if you don’t have access to resources, that doesn’t even matter. I think that I led with passion. ‘I was like, I’m so passionate about this. It is gonna work out,’ but now I know that it is passion plus finances that equals sustainable change.” The work is now to apply her learnings to find the model that delivers it.