Solving one of the world’s many problems is the key to running a successful social enterprise, according to the founder of a business tackling blood and organ donation issues around the globe.

Photo of the Action On Blood team

Abiola Okubanjo, CEO of Action On Blood, is passionate about addressing healthcare issues among black, Asian, mixed race and minority ethnic (BAME) communities.

She said: “Globally, 80 to 90% of patients participating in clinical trials for new drugs are Caucasian. Few medicines that are on the market have been tested on ethnic minorities, so we don’t know if they’re safe or not for non-white people.

“Our goal is to empower people from BAME backgrounds to get more involved in how healthcare services and products are designed, developed, delivered, evaluated and communicated. With Britain's BAME communities wielding vast spending power - an estimated £300 billion a year - we enable statutory and commercial healthcare providers and related organisations to get insight into these communities and engage better with them. Essentially, Action On Blood bridges the gap between BAME communities and the organisations that wish to engage with them.”

Action On Blood was set up in 2017 after Abiola – who previously worked in corporate finance – found herself working in Nigeria for a healthcare charity, undertaking a research project about blood donation.

In Nigeria, two million units of blood are needed every year, but the country is only producing 125,000 units. It’s estimated around 1.9 million people needlessly suffer and die each year due to the scarcity of blood donations.

Abiola was only supposed to be there for three months but ended up staying over a year and having her study published by the charity. When she returned to the UK, she launched Action On Blood with the help of a two-day StepUp course run by Virgin StartUp.

“StepUp was great for me. It was a two-day programme, so I didn’t need to leave the business alone for too long and it helped to give me clarity on what I needed to do to make it a success.

“I knew I wanted to run my business as a social enterprise, but this was the first time I was able to put the business model out there to people who understood business. StepUp gave me the confidence to continue. It helped me to get my messaging straight.

“In addition to hearing from great speakers, it was good to be in the same room as other people in similar situations. Some were ahead of me, so I was able to see the challenges that I would need to overcome. I’m still in touch with some of the other participants from the programme today.”

Three years on from its launch, Action On Blood is now running three funded projects on behalf of the NHS, which has helped to bring the brand to more people and ultimately help more individuals.

One of the projects is Hair2Debate, which aims to address the critical shortage of organ donation among BAME communities.

Although 11% of the UK population is from a black or minority ethnic background, patients from these communities represent 35% of those waiting for a kidney. Ethnic minorities are also disproportionately represented in the number of people that die whilst waiting for an organ transplant.

Abiola says: "We have this situation because BAME communities don't donate enough organs. In some cultures, it’s taboo to talk about death. Also, many people incorrectly assume that their religion wouldn't approve of organ donation.”

Action On Blood will use the funding to train five hair stylists and barbers in afro hair salons across Essex and London about the need for more ethnic minority donors. These ambassadors will drive debates around organ donation with their customers and encourage them to tell others about it. As well as promoting donation in black communities, the project will have an important role to play in building awareness and understanding of the upcoming law change and the importance of people sharing their organ donation decision with their families.

From spring 2020 all adults in England will be considered as having agreed to donate their organs when they die unless they record a decision not to donate - known as ‘opting out’ - or are in one of the groups not covered by the new law.

Logo of the Hair2Debate project

Abiola says there have been a number of challenges she has had to overcome to launch and scale her business.

She said: “Challenges exist in any type of business and at any stage of the business' life. However, one of the biggest challenges in running a social enterprise is trying to get people to understand what it is.

“As a social enterprise, Action On Blood needs to create a social impact, but it’s not a charity.  It's a business; it also needs to generate value for its shareholders. With these two seemingly competing aims, the metrics that I use to measure how well we are doing will be different to those of a typical business. For instance, it’d be great if I had a million followers on Instagram. But that would mean nothing if they weren’t donating blood or organs. I have more interest in the quality of our user engagements than in the quantity of our ‘likes’ or ‘followers’.

“It takes more than warm, fuzzy sentiment to create social impact. It takes money and cold, hard commercial activity. But funding that's often available for charities doesn't support sustainability or operational resilience.

“You can’t say yes to everything. You have to be disciplined to stay on mission. I’ve wasted a lot of time in the past writing funding applications or pursuing opportunities that, in hindsight, would have taken the business in a direction that wasn't where I wanted it to be. So, I’m learning to say no more often.

“One of the biggest challenges when you are doing something innovative is that you have no guide to follow as nobody’s done it before. I constantly feel like I'm winging it or just making it up as I go along. But, it's exciting at the same time!”


Abiola’s tips for launching a social enterprise

- Solve a problem. There are so many problems out there. Pick one you are passionate about and your creativity will follow.

- Have a business plan, but don’t spend too long on it. A rough and ready business plan is good; then, just start doing it. You’ll get feedback from customers and suppliers that will change your plan.

- You are your brand. You won’t have the budget for a big PR agency to help you. You will be the secretary, the marketer, everything. You have to live and breathe your brand. If you aren’t passionate about it, who else will be?

To follow in Abiola's footsteps, learn more about how StepUp could help scale your business today.