Why you should care
Because blood donation saves lives, and technology is making it easier to find a match.
Nigeria’s blood shortage nearly cost Angela Ochu-Baiye her life. Diagnosed with a ruptured ovarian cyst and an ectopic pregnancy in 2008, she was scheduled for an emergency surgery. She urgently needed a blood transfusion, but her hospital had just one unit — and it had expired. She couldn’t find a donor match within close proximity. For six days, she managed to survive as the doctors managed her condition.
“Many women were not fortunate like me, but I believe God spared me so I could champion a great cause to ensure other women wouldn’t lose their lives from an unavailability of blood in emergency situations,” she says.
Her true calling didn’t arrive right away, though. Ochu-Baiye, 34, went on to have two children and switch careers from lawyer to broadcast journalist. It wasn’t until 2016 that she used her radio show on Abuja’s WE FM to advocate for blood donation — which is still viewed with suspicion by many Nigerians. Now she has launched an innovative artificial-intelligence-driven platform connecting would-be blood donors with recipients.
A platform called J Blood Match on Facebook and the instant messaging app Telegram allows people to register either as donors or advocates, indicating their location, nearest hospital, gender, age and blood type. In the event that someone on the platform needs blood, the system identifies donors based on location and blood type and notifies available matches via Telegram and Facebook, asking whether they agree or decline to give. Within a week of its November launch, it had registered 106 donors nationwide, though it has not yet made a donation match because no one has requested blood.
There were complaints, questions, accusations and misconceptions about blood donation.
She’s trying to put a dent in a massive problem. While rich countries make up just 16 percent of the world’s population, they make up 42 percent of the blood donations, according to the World Health Organization. In 2014, Nigeria’s National Blood Transfusion Service (NBTS) recorded 1.7 million units of blood needed … and just 49,908 units voluntarily donated. The country has a high maternal mortality rate of 917 deaths per 100,000 live births; the leading cause of those deaths is postpartum hemorrhage. And then there are the thousands who bleed out annually after traffic accidents on the nation’s notoriously poor roads. “If we have adequate blood at the right time and delivered at the right place, you will save a significant number of Nigerians from dying,” says Dr. Omo Izedonmwen, coordinator of the NBTS Abuja center.
Ochu-Baiye is a high-profile advocate. When we meet at a mall in Abuja, our interview is interrupted repeatedly by listeners of her talk show who are eager to meet her. It’s easy to see how Ochu-Baiye, sophisticated yet down to earth with a radiant smile, could change minds. “The first thing is to understand the problem before starting to address the issue,” she says.
Ochu-Baiye moved around the country during her upbringing, completing her secondary education in Kwara State in north central Nigeria. “Her level of discipline even at the tender age of her life was exemplary,” says Sola Adesoye, her mentor since age 13. Ochu-Baiye earned degrees from Queen Mary University of London and the University of Westminster, London, and began her career as a lawyer — but was drawn back to her childhood dream of becoming a talk show host. Since 2016, she has hosted The Conversation, a daily talk show that addresses all manner of social issues. In late 2016, she launched her flagship show, Jela’s Clinic.
One issue that kept popping up was blood. There were complaints, questions, accusations and misconceptions: Listeners worried about everything from donated blood being used for ritual purposes or sold at exorbitant rates in hospitals to fears about fainting while giving or acquiring a disease from contaminated blood.
After doing some research, she brought in experts to raise awareness, debunk myths and take questions from listeners for twice-weekly, two-and-a-half-hour Jela’s Clinic shows. Her four experts — a medical doctor, life coach, psychologist and lawyer — respond to listeners with a slogan: The shortest distance to your answers is asking. Callers’ answers come both on-air and off as her team follows up.
“She’s a go-getter — when she determines to get something, she gets it,” says Steve Gukas, former managing director of WE FM. “Her concept of blood donation is no doubt a tool for community mobilization.” Indeed, Ochu-Baiye has also hosted several blood drives in conjunction with the NBTS, WE FM and other organizations, which have netted around 200 units of blood. To expand her reach beyond that drop in the bucket, she turned to technology. The AI blood match service was launched by her NGO, Jela’s Development Initiatives.
It took 18 months for Ochu-Baiye and her team to execute test runs “to fine-tune our process” on J Blood Match, she says. It launched officially on Nov. 21. To increase the small number of donors, she’s using her broadcasts and social media campaigns to spread the word.
But she’s been unable to find funding beyond her own pocket, as she tries to build up a critical mass of donors across Nigeria’s 36 states. The country’s millions-strong Jehovah’s Witness community has historically opposed blood transfusion based on their interpretation of the Bible, but Ochu-Baiye says she’s had positive conversations with some in the community — and there are indications their opposition to transfusion could be softening.
The work is starting to bring international recognition. This year, Ochu-Baiye was tapped as a Mandela Washington Fellow by the U.S. State Department, and she has been listed among the 100 most inspiring women in Nigeria by The Guardian.
Her goal moving forward is to increase the blood donor pool in Nigeria from less than 1 percent of the population to 3 percent within the next decade and to make sure the whole country knows they can save a life via their smartphone.
Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly implied that Jehovah’s Witnesses oppose Ochu-Baiye’s blood match service. It also incorrectly stated that the service was launched in partnership with WE FM and other organizations. In fact, the partnerships were for her blood drives.