When Accra came calling
Updated: 2012-12-14 09:47
By ZHONG NAN (China Daily)
A Chinese doctor took up a job offer in Ghana, and 26 years later he has not looked back
Xiao Bo, who has been in Ghana for more than 25 years, in a training session with one of his assistants. FENG YONGBIN / CHINA DAILY
When Xiao Bo, a Chinese doctor, began using traditional Chinese medicine to treat diseases in Ghana, little did he realize that it would be the beginning of a long and eventful relationship with the western African country.
Xiao says that in 1986 his family and friends were highly skeptical when he decided to be a civilian doctor at the No 37 Military Hospital in Ghana.
"Much of their opposition stemmed from the belief that working in a strange continent can be extremely lonely and complicated."
Like everything in Africa, there was "something mysterious" about my arrival in Ghana, he says.
"After graduating from Harbin Medical University in Northeast China's Heilongjiang province and majoring in clinical medicine, I was practicing TCM in Beijing. Among my patients were two former government ministers from Ghana, and the job offer came through these successes."
Much water has flown under the bridge since then and Xiao has managed to build up a successful TCM practice in Accra, the capital of Ghana.
"The experience I gained in the military hospital later prompted me to set up the first independent Chinese acupuncture clinic in Ghana in 1988."
Xiao says that his experience in Ghana has taught him valuable lessons about Africa.
"Many of my friends told me that Africa was not a good place for Chinese people to live because of cultural differences, low work efficiency, lack of infrastructure and an undeveloped services sector. But I must say that my pay at the army hospital was good and far more than I expected."
Xiao recalls that at the hospital he was treated as a foreign expert and paid $350 a month, compared with the equivalent of $24 a month he was paid when he worked at Guang'anmen Hospital, part of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing, before he went to Ghana.
Xiao says that though the Ghanaian hospital he worked in was one of the best in the country, in terms of facilities and equipment, it was still light years behind China.
"But this created a window of opportunity for TCM practitioners in Ghana because instruments for acupuncture and herbal medicines were easy to procure."
Apart from that, Xiao says, it was also an excellent opportunity to showcase the strengths of TCM in Africa, Xiao says.
"There is no doubt that Western medicine and equipment were more advanced and useful. But they were also expensive and difficult to import. So in many ways, TCM was the most practical and cost-effective solution for most Ghanaian patients."
But the real impetus for the TCM treatment came from the unstinted personnel support hospital officials gave him.
"They assigned four Ghanaian nurses to help me conduct various traditional Chinese medical treatment and also several elementary medical research tasks, during my two-year work contract with them."
Xiao, 65, now employees 16 people — including two doctors, two nurses and a pharmacist — at his two-story TCM clinic in Tema, a coastal city near Accra.
Xiao says his son will open another TCM clinic in Accra next year. That will need an outlay of $52,000, covering rent, staff training, equipment and medicines.
TCM professionals including Xiao are confident that they can continue to expand their businesses, partly because of Ghana's slow progress in developing healthcare. There are now TCM clinics in the country, located in Accra, Tema and Kumasi.
At the same time Xiao says competition is fast catching up with them in the form of hospitals being set up by entrepreneurs from South Korea, Britain and India.
"It is not that easy to make profits now, as competition has intensified. There is pressure from foreign hospitals as they are well-stocked in high-end equipment, medicines and even doctors."
Xiao says that though most of the Chinese-owned clinics in Africa are flexible in nature, they also have considerable disadvantages such as lack of international experience and the smaller scale of the businesses.
"It is important for Chinese clinics to come together and face the challenge from foreign hospitals jointly rather than engage in a price war among themselves. Price wars will weaken our position further in Africa."
Xiao says some progress has been made on this front after he and other TCM clinic owners joined to set up the Ghana Traditional Chinese Medicine Association in 2010. It works closely with the Ghana Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the largest Chinese business organization in Ghana.
Member clinics can buy medical equipment and traditional Chinese medicines from China at reduced prices through association channels.
To bring in more clients and increase income, Xiao has sought to reach out to Chinese companies and organizations in Ghana. Last year, the Chinese embassy selected Xiao's clinic for TCM healthcare services.
With the help of his wife, son and daughter-in-law, who moved to Ghana in 2002, Xiao's clinic had revenue of $245,000 last year, 15 percent more than in 2010.
Xiao also expects to sign a long-term agreement with the Ghana branch of the Chinese construction major China Geo-Engineering Corporation. The company has 160 Chinese employees and more than 800 local personnel working on construction projects in Ghana.
However, most of the practice's patients are Ghanaians. They come to the clinic for acupuncture, mending fractures and treatment of problems such as lumbar disc herniation, apoplexy, gout and rheumatalgia.
Chinese patients, on the other hand, seek treatment for malaria, typhopneumonia, typhoid and dysentery.
One lesson that Xiao has learned in Ghana is the need to blend modern technology and equipment in TCM. He has invested $37,000 to set up ultrasound and electrocardiogram machines, add physiotherapy facilities and bring in other modern laboratory equipment.
Xiao says one of the most surprising things in Ghana is the steady increase in lifestyle disorders such as diabetes and obesity.
"Since most of these patients want to reduce the pain and avoid the inconvenience associated with other treatment methods, they turn to TCM."
With an eye on growing sales, Xiao sends his son back to China every year to learn various new methods for treating diabetes and overweight patients.
He also plans to employ two graduates from Tianjin Medical University to work at his son's new clinic.
"In the process of business development in this African state, it is important to know where to find new market growth points, as the market always changes.
"The available number of hospitals, doctors and latest equipment from the West is still limited in this country, and most local people are not wealthy enough to afford Western healthcare. I still think there is enough space for Chinese medical service providers to develop in Ghana."