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Feature: Lommi Project – Ethiopia’s first medical crowdfunding aspires to perform 20,000 life changing surgeries in five years

“50 lemons are a burden for one person, a jewel for fifty people”

By Natnael Fite @NatieFit

Addis Ababa – Millions around the world continue to suffer, up to death, without access to health services for multiple reasons. This situation is worse in low-income countries, such as Ethiopia. Patients, especially those living in rural areas, are not getting the treatment they deserve due to factors such as lack of money to cover health expenses, long distances to health centers, bureaucracy, repeated exposures to long and never-ending waiting lines and language barrier.

To alleviate the reality of expensive healthcare costs on patients, a charity organization, Health and Hope for the Generation, has launched the Lommi Project, Ethiopia’s first medically specialized crowdfunding site, which is inspired by the Ethiopian proverb – ሃምሳ ሎሚ ለአንድ ሰዉ ሸክሙ፣ ለሃምሳ ሰው ጌጡ ነው – loosely translated: “50 lemons are a burden for one person, a jewel for fifty people”, as its slogan, which went on operational as of 05 October 2022.

There are over 900,000 people with active cataract cases waiting for this life-changing surgery.

Hailu Fenta Dulume, a widower and a father, who had no access to a life-changing cataract surgery, came 80 km from Addis Abeba upon hearing the campaign Lommi Project set up. His kids read the brochures and at the moment they only knew their father had weak eyesight. After coming for the campaign, they realized it’s a cataract that has been impairing his vision all along. Diagnosis is the first step to the solution. But for most in Ethiopia, diagnosis is the end because they don’t afford to pay for a surgery. Hailu, couldn’t afford the surgery likewise, but he was one of the lucky ones that got enrolled in Lommi Project’s Surgical campaign. He has an incredible transformation after the surgery.

Hailu Fenta

Hailu is just a drop in the ocean. Each day, thousands go blind due to cataracts. In Ethiopia, there are over 1.2 million blind people. according to a national survey done in 2006, and half of it is caused by neglected cataracts. There are over 900,000 people with active cataract cases waiting for this life-changing surgery.

Diriba Girma, a two years old baby, is the first and only child of his parents. He was born with a cleft lip, which many in his community interpreted as a curse. The solution, which is simple, seemed unattainable. His parents were unaware of the surgical solution. Although the sudden realization of free surgery was a possibility, they could neither afford the transportation nor the stay at the hospital. Thus, Lommi Project arranged an ambulance for the first visit and later a highly qualified plastic surgeon performed a surgery for him.

“Two years back we started awareness creating campaigns as a means of paying back to the community. We started performing ophthalmology and cataract surgeries by inviting people who have eye problems…”

Dr. Yeraeifirae Sileshi

Much like Hailu and Diriba, many Ethiopians are either unaware or financially unable to provide this life-changing surgery. Many of them spend years waiting for their turn in government hospitals.

Dr. Yeraeifirae Sileshi, the co-founder of Lommi project, told Addis Standard that the project aims to eradicate the problem in this area across the country and ensure that the low income communities have access to the health services they need without any cost concerns. He said that the project is facilitating surgical treatment services partnering with local hospitals, mainly with Saglan Wajee hospital, a sister company to Lommi project, located in Holeta city of Oromia region.

Dr Yilika Birhanu

“Two years back we started awareness creating campaigns as a means of paying back to the community. We started performing ophthalmology and cataract surgeries by inviting people who have eye problems, and other problems as well, to come to our hospital for free treatment. That situation made us realize that many people live with treatable diseases due to lack of money. Therefore, in order for the initiative to continue in a sustainable manner, in addition to our voluntary activity, we believe that the establishment of a charitable organization that will be funded by local and international partners is important. So we initiated the Lommi project and Lommi crowdfunding platform under Health and Hope for the Generation,” he said.

Health and Hope for the Generation is a Non Governmental Board Led Organization registered and accorded legal personality status by the Ethiopian Authority for Civil Society Organizations in February, 2022 and also registered in California, USA as non-profit corporation.

This umbrella organization that hosts the Lommi Projects and the crowdfunding platform, was established consisting nine board of directors including Feyera Abdi, co-founder of the organization, various leadership team, medical advisory board and ambassadors with the mission of availing high quality, free, life changing surgeries and medical treatments by partnering with local hospitals and respective partners.

The fundraising pillar of Health and Hope for the Generation, lommi.org, Ethiopia’s first medically specialized crowdfunding platform, is available in five local and international languages: English, Amharic, Afaan Oromo, Spanish and Arabic, so as to widen the project’s reach to different potential donors. The project’s platform, which accepts both local and international payments, aspires to reach out to beneficiaries in three ways: through social media platforms, in-person visits to rural areas, particularly on market days, and through partner hospitals.

“Any time we look in a government hospital there is a shocking amount of backlog. There are people who wait in line for years to get surgery services. Some people even died while waiting for their turn. For example, there is someone who waited in line for seven years until we found him. So we call out those who have been waiting in line in government hospitals for years and cannot afford the expenses, to come and get adequate treatment from us,” Dr. Yeraeifirae Sileshi said.

After accorded legal personality status by the Ethiopian Authority for Civil Society Organizations in February this year, the crowdfunding took a little bit longer time to go operational due to payment integration process and other factors, according to Dr. Yeraeifirae. “Initiating a payment integration system with local banks operating in Ethiopia is difficult. We tried hard but finally failed to launch it as banks refused to accept it. Until we started the crowdfunding, we were doing free surgeries on our own.”

The medical services are provided to the patients free of charge, says Dr. Yeraeifirae, will be possible by raising 50% of it from crowdfunding via lommi.org, 20% from grants of local and international donors, and 30% from corporate partners such as banks, telecommunication companies, breweries, and others.

This one is not as difficult to monitor as other fundraising systems raised through social media, says Dr Yeraeifirae, its public information and traceability makes it more sustainable than those fundraising systems with no follow-up proof or evidence of the money being spent for medical use. “Every donor can see where their money goes and how it helped actual low income patients. We will post videos and proofs that can show every step up to the end result on our website, as donors need such kind of assurance to continue their support.”

Currently the crowdfunding project is yet to start full operation but has helped over 1,300 people over the past eight months, according to the co-founder of Lommi Project, Dr. Yeraeifirae. “Although we didn’t start our crowdfunding platform, once we got our license, we were doing it on our own. Thus, we provided free services to 1,349 people including surgery, counseling and awareness creation. Now we are organizing a team and getting fully operational.”

While describing the obstacles they faced in realizing the project, Dr. Yeraeifirae said that they faced obstacles in the payment integration process and the digital payment situation in the country is a big problem. “We tried to work with several local banks and it didn’t work out for us. It was not possible to access digital payment services. Later, we tried without giving up hope and were able to work with Telebirr. We are now working with Telebirr and PayPal.”

He further announced that they are in the process of establishing a medical insurance institution called Efoy. “There are some who can afford the expenses to pay for services but want to get quality services. And a lot of people are in the lower middle class that are unable to afford. Therefore, we have established a treatment modality called Efoy to help those who cannot afford to cover healthcare costs. This modality enables a person to pay only 1,200 birr per year and get services at our hospital without extra consultation, ultrasound, laboratory and other fees. It is in process of registration in the National Bank of Ethiopia” he said.

Dr. Yeraeifirae hopes to achieve their organizational strategies; perform 20,000 live changing surgeries in 5 years period, avail high quality free medical treatments for those in need, educate health seeking behaviors for the community, advocate for Preventive Health Campaigns, organize CME’s for health care professionals, strengthen Healthcare facilities. AS

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