Rob Katz

Will Surekha Dial an Ambulance?

A tiny bead of sweat ran down the ridge of my nose. It reached the end, teetered for a split second, then dropped quietly onto the doctor’s desk. I sat behind the desk, inside the Vijay Nagar Women of India clinic, which is tucked into a government-built housing project in the Bandra East area of Mumbai. As the sweat hit the desk, it made a soft splat, and little Natra’s eyes followed it down. About 3 years old, he seemed pretty interested in the inability of this strange white man to deal with the Mumbai heat – not surprising, all things considered.

Natra and his mother, Surekha, had agreed to take a survey about healthcare administered by Acumen Fund Fellow Joanna Harries and her colleague, Rubina Dsouza. Joanna and Rubina work for Dial 1298 for Ambulance, a professionally-run, high quality ambulance service run in Mumbai (51 ambulances) and Kerala (30 ambulances). You dial 1298 to get a fully-equipped ambulance with doctor and medical equipment on-board. 1298 is affiliated with the Ambulance Access for All Foundation, whose mission is to provide high-quality service for all Indians, regardless of income. (Full disclosure: I work for Acumen Fund, an investor in Dial 1298 for Ambulance.)

But will poor Indians call an ambulance? That’s what Joanna and Rubina are working to find out. Service for all is not only a noble goal, it’s good business as well – after all, some 40 to 60 percent of Mumbaikers live below the poverty line, in slums. If you fail to serve this customer segment, you miss a huge number of calls – and your ambulances can run below capacity.

Effectively serving this market begins with listening, and that’s what Joanna and Rubina are doing. They have been spending time visiting various Women of India clinics, all of which are located in slum areas, and asking a simple, 5-question survey: what do you do when you get sick?; how do you get to the hospital?; which (if any) ambulances do you call?; why wouldn’t you call an ambulance?; who helps you when you get sick?

Joanna and Rubina and I did eight surveys today, just the tip of the iceberg. What is interesting is that 1298 takes its commitment to the low-income segments seriously – both in terms of social impact and in terms of business sense. The company is marketing in a number of innovative ways – tying up with schools, hospitals, train stations, and more. Slum outreach is an element of their business plan. Regardless of income level, growing 1298’s customer base is an awareness game – call it marketing, brand management, outreach, whatever – you have to have potential customers know about your service before you earn their business.