Boy genius puts his skills to work at rolling out pathology services to the people

Some may say that Calvin Pokgwadi is punching above his weight by stepping into an industry considered to be a niche market.

But the 26-year-old’s foray into the primary healthcare sector will probably put a smile on the face of Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi. Through his company, Stempath Laboratories, Pokgwadi is taking pathology services to the country’s poor – right to where they live – in areas such as Chiawelo in Soweto and Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria.

He says he wants to test people for preventable diseases before they become chronically ill and have to be admitted to hospital. It is the direction in which the primary healthcare has to move, he believes.

Like many science fanatics who grew up in rural Limpopo, Pokgwadi had his heart set on becoming a doctor but, being an exceptionally bright spark meant he finished school at 15, too young even to have an identity document. “I only got it at a later stage and I couldn’t apply for varsity in time to do medicine.”

He was advised to apply for a BSc in medical sciences and completed his degree in 2009, when he was 19.

He had skipped two grades in primary school in Ga-Mampuru, a village outside Burgersfort in Limpopo. He speaks fondly of his early days experimenting with any elements he could find in his school’s laboratory. “I still have my calendar where I would schedule working with chemicals at school.”

With his eyes still set on becoming a doctor, his parents sent him to live with his aunt, a nurse in KwaMhlanga, Mpumalanga, to direct his passion for and interest in medicine. It was also hoped that this move would provide him with better access to opportunities than his village in Limpopo.

Today, slightly less than two years since he started Stempath Laboratories, he has five laboratories of his own – in Soweto, Modimolle, Pretoria and Rustenburg and his head office is in KwaMhlanga.

After completing his studies, Pokgwadi, like many graduates, went job hunting and was thrown in at the deep end at a biomedical engineering company. “I believe it was the turning point for me, as it meant receiving training in assembling and manufacturing of equipment used to test samples within the biomedical and pathology industry.”

But, informed by his upbringing in rural Limpopo and Mpumalanga, Pokgwadi sought to integrate his newly acquired expertise with people he believed needed it most.

He continued his studies and obtained a postgraduate degree in public health before venturing into business.

“Right now we [Stempath] are operating in the private sector. However, the majority [of people] that need our services are in the public sector.”

Pokgwadi puts forward the hypothetical case of 400 mineworkers who are retrenched from a local mine. While employed, their subsidised medical aid scheme would have covered their diabetic, tuberculosis or antiretroviral treatment. With no income and stretched for finances after a few months, these mineworkers would have no other recourse but to turn to the public sector for medical care, Pokgwadi says.

“This is what we are trying to address – what happens to people who are not admitted to hospital but whose illnesses could be prevented and managed if only they had been tested.”

The public health sector caters for about 80% of the population and providing that number of people with these kinds of services is very costly, Pokgwadi says.

“That’s why we are looking into filling that gap by using people who have had experience in the public sector and cutting the cost to be more affordable to our clients.”

Although his company is able to provide pathology services at a reduced rate, Pokgwadi said his intention is not to undercut the industry.

He employs five technologists plus a handful of administrators and drivers. He says his system has allowed him to keep costs down in part because he has reduced the distance needed to get a test kit from a doctor to the lab.

He believes cheaper access to pathology services plays a role in helping people to save money and put food on the table.

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