Ankiza Gakunu, grew up in Belgium, and was quite a curious child. In a place with diverse culture, the future CEO of Inuka Africa had big dreams of changing the world through International Relations. Yet, from a tender age, and having spent time with her grandmother who had bi-polar (they couldn’t tell then though), she knew she wanted to understand the behavior of human beings too.
After her graduation, from the University of Portsmouth, she got a chance to work with the United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS), which aims to advance the cause of peace and reconciliation through contacts with Somali Leaders, Civic Organizations, and the States concerned.
During this period, she worked closely with child soldiers, which drove her passion further into human behavior by just seeing what a war that had lasted for over 30 years could do as she watched the trauma that tore these child soldiers. She was convinced then that mental health was a thing that was tearing people apart, and yet there was no much emphasis that was being put into it.
Infact, statistics show that close to a billion people are suffering from mental health issues and suicide claims about 800,000 lives a year, on average governments spend just 2 percent of their health budgets on mental health. Only 1 percent of health budgets for development cooperation go to providing mental health care. Ankiza found this to be a shocking stat, and she decided that she needed a space where she could change that.
Years later she would come across an opportunity at Inuka Africa, and this was a chance for her to change the mental health narrative especially across Africa.
“I joined Inuka Africa about two years ago as the CEO,” she said. “It is my passion to just understand human behaviour over the years that drove me into this.”
Inuka is a swahili word that means arise. The Inuka Team uses proven coaching method for almost any problem delivered by highly trained, empathic coaches
Although she is not the Founder, she narrates the story of Inuka with so much enthusiasm. So where did the story of Inuka begin?
Ankiza takes it all back to 2015, where Dr. Dixon Chibanda, a renowned psychiatrist from Zimbabwe, started a Friendship Bench approach to mental health care. It was necessary as his home country at the time had only 13 psychiatrists catering for a population of about 16 million citizens.
This led to Dr. Chibanda bringing about a radically different solution to train community members – and in particular grandmothers – on problem-solving therapy to make mental health more accessible.
After starting off in Zimbabwe, Dr. Chibanda had to find a way to make mental health support more widely available via a digital platform. Not only in Zimbabwe, but everywhere since in countries like Kenya, the statistics were not any better, for about 11.4 million Kenyans struggling with mental health there are only 88 psychiatrists and the numbers go on.
In Zimbabwe, they followed the one-on-one bench session, but to reach a wider audience, they had to find a better solution.
In January 2016, a team of designers, psychologists and techies came on board to work on what eventually has evolved to become Inuka: a digital platform that trains life coaches in a proven method and connects them with people seeking support. The digital mental health service app is anonymous and also helps people get on track mentally and cultivate wellness.
In 2019, Inuka launched the Inuka Mental Wellness App in Kenya at Mental Health Conference 2019 at KICC. The app launch came at a time the country was working on the 2015 – 2030 health policy that has a goal to achieve the highest standards of mental health.
“1 in 5 people every year suffer from depression, burnout and anxiety – and with the world fighting a pandemic, probably the numbers went up-the majority don’t seek help. Making more affordable, non-stigmatized support accessible anytime, anywhere could make a massive difference for everyone and that’s what our platform offers,” said Ankiza.
“Our service is affordable and scalable and a safe space where people could come and actually talk to trained psychologists on the stress they are facing and be able to access their mental wellness. It is an app that you can download on your phone, take a free assessment test and talk to a psychiatrist and I think that is quite revolutionary,” she added.
Through the App Ankiza says that they are on a mission to set a new global standard for coaching, by combining the power of science and human empathy. We empower emphatic humans with a proven coaching method to improve the wellbeing of people facing challenges in life. “We strive to make this accessible to all, regardless of wealth, place of birth, or type of challenge they may face,” she said.
On her role as the CEO, Ankiza explained that for most start-up CEOs there is no such thing as a typical day, but there are things that she does on most days. Her days at the office are filled with back to back meetings.
Currently, as a CEO she is focused more on building the Inuka Brand and working closely with her team of experts to make sure that they are all aligned.
A good day could involve internal meetings to support team members in their roles and to feedback on proposed improvements to our processes and systems, which is really important as we look to scale rapidly.
She currently manages a team of about 15 people in Kenya. “Inuka is still a start-up but mostly each day is different from the other. It’s always a rollercoaster,” she shared.
On the most rewarding part of the role, Ankiza explained that just knowing they have created an impact that we know we’re having every day. Being a CEO is hard, and in those dark moments, you are always motivated by the emails that we receive from satisfied clients.
As the pandemic ravaged organisations last year though, we also sought to know this affected her leadership style, which she termed as a leader who values open the open door policy, communication and transparency. Well, working with her team, she had to slightly tweak her style as a leader and find better ways of getting in touch proving to be quite a difficult time for leaders especially those who manage teams.
However, from a business operations perspective the pandemic presented a new opportunity for companies and individuals to now speak openly about their mental health status.
Through this Inuka has been able to work with companies in Kenya , Uganda and Nigeria during the COVID-19 pandemic who aim to improve their employees’ health and productivity as they struggle with adjusting to working from home and balancing a growing number of family and financial pressures.
“It has been a busy period for us. As we continue to scale across Africa, our mission is to impact the lives of millions of Africans with mental and emotional support through Inuka mobile App by 2022,” she added.
To Ankiza she sources most of her inspiration from her father who helped build her self-confidence from a tender age. Also, from her fiancé who is an entrepreneur as well and pushes her to go beyond her limits.
However, despite the dad and fiancé as a CEO given a chance to dine with one person in the world, she would choose to dine with Oprah Winfrey just to learn, and understand her journey to ownership.
“From working in a media house to owning one! I think that would be an incredible story to listen to, and a night to remember!” Ankiza chuckles.
In her parting shot, Ankiza said that Entrepreneurs should learn to go slowly, and understand that the idea of entrepreneurship being quite a smooth ride is not true. Young entrepreneurs should learn from their failures.