The definition of “marketplace” is “the arena of competitive or commercial dealings; the world of trade.” Today, the word might bring many different visuals to mind; but the concept itself is as old as civilization. From the Roman Forum to the Khan el-Khalili in Egypt to trading centers along East African ports and the Johari Bazaar in India, marketplaces have always been a locus of transaction — where buyers and sellers can gather to trade and exchange.
Though the form has changed, the internet has preserved the function of marketplaces while making them exponentially more efficient and accessible. Take Amazon, for example. In 1995, Amazon officially opened its proverbial doors as an online bookseller. Within two years, the company went public; and by the early 2000s it was well on its way to becoming the e-commerce giant it’s known as, today. Virtual marketplaces, like their physical equivalents, are attractive to both buyers and sellers; they offer a location where buyers can go to find a wide variety of goods or services, and an assembly point where sellers can reach a high volume of customers with little effort and lesser expense. The marketplace itself, meanwhile, exchanges value with the buyers or sellers for profit (like a percentage of sales or usage fee). In the digital context, for example, Uber charges their drivers a fee for rides; Amazon takes a percentage of sales from their sellers.
Amazon, however, is not the only modern evidence that suggests such a model is massively successful, in practice — many virtual marketplaces quickly and readily acclimated to the medium, imbued with a conceptual advantage over other, niche competitors. The concept: make a vast array of products available in one place from an equally vast number of suppliers; stacking convenience, variety, and financial viability in one powerfully simple approach. Some digital marketplaces were conceived with this in mind, beginning as virtual, one-stop-shops for crafters and resellers offering a broad variety of goods, only to grow over time (eBay, Etsy); while others were launched by pre-existing, successful superstores just to keep pace with the market (Walmart, Target).
Despite the colossal growth in number and value of these virtual marketplaces over recent decades, few have penetrated the arena of health. This is both problematic as well as a missed opportunity, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the absence of health marketplaces forces individuals to spend more effort prior seeking information to make a healthcare decision, to then find relevant healthcare services and products, and to obtain healthcare services and products. Similarly, health service providers and product distributors must rely on traditional advertising and word of mouth in order to serve more patients and broaden their reach. This subjects all aspects of healthcare to the social, financial, and geographical limitations of the individual — which becomes particularly problematic for marginalized populations in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) — where, historically, quality healthcare products and services have been more difficult to equitably access than within their wealthier counterparts. And, when other markets so clearly demonstrate the value and effectiveness of virtual marketplaces, the global dependence on traditional healthcare systems seems to be an outdated, insufficient model whose shortcomings convert marginalized and underserved populations into collateral damage.
“Systemic barriers to clinically appropriate medications can disproportionately affect people based on their race, gender, income, ethnicity, and other factors…They can be made even more formidable by the physical location and hours of retail pharmacies and other Drivers of Health such as income, transportation, and housing stability.” — Deloitte
More than anything, perhaps, the COVID-19 pandemic has made a strong case for the value of virtual health marketplaces in LMICs. According to McKinsey & Company, not only did the pandemic accelerate the digitization of customer interactions, digital tools also have “tremendous potential not only to improve countries’ responses to infectious-disease threats but also to strengthen primary healthcare.” Sexual and reproductive health (SRH), as well, stands to benefit a great deal from digital interventions. According to a recent Rutgers study, 50% of young people in Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, Nepal, Uganda, and Zimbabwe who lack information on COVID-19 and SRH turn to online sources for help. What if those insights came from a virtual space where they could also access health information, services, and products?
This is the Nivi model. Recognizing the disconnect between underserved populations and positive health outcomes and understanding the vast potential for virtual marketplaces in health, Nivi developed its own health chatbot, askNivi — a digital tool that connects healthcare seekers and providers, en masse. It tackles that divide from two directions: first, by providing consumers a single location where they can find a wide variety of products and services along with the health information needed to make an informed decision; and second, by providing healthcare providers — and supply chains — a recognized channel where their offerings can reach the broadest possible audience efficiently, at low cost. In this way, askNivi is an equitable, empowering example of the virtual marketplace model; one proven by predecessors in other settings to be as scalable as it is profitable.