The past two years have brought their trials across industries, as well as in our lives, but few sectors were hit like the medical industry. We spoke with Zelda van Staden, National Sales Manager for Sub-Saharan Africa Blood Division of SSEM Mthembu Medical (Pty) Ltd; one of the top distributors of medical equipment across Southern Africa. SSEM stands apart for two reasons – the way the company is structured, and the incredible passion that seems to run through the veins of its culture and employees. We spoke with Zelda about the work that the company does to save lives, both in the context of Covid and across medicine’s wider demands and how the company and its teams have coped under the incredible added pressure of juggling these needs with a pandemic response.
Throughout Southern Africa, SSEM Mthembu Medical is a top distributor when it comes to electro-medical devices and medical consumables. Short for Specialised Systems Electro Medical, SSEM was founded in 1987. At the time, the business was focused primarily on the electrophysiology and respiratory markets, the latter of which has been highly relevant of late. Since then, SSEM has since expanded into 14 divisions and six self-sufficient national branches, located in Johannesburg (Head Office), Cape Town, Durban, Gqeberha, East London & Bloemfontein.
Its full range of products is extremely vast, ranging across medical disciplines such as blood management, neurology, ventilation, MRI, radiology and surgical equipment, to name less than half of the categories covered by these many departments. Whilst all of these branches are based in South Africa, the company supplies equipment throughout the whole of Southern Africa. Within this market, the company caters to four types of clients: hospitals (whether government-run, academic or private), blood transfusion services, the homecare sector and independent medical practitioners.
We asked Zelda what she thought set SSEM apart from its rivals, and her answer came right back to what we see as the real brilliance of SSEM: “SSEM has a unique business strategy, where every division is run as a separate business within the company. Each division is managed by highly qualified Product Managers who have a passion for the business and their product range.”
This structure allows SSEM to cover an extremely broad spectrum of needs without watering down expertise. For Zelda, her passion lay in the blood department:
“I started as a Critical Care Representative in 2011, working mostly in Theatre, which I absolutely loved. I was entrusted to take on another division (the Blood Division) in 2013. I worked in both divisions for a year. This was very taxing on me, and I had to choose which division I would like to continue with. I chose Blood Division as I get to save lives on a daily basis.” Sticking on her chosen path, Zelda was appointed as National Product Manager for Blood Division in 2019 and National Sales Manager Africa in 2020.
We asked Zelda whether she had any stand-out examples of the difference she has seen the Blood Division’s equipment making in the lives of others, and her response was as immediate as it was heartfelt:
“So many. My absolute favourite example is when we treat Alcohol Foetal Syndrome: they’ll take blood out of the baby’s umbilical cord, a couple of millilitres at a time, and the blood will be almost black. Then, they’ll put healthy blood into the umbilical cord, and they continue this process until the blood they extract on the one side is bright red. It’s amazing to watch, and it’s that baby’s best chance in life. They would usually suffer from brain damage because there’s not enough oxygen in their blood, and just to watch that whole process is incredible.”
SSEM’s method of structuring itself means that each division is able to live and breathe the area they work in, acutely aware of the good that they do and the needs of the countries and people around them. “We’ve got non-executive directors who recently attended our three-day strategy meeting and at the end of those three days, one of them, was in tears: she said she couldn’t believe the absolute passion every Divisional manager has for their products and division. It’s true passion that’s driving the company; it’s absolutely what makes us work.”
This sort of passion is exactly the motivation needed when facing a period such as the past two years – and for SSEM, the work is far from over. The company has distributed ventilators for many years, as well as producing ventilator filters in-house. In response to Covid-19, the company turned its small in-house manufacturing operation towards other consumables, such as swabs for Covid tests and, for a time, face masks. For the Blood Division, the period has been particularly critical because of the vaccine rollout: the same refrigeration technology used to store and transport blood can be used for vaccines, and it was this front line that Zelda’s division has been operating on.
“It’s going well. We supply WHO pre-approved vaccine carriers as well as vaccine fridges. South Africa has always been good for vaccine fridges, but not the vaccine carriers that much, because we never had mobile vaccine sites before. You would go to the pharmacy, which had a vaccine fridge and the freezer, and you would get vaccinated there. Now, with this massive vaccine rollout, we’re using sites like coffee shops that closed down during Covid – empty premises. So, that’s where we had to supply our WHO approved vaccine products.”
Like the rest of the world, Africa was left guessing when it came to the emergence of Covid: at the beginning, no one knew the details of the virus, how it worked or how to respond. In fact, as Zelda explained it to us, the African continent had an even stranger time than a lot of us:
“We were one of the last countries that Covid hit. It happened all around us, and we couldn’t believe that Africa had no cases at all. So, we’re thinking; ‘Now what? Should we prepare for it? Is it not going to come here?’ We thought that maybe it was because it was too hot here, or because of our TB vaccination, which everyone here has as babies. We had a lot of speculation. Then, eventually, cases appeared in Botswana.”
We asked how SSEM prepared for what was to come, in such an uncertain period: “We have been proactive in our markets. We have our strategic meetings. We brainstorm. We have a lot of highly intelligent people in the room, and we take everybody’s input into account. But it’s a guessing game – nothing’s set in stone. For example, we thought our death rates would extremely high because of the amount of HIV cases in Africa and South Africa and these patients are they already immunocompromised. However, it turns out that the antiretroviral treatment (ART’s) actually help to protect against the virus to a certain degree.”
The biggest thing SSEM could do in response was to make sure that, whilst responding to the calls of Covid, it didn’t let this period as any other. “We do crisis management because we are currently in a worldwide crisis. But we didn’t drop the one ball to juggle the other one. As a company, we committed ourselves to giving our full support to our current market to ensure every medical need during these times will be met. We are proud to say that we maintained smooth product supply in a high demand period, regardless of the many obstacles during this period. Phenomenally enough, we are even still on track with our 5-year plan.”
Some of the biggest challenges that SSEM faced were in shipping: delays on and off throughout the pandemic meant that 4-week lead times for products to arrive became more like 15 weeks. In order to remain a reliable distributor, SSEM responded to this by ordering 5 to 6 months’ worth of stock, keeping its usual buffer in their normal warehouses whilst keeping the surplus in extra warehouse space that they leased. The extra stock holding, and leased space was an additional investment, but the result avoided not only a loss of business and reputation for them, but it also avoided crisis for the medical practises that rely on them to deliver.
As for Zelda’s division, South Africa faces an ongoing shortage in blood donations, with less than 1% of the country habitually giving blood. This means that when it comes to collecting, distributing and using this precious medical resource, it is important that every stage is well supplied for and carried out with care, and this is where Zelda’s area of SSEM can help. “SSEM is able to supply blood products for any need in modern blood transfusion practice. We have the expertise to assist blood banks with all their blood bag and equipment requirements, and as well as consumables, we supply blood processing devices, platelet Incubators and agitators, blood collection devices and various instruments used to seal and strip blood tubing.”
SSEM’s blood division’s total presence extends to South Africa, Angola, Rwanda, Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia, Uganda, Malawi, Mauritius, Zimbabwe, Seychelles, St Helena Island and Tanzania, including the supply of blood bags and other products to the National Blood Services and in each country. As such, it is the region’s trusted contact for many leading medical brands. As Zelda told us:
“SSEM is the appointed distributor for JMS Singapore, Conroy Sweden, Vacucare & Qualimed India for ranges such as blood bags, blood banking equipment, blood sealers and blood management machines, which are of superior quality and have a long and laudable reputation in Sub Sahara Africa. We currently have 1/3 of the blood bag supply to SANBS and supply various blood collection tubes nationally.” (SANBS has a risk policy that requires them to have more than one supplier for critical items, meaning that no one company can exclusively supply them products.)
“During the hard lockdown in South Africa, blood donations and usage dropped significantly because there were no elective surgeries and little to no road accidents. However, collections and usage started increasing towards August 2020 and have now completely normalised.”
With blood collection and use back to normal rates, the vaccine rollout in full swing and Covid still in effect, SSEM’s Blood Division, like its other divisions, has too much work to do for rest. As the work requires trained-up, technical knowledge, Zelda explained that they cannot simply bring in casual workers to boost their numbers during this time, and sourcing and training staff that they would then need to let go after Covid isn’t fair or feasible. Therefore, the team of 220 staff that exists has been working extremely hard. As Zelda told us, that passion has driven them forwards, but even passion can burn out if people don’t receive the right support. Knowing this, SSEM has taken good care of its staff, providing regular, in-depth counselling and coaching sessions to allow people to touch base, share their experiences, receive help and know that they aren’t alone.
“It was phenomenally helpful. We’d have 5 or 6 people in a meeting, all online, and for an hour and a half, we’d have a coaching session. Some meetings, I’d just cry for the full hour and a half because I felt so exhausted, but hearing that the other managers were going through the exact same thing made me feel better about it. Just to have someone listen, and say ‘I hear you.’”
“I have been privileged to be with SSEM Mthembu Medical for 10 years. I get up in the morning and I think “I’ve got to work. I’ve got a job, and I love what I’m doing”. When you have that passion for your job, it honestly never feels like I’m working, although I’m tired and I work hard. It just feels like I’m living my passion. You get to do what you love every day.
If you look after yourself, you are then in a healthy position to look after others. Whilst making sure that they supported their customers and kept Southern Africa reliably supplied with the medical equipment it needed, the team at SSEM’s blood division has made sure to look after each other. “As a company, we have grown together and the support between employees is heart-warming. We really stand together as a family.” From that strong position, the team is then ready to help others, whether through visits to labs to maintain their tech and advise in their operations, or simply through the reliable delivery of their essential stock. SSEM’s staff have been rushed off their feet, but it’s work that contributes to saving lives. “It’s exhausting, but I wouldn’t change it for anything else in the world.”