Cochlear builds on 30-year success in the Middle East and Africa

13 September 2021

Cochlear is seeing the strongest growth in its 30-year history in the Middle East and Africa after establishing an office in Dubai to spearhead expansion across the region.

The hearing solutions pioneer has a more than 50% share of the market in the Middle East and Africa. Around 23,000 people have received cochlear implants to date and the number is growing. The Dubai office is also providing a stepping stone to the sub-Saharan African market.

In this case study, Regional Director, Middle East & Africa Alain Yazbeck provides an overview of Cochlear’s operations and some key success factors:

  • Engage distributors that are a good cultural fit with your organisation.
  • Maintain strong relationships with distributors, healthcare professionals and government. Having authentic, meaningful relationship will push your business forward.
  • Stay on top of regulatory changes as these can affect the timing of product deliveries.

‘I strongly believe the Middle East and Africa region is worth the effort,’ says Yazbeck. ‘We achieved double-digit growth every year from 2016 to 2019 and continued to grow steadily in 2020.

‘The region is constantly looking for the latest technologies so there are many opportunities for us and other Australian medtech companies.’

Build a stable base before expanding

Cochlear has been present in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region since the late 80s. The region was serviced out of Cochlear’s European office until the company established a regional headquarters in the Dubai Healthcare City in 2013. This enabled Cochlear to take a more strategic approach to expansion.

Cochlear divides the MEA region, comprising 25 countries, into sub-regions with their own teams:

  • Gulf Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf
  • The Levant region
  • North East Africa (Libya, Egypt and Sudan)
  • French-speaking Africa
  • English-speaking Africa.

‘Once we had a regional office, we looked first at those countries with economies that are stable and growing, have well-established healthcare systems and trained healthcare professionals,’ says Yazbeck. ‘The GCC was the most stable sub-region so it made sense to start there. Then we gradually expanded across the other sub-regions.’

Work with distributors who are a good cultural fit

Cochlear appoints a single distributor in each country to sell its technology to public clinics. Yazbeck says choosing the right distributor is critical to avoid damaging the reputation of your technology and business.

‘When assessing distributors, you want to make sure they are a good cultural fit with your organisation,’ he says. ‘They must show they are dedicated to your product and the company’s ethos. In our case, it is our mission, including helping transform the way people understand and treat hearing loss.’

Distributors should be well-connected and have good relationships with key players in the market. They should also be financially robust as payment terms are complex and longer than they are in other established economies.

‘Distributors may have to wait awhile for payment to come through from their buyers so they need the means to pay their suppliers in the meantime,’ says Yazbeck. ‘The flipside is that financially robust companies are typically large businesses that may not pay full attention to a niche technology. This is something you need to discuss with potential distributors from the start.’

Over the past five years, government entities have consolidated purchases and released tenders for bulk buying. Yazbeck advises companies to employ someone with tender management skills or ensure their distributor understands how to tender for public contracts.

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Creating awareness in a new market

When Cochlear first entered the region, the awareness of and government funding for cochlear implants were relatively low. In the last decade, however, the number of patients receiving cochlear implants has grown significantly.

‘The industry, Cochlear and other players, and healthcare opinion leaders in the region have worked to raise awareness of the needs of the hearing impaired,’ says Yazbeck.

‘The World Health Assembly resolution in 2017 urged all member states to make hearing healthcare a public health priority. This helped increase awareness among government decision-makers about the need to treat hearing loss.’

The most effective way to build awareness in a new market is to engage with the key users: healthcare professionals, patients, hospitals, clinics and government.

Cochlear uses its online channels to share information about hearing loss and treatments. It:

  • organises patient days at clinics
  • participates in key scientific conferences
  • holds activities on World Hearing Day
  • offers scholarships to implant recipients.

Training is another important engagement tools. The Cochlear Academy in Dubai Healthcare City offers up to 15 training courses each year. ‘This allows us to engage with specialists and healthcare professionals while keeping their skillsets up to date,’ says Yazbeck.

Keep an eye on changing regulations

Getting medtech products into the MEA region has become more complex in recent times due to constant regulatory changes.

‘It has become increasingly more controlled for healthcare safety standards and we welcome this,’ says Yazbeck. ‘Exporters should not only be aware of any regulatory changes but also the impact of product registration procedures on import timings. It can take up to several months in some markets.

‘In bigger markets, you will hear of any changes quickly but in smaller markets you may have to seek the information,’ he says. ‘We employ someone to keep track of any regulatory changes across the region and support product registration efforts. We also seek input from our distributors regularly.’

Growing with government assistance

Cochlear’s future plans are to consolidate its position in the markets where it is strong and reinforce its position in markets where there is still room for growth. Yazbeck says he looks forward to working with Austrade in the future.

‘We’ve enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with Austrade for many years,’ he says. ‘We appreciate the insights on regional developments and their readiness to assist.

‘The Middle East and Africa is alive with opportunities. Have a clear strategy that outlines where and how you wish to compete, build strong relationships and be resilient to uncertainty – and success will come.’

 

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