How this Nigerian startup is promoting safe sex

Nigerian startup Slide Safe is attempting to increase the use of contraceptives and sexually transmitted infection (STI) screening among sexually active Nigerians in a shame-free and judgement-free way.

Launched last year, Slide Safe provides Nigerians with sexual health products in a way that protects their privacy, without stigmatising them.

The startup’s platform offers an anonymous way for people to purchase sexual health products. They do not need to give their real name, and Slide Safe also uses delivery companies that do not ask for means of identification. The products are discreetly packaged and delivered.

The offering includes condoms, water-based lubricants and contraceptive pills, as well as self-testing kits for HIV, Hepatitis B and Syphilis.

“The decision to use self-test kits is guided by results of the HIV self-test studies conducted in Malawi, which showed that uptake of self-testing was highest among the youngest age groups, mainly males, and those who had tested for HIV before,” founder Florida Uzoaru told Disrupt Africa.

“Sale of the test kits is accompanied with pre-testing and post-testing counselling, which is currently done over WhatsApp. Because for many of our customers, this is there first time testing themselves, it’s important to guide them to do it right.”

She said shame was a major access barrier to the use of sexual and reproductive health services and products in Nigeria.

“So, even though the general awareness of sexual health is relatively high at 65 per cent, usage of services is poor,” said Uzoaru.

For instance, only about 10 per cent of Nigerians aged between 15 to 24 have used any form of sexual and reproductive health service, and only about 10 per cent have tested themselves for HIV. About 20 per cent use condoms.

“These are pretty dismal numbers,” Uzoaru said. “This exists because we have, on the one hand, sexually active people who are reluctant to do regular check-ups and discuss sexual safety methods. And, on the other hand, sexual health providers judge those who have sex. Women in particular are unfairly judged for being “immoral”. Consequently, sexually transmitted infections like HIV disproportionately affect women.”

She said the downside to this is that stigma has therefore limited access to sexual health products, but yet it does not stop young Nigerians from having unsafe sex.

“Slide Safe therefore decided to focus on this problem, by choosing to overcome it through a sales and distribution system that emphasises discretion and convenience,” said Uzoaru.

The startup does have some indirect competition from traditional pharmacies like HealthPlus and MedPlus, which have outlets nationwide. However, Uzoaru said these are mainly frequented by middle-aged and married couples.

“Most importantly, they do not provide the on-demand service that Slide Safe does. Another competition is STI screening or management centres that are traditionally the domain of hospitals, private laboratories or funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Laboratory screening is, however, a lot more expensive, and test centres run by NGOs have the challenge of maintaining confidentiality as a setback,” she said.

Slide Safe is largely self-funded for now, although the company received a US$5,000 grant from the Tony Elumelu Foundation, with a further $5,000 conditional loan from the foundation expected later this year.

It does not have large numbers yet, but Uzoaru is optimistic for the future.

“There are a lot of challenges with trying to sell a product like this. One, preventive health isn’t the norm around here. Because healthcare financing is almost entirely out of pocket, and given the low earning power of most Nigerians, curative health is more common,” she said.

“People wait until they are sick to pay for health. So, a lot of behaviour change communication is necessary. But, altogether, we are doing better than we envisaged. Our biggest seller is the self-testing kits, and we hadn’t thought it would be, given most people still associate STI testing as either something is wrong or you’re inviting bad news.”

The majority of Slide Safe’s users are within the 18 to 34 age range, which constitute more than 60 per cent of Nigeria’s population.

“They seek non-invasive, and non-judgmental ways to stay safe as they explore their sexuality. Slide Safe brings to this population, cutting-edge products coupled with convenience and service,” Uzoaru said.

The startup started with a B2C model, primarily targeting students in tertiary education, living in large urban cities like Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt.

“We also targeted out-of-towners visiting large urban cities, who are staying in hotels and motels, and between the age of 25 and 40,” Uzoaru said.

“As it turned out, the people who like our product best and more frequently paid for it are workers in corporate organisations. So, we’re moving our focus there but as a B2B model. That’s where our focus is this year 2018. Businesses need healthy workforces that are not spending time and money on treating STIs. Slide Safe can make it possible.”

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