Image of Tamer Makary

TAMER MAKARY OF THE MAGRABI FOUNDATION

Tamer Makary serves as the Executive Director of the Magrabi Foundation, whose offices are based in Cairo, and is a member of the Board of Trustees. Tamer is also Vice President of the Africa Eye Foundation, in charge of strategic partnership and fundraising, and Head of Business Development for Magrabi Optical.

Here he talks about the Magrabi Foundation’s work in providing high-quality, affordable eye care in some of the most marginalised communities in Africa, with the aim of effectively tackling, and one day eliminating, needless blindness.

What is the origin of the Magrabi Foundation?

As a family, the founders of the Magrabi Medical Group have always been philanthropic in their own right and actively sought out charitable causes, filling gaps left vacated, predominantly in the sphere of health care and social services.  

High-quality and accessible eye health care service delivery for the poor is an ethical imperative.  The Maghraby family strongly believes that access to education and advocacy plays a key role in the prevention of eye disease, especially among the most marginalised members of our society. For this purpose, Dr Akef founded the Middle East’s first non-governmental organisation dedicated to the prevention of blindness. The Magrabi Foundation, which was set up in 1992, is the Maghraby family’s formal philanthropic platform, but hardly its only recipient.

Magrabi Medical Group encompasses one of the largest integrated eye health networks in the world. Through its three family-controlled commercial arms (Magrabi Retail, Magrabi Hospitals and AMICO) the group has established itself as the dominant player in the Middle East. Currently spanning three continents, the Group continues to pursue ambitious expansion plans across emerging and frontier markets.

Given the background of the company, which focuses on the eye care industry in emerging markets, it was logical that the family sticks to what it knows best – ensuring its hard-earned money be spent ensuring everyone has access to high-quality and affordable eye care.

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We do not operate a charity; we run an incubator for sustainable and socially beneficial projects.

How do they decide which projects to fund?

The short answer is that the ultimate decision to move forward is based on the potential for impact and the sustainability of a selected approach. We are not interested in band-aid solutions.

The Maghraby family is led by a true and decorated visionary, Dr Akef El-Maghraby.  Most projects are selected and executed alongside various Ministries of Health and key stakeholders to increase the likelihood of success and to mitigate execution risk. These relationships help to better define the critical areas requiring attention, and through our alignment and focus, to expedite the difference we can make as a collective force.

As an example, a few years ago our Chairman created the Africa Eye Foundation (AEF).  The AEF, a registered NGO (non-governmental organisation) in Geneva, was created to promote and advocate for better eyesight and the prevention of needless blindness/visual impairment, and to construct and operate a network of integrated and self-sustainable eye hospitals across Africa.  The decision was taken to commence operations with an eye hospital in Cameroon, due to its regional importance within Francophone Central Africa and its accessibility to neighbouring countries in dire need of affordable, high-quality eye care. In doing so, we managed to engage and bring to the table a group of leading sponsors from the world of eye health and disability NGOs. 

The Magrabi ICO Cameroon Eye Institute will be the first non-profit, sub-specialty hospital in Central Africa. In order to achieve long-term sustainability, the hospital will operate under a proven cross-subsidisation model that will see patients able to pay for surgeries provide for those who cannot.  

Is the family formally involved in the Magrabi Foundation, and are there plans for the next generation to take over in time?

The entire family (and extended family) remains very involved. In fact, all the operating companies, whether health care related or not, contribute to the cause. 

The second generation consists of two daughters and two sons, all of whom are actively engaged in the Foundation’s current projects. Both Amin and Ahmed, Dr Akef El-Maghraby’s sons, sit on the Board of Trustees and provide the necessary support for each of our ventures, whether that is in the form of money to support outreach activities or the procurement of equipment.  I could not have wished for a better leader than Dr Akef El-Maghraby, a man who I am privileged to be working alongside and executing his vision.

The family group’s work has been driven by a pure desire to give back and not a commercial interest. They are not attempting to build brand equity in anticipation of entering new markets, but merely to invest in inadequate existing healthcare services to treat the most prevailing eye care needs. The family has always been committed to giving back to the community. It is a fundamental part of what they do and who they are. When you hear any one of them give a presentation on their work, there will always be special attention given to the accomplishments and goals of their Foundation. They have a genuine passion and drive, infused in the family’s culture and actively  handed down from one generation to the next.

One of the initiatives we are trying to champion is to formally connect the two worlds, commercial and philanthropic, bring them together to demonstrate the Company’s (and its partners, advisers etc) commitment to philanthropy and corporate social responsibility (CSR).  Currently, Magrabi Optical commits one per cent of its net profits to the Foundation, and actively aligns with its two strategic partners, Essilor and Luxottica, on exploring how to benefit the markets we operate in. Our legal advisers, Latham & Watkins, serve as our pro bono advisers for the Cameroon Eye Hospital… you get the idea.

 

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Our central principle has always been that those most marginalised in society are arguably more deserving of high-quality service.

On a day-to-day basis what is involved?

I personally manage a team of about 40 hardworking individuals in Cairo, and a team of five in Cameroon. 

In Egypt, mobile eye clinics offer immediate relief to the ailing, even in areas with limited accessibility, while fixed vision centres, strategically located in densely populated districts, provide medical services at affordable, significantly discounted rates. We currently conduct 10 to 12 outreach caravans per month throughout Egypt. Each caravan aims to examine over 400 people, who are then either treated locally or referred for more advanced treatment through our network.

Besides rendering direct medical services to communities, the Magrabi Foundation also addresses the shortage of healthcare professionals through its ongoing commitment to capacity building. It provides advanced training courses and research projects in the fields of ophthalmology and visual rehabilitation, and aims to educate doctors, surgeons, paramedical staff and nurses on the industry’s best practices and latest surgical techniques.

Our current efforts are also focused on completing the construction of the Magrabi ICO Cameroon Eye Institute by year end, and planning for a ‘soft’ opening in mid-2015. 

Our central principle has always been that those most marginalised in society are arguably more deserving of high-quality service. Our endeavor to achieve this in a cost-effective manner certainly keeps us very busy on a day-to-day basis. 

How do you monitor how donations are spent?  Do you measure the impact they make?

The Maghraby family and the Foundation’s key stakeholders are all conscientious about how their money is spent. I have as much control as one could want when it comes to managing capital allocation. This empowerment comes with a set of responsibilities and a heightened level of accountability, so I take the monitoring of spend and the measuring of impact very seriously. 

Accurate and credible reporting is becoming increasingly important in our work, especially when you are competing for funding. It’s the only way to demonstrate impact and ensure that funds are available each year to get us closer to our goals on current projects, or to kick off new ones.

All records and financials must point towards eventual break even and sustainability. We do not operate a charity; we run an incubator for sustainable and socially beneficial projects. Our partners know this and it is a key differentiator. 

For sustainability to be achieved, it is imperative that we invest in training and building local capacity. Local operations are hardly sustainable if they are run by expats. Community leaders and community-based organisations need to be empowered to manage local initiatives. Their buy-in is paramount. They shouldn’t just be able to address today’s problems, but equipped with the tools to deal with tomorrow’s issues as well. Surgical methods, health risks and technologies are always evolving and a scalable, lasting platform is the best contribution one could make to a society in need. In the case of eye care, cataracts are the leading cause of avoidable blindness, but in the next decade or so, it will be exceeded by cases caused by diabetes. Any solution we devise must incorporate the current need, as well as foreseeable future needs.

What lessons have you learned as the size of the donations you give has increased?

We continue to learn as we go along, but as the size of the donations increase and the stakes get higher, we leverage the collective intelligence that comes from our strategic partnerships and co-sponsors. Teaming up with leading NGOs and foundations, such as Seeing is Believing, CBM, the Fred Hollows Foundation, ORBIS or the Noah’s Arc Foundation, teaches us how to better implement processes, navigate tricky political landscapes in new geographies and incorporate industry best practices.

We’ve also learned the value of an experienced board of directors and advisory board. The importance of being constructively challenged throughout a project by experts in the field is a good way to ensure success. One person never has all the answers, that is for certain.

What challenges do you think philanthropists face in the Middle East and Africa?

The challenge for philanthropists working in emerging markets is to ensure that projects and foundations are run like businesses, with sustainability, transparency and accountability in mind. People can be reluctant to contribute capital if they can’t see a tangible, cost-effective impact. Gone are the days of passive philanthropy. In the geographies we work, the vast demand for ‘Robin Hood-type’ services suggests that it might be a harder challenge to get things wrong, so long as we hold ourselves to a high ethical and professional standard. 

At the Magrabi Foundation there is a shared belief in focus. Once you start to veer away from your main focus, you begin to dilute the effect you have in an identified area. It’s easy to throw money at a problem, but we try to focus our efforts on one or two significant and quantifiable issues, and make sure we achieve meaningful results. 

Why focus on these parts of Africa?

We assess the need for high-quality, affordable eye care from a global perspective, regardless of gender, wealth (or lack of), religion etc. We are driven to fill a humanitarian need and provide all people with an inalienable right to sight. If you look at where there exists the most need for such philanthropy, where you can get the most traction and make the most impact, you end up converging on the most marginalised and less fortunate communities of the world. I think there is a real selflessness to our work, where we are driven to serve the needs of the people who are less fortunate – that is our primary motivation.

If we were to focus our efforts purely on regional markets, it would most certainly receive more press and notoriety, but that’s not the objective. Little coverage exists in the Middle East about our eye hospital in Cameroon, our work in Egypt, but that is perfectly fine. This reflects the confidence and fabric of the Maghraby family, the character of our Chairman and the type of legacy they wish to leave. Selfish, personal gains are of least importance.