Botswana, beyond the horizon – Interview with Christian Gross and Dr Misha S. Kruck

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Christian Gross and Dr Misha S. Kruck

Imagine looking at a map of Africa for a place where you can make a difference. With its huge geographic and demographic diversity, how would you ever decide where to go? This was the question Swiss entrepreneur Christian Gross and German-born Dr Misha S. Kruck answered for themselves in 2011 when they founded the aeromedical rescue organisation Okavango Air Rescue (O.A.R.) in Botswana to service a sparsely populated country with lots of remote communities.

The couple had complementary experience. Christian was a conservationist as well as a businessman, and had already established environmental organisations such as Animal Management Consultancy and the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife.

Misha had vast medical experience and had worked all over the world, including during stints at International Red Cross and Rega, the Swiss air rescue service. They moved to Botswana in 2011 and set up O.A.R., a privately-owned and independently funded service that operates helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, as well as a polyclinic, to bring quality medical care to locals and tourists visiting the country.

Botswana’s Okavango Delta

Beyond the horizon

When Christian Gross and Dr Misha S. Kruck saw how poor medical provision was in remote areas of Botswana, they took action. Here they tell the story of Okavango Air Rescue

Christian, Misha, introduce yourselves.
MK: My name is Dr Misha S. Kruck. I’m originally from Germany but moved to Switzerland to specialise in anesthesiology, intensive care and emergency medicine. I’ve worked for International Red Cross and the Swiss air rescue service, Rega.
CG: I’m Christian Gross, a Swiss entrepreneur. I wanted to be a vet but went into business. My passions often combine, for example in the Animal Management Consultancy I founded in 1988 in the United Arab Emirates.

How did you meet?
MK: On a flight from Switzerland to Spain in 2008. For a while, we were in a ‘long-distance’ relationship between Dubai and Switzerland, but after two years we decided we wanted to start a new chapter together. We were both independent and looking for a change. We decided we wanted to bring our professions and passions together, marrying medicine and conservation.
CG: Africa was Misha’s idea. We moved to Botswana in 2011. The Okavango Delta is well known for conservation, but we identified that the area’s medical infrastructure needed modernising. So we founded Okavango Air Rescue (O.A.R.). In the 10 years since, it’s grown hugely – but not without challenges!

Tell us more about O.A.R.
MK: O.A.R. is based in Botswana and headquartered in Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta. The team’s made up of doctors, pilots, nurses, paramedics and administration staff. Some are from Botswana, but we have guys from all over the world. It started as a medical service provider specialising in emergencies and airborne evacuations. But it’s grown into a provider of general medicine. We operate two Pilatus PC-12 fixed-wing aircraft and two Bell Jetranger 206 III helicopters, and run a polyclinic.

Was it easy to set up?
CG: No! We were hugely enthusiastic and had this great vision, but if we’re honest, if we’d known in advance what a bureaucratic nightmare it was going to be, we might have chosen a different path! But it’s been enormously rewarding.

How is it funded?
MK: We always wanted the service to be financially independent, to fund itself, without relying on government support or donations. So we run a patronage system that makes the service affordable to all, especially the local population, and allows foreigners who may be wealthier to make larger contributions. We don’t take salaries and it’s set up so that when we retire, it can continue without us.

How does the patronage system work?
CG: The patronage asks for a minimum contribution of 150 pula, approximately $15 or the equivalent of one can of Coca Cola per month. It’s valid for 12 months. The patronage guarantees evacuation out of
the bush at no extra cost to the patient, unless they have insurance.

How large is the area O.A.R. covers?
MK: O.A.R. covers the whole of the Southern African continent with its PC-12 aircraft. With its helicopters, O.A.R. purely operates within Botswana, which is the size of France and Belgium together. From Maun, O.A.R. covers the Okavango Delta, which is roughly the size of Switzerland.

What challenges does that pose?
CG: We are in a relatively unorganised environment and all rescues are based on ‘finding a solution’. Phone and internet connections are sometimes poor, and flight permissions in the neighbouring countries often take undue time to be granted. With the helicopters, we often have to search for the patients as the coordinates we receive are normally inaccurate, or the spot isn’t suitable for a landing. A big challenge is also dealing with insurance companies that don’t understand ‘the bush’…

What difference has O.A.R. made?
MK: We’ve now flown more than 1,500 critical patients and looked after more than 20,000 patients in our polyclinic. Before O.A.R., there wasn’t a local medical air evacuation service, nor ground support in the form of a quality clinic. Through our clinic we’ve created local jobs and income, too.

Tell us about the partnership with Oris.
CG: In our neck of the woods, the prestige of a beautiful watch doesn’t mean much of course, but the association has been a real boost to our team. The watch will help raise awareness of what we do, which is hugely valuable to us as we look to build a sustainable model for the future. Our pilots love Oris pilot’s watches and it’s wonderful to see a piece with our logo on the case back!

Botswana’s Okavango Delta

A site to behold

Botswana’s Okavango Delta is one of nature’s miracles and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Okavango Air Rescue’s service covers the area and beyond

It’s one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, covers a flat area of more than 20,000km2, and in 2014, it became the 1,000th site to be inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage List. Botswana’s Okavango Delta is one of the most spectacular sites on Earth.

The delta, which is made up of grasslands, marshes, lagoons and thousands of islands, is produced by seasonal flooding, peaking between June and August, Botswana’s dry winter months. During this period, it swells to three times its normal size, causing one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of wildlife.

Botswana is home to the ‘Big Five’ game animals: the lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhinoceros. Together with giraffes, hippos, cheetahs, crocodiles and many other species, they make the Okavango Delta one of Africa’s most popular tourist destinations.

Almost as diverse is the human population, which is made up of five ethnic groups, each of which has its own language. In the main, their livelihood comes from the delta.

Until the Okavango Air Rescue (O.A.R.) was established in 2011, the area was unserviced by an aeromedical organisation. Local people and tourists requiring medical evacuation from remote areas had to wait for aircraft
to arrive from neighbouring South Africa.

Today, O.A.R. covers the delta area and the Southern African continent, flying two PC-12 fixed-wing aircraft and two Bell Jetranger 206 III helicopters. Visitors to the country are encouraged to take up a ‘patronage’, a contribution that helps the organisation continue its mission. O.A.R. asks for a minimum of 150 pula, around US$15, an annual figure that’s roughly equivalent to buying a can of Coke once a month. The successful system was developed by Switzerland’s Rega air rescue service.

In an emergency, O.A.R. will send a medically equipped helicopter and an emergency doctor to rescue patrons – and non-patrons. Any charges are considered later, usually through an insurance company. If those rescued don’t have insurance and can’t afford to pay, O.A.R. waives the cost.

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