Turkey: The new healthcare destination for African elites

By Joséphine Dedet
Posted on Monday, 21 February 2022 08:40, updated on Thursday, 24 February 2022 11:24

Florence Nightingale Hospital in Istanbul’s Sisli district. © DR

The clouds are reflected on an imposing glass façade. In the vast hall of the brand new Medistanbul private clinic, two men with peeled heads wearing a black band to limit the formation of bruises are waiting to see the doctor for their post-operative check-up. Tourists from all over the world walk around Istanbul with bald heads as they wait for their hair to grow back. Hair transplants have become so common that the Turkish national carrier, which brings in cohorts of visitors in search of their lost hair, is nicknamed ‘Turkish Hairlines’.

Aminetou El Vilaly and Hamid Abdel Jelil are also sitting in the hall, checking their phones and listening to their customers.

These two young Mauritanians work as salesmen for MK Medicare, a branch of the MK group specialising in medical tourism.

As ‘guardian angels’, from the beginning to the end of the adventure, they are responsible for bringing African patients to Turkey. After transmitting their medical files to Turkish practitioners, they offer them quotes, surgeons and hospitals, and facilitate the process of obtaining visas.

(For a full price list, including Hair Transplant, Liposuction, Rhinoplasty and “Hollywood smile” see end of article)

Then they pick them up at the airport and organise their hospital stay, which can be combined with sightseeing or shopping. They act as translators and nannies by making sure that their protégés feel cared for at all times.

“Among our African clients, we have had businessmen, singers, ambassadors, as well as a dozen ministers, who have come to have their teeth redone, for a hair transplant, an oncology follow-up or liposuction,” says Hamid. The men are particularly adept at the latter practice, which removes abdominal fat.

The ladies, on the other hand, like to opt for the ‘mommy package’, which includes mammoplasty and vaginoplasty. The aim is “to regain pleasure and give some back to their husbands after pregnancies and long years of marriage”. They also opt for ‘Brazilian popo (commonly known as BBL, Brazilian Body Lifting)’, which involves transferring fat to the buttocks, like Kim Kardashian’s bountiful posterior. They also undergo vitro fertilisation (IVF), sometimes asking for twins.

We are one of the oldest private cosmetic surgery clinics in Turkey devoted exclusively to beauty.

Ioana Rondolean, who is in charge of Africa and Latin America at Esteworld, an establishment located on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, says: “We are one of the oldest private cosmetic surgery clinics in Turkey devoted exclusively to beauty” as she welcomes us into a gold-decorated waiting room. Ear surgery, rhinoplasty, face, neck, lip, chest, arm and leg lifts, liposuction, body contouring, BBL, ‘Hollywood smiles’, hair transplants… The institute, which offers “reliable and VIP quality services at affordable prices”, caters to every part of the human body.

Magic scalpel

Out of the 10,000 patients who walked through Esteworld’s doors in 2021, about 40 were African-Americans and 30 were Africans, including ministers’ wives and businesswomen from Cameroon, Senegal and Nigeria. To attract candidates to the magic scalpel, the clinic distributes brochures in luxury shops. In Lagos, for example, “where big fortunes tend to travel”. In 2022, the clinic plans to open offices in Nigeria, Cameroon, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Senegal.

Back to Medistanbul. Hamid is currently managing nine Mauritanians who are having their teeth done. Aminetou is in charge of four Mauritanians, three Tunisians and two Moroccans, who have come for either check-ups or operations. “We started medical tourism in 2014, but it’s only been six months since we set sail for Africa, which already represents 80% of our business, or 150 patients per month. We expect to quickly increase this figure tenfold,” says Tugay Toydemir, MK’s partner, in perfect French.

“Our clients come mainly from the Maghreb and Sierra Leone. We have an office in Mauritania, a consultant in Mali and a correspondent in Djibouti,” he says. To attract clients, MK Medicare, which is interested in Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Ghana, relies on recommendations from local doctors and social media. In Nouakchott, for example, the company relies on influencer Fouchi, who has 1 million followers on Snapchat and Instagram.

Based in the Sisli district, the MK Group subsidiary acts as an intermediary between patients and the 18 private clinics and hospitals in Istanbul with which it has signed agreements. In 2021, its turnover reached €3m ($3.4m). Founded by Muammer Kaya, a Turkish-American trained at Princeton University, the MK Group is worth €35m.

Empathy

The Ankara-based agency Healthy in Turkey offers similar concierge services and also relies on leading institutions in Istanbul (Anadolu Medical Centre, Memorial and Florence Nightingale groups, Güven Hospital, Baskent University Hospital, etc.). What makes it different? It focuses on severe pathologies and exclusively addresses African patients. All come from sub-Saharan Africa: Cameroon, Gabon, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Benin, Niger, the DRC and Senegal. They include ministers from Niger and Cameroon, CEOs, as well as pensioners and children.

Turkey has the advantage of being a tourist destination. However, Sub-Saharans are not fully aware of how good our health care system is, because we are new players in Africa…

Another unique thing about Healthy in Turkey is that its director, Aygen Yenigün, is none other than the daughter of the founder of the Yenigün construction group, which is very active in Africa. “I used to travel frequently to the continent, especially to Cameroon, where our group built the Japoma stadium,” says this young brunette woman in impeccable French. “That’s how the idea came to me.” Providing a service that carries a strong emotional charge is an effective and discreet way of enhancing the family business’ image.

Turkey is banking on this empathetic sentiment in order to gain a foothold in the medical tourism market. In 2019, it attracted up to 662,000 foreign patients and brought in €1.65bn, according to the statistics organisation Tüik. After a sharp drop in 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, these figures rose again in 2021 to 642,000 patients and $1.48bn in revenue.

This leaves the black market and the handful of semi-amateurs, even charlatans, who are rampant here, just like in other trades, and whom the ministry of health is hunting down to preserve the country’s reputation. In 2018, it regulated the sector and, since then, has been granting licences to establishments whose seriousness is recognised. There are currently 210 of them.

“Turkey has the advantage of being a tourist destination. However, Sub-Saharans are not fully aware of how good our health care system is, because we are new players in Africa. North Africans know us better, for reasons linked to history, but we are somewhat of a competitor,” says Yenigün.

From the injured to VIPs

It is impossible to reveal the identity of the leading African figures who are – or have been – treated in Turkey. The only public medical evacuation was that of General Jean-Marie Mokoko, a Congolese opposition figure, who was hospitalised in Ankara in July 2021. Although there was talk of Burkina Faso’s foreign affairs minister Djibril Bassolé, Côte d’Ivoire’s former prime minister Hamed Bakayoko and Guinea’s deposed president Alpha Condé coming to Turkey for treatment, in the end, they went to Tunisia (Hammamet), Germany and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), respectively.

Nevertheless, more and more Africans are pushing the doors of establishments in Istanbul, Ankara, the spa towns of Manisa and Bursa, the Mediterranean (Antalya), Aegean (Izmir, Bodrum) and Black Sea coasts every day in order to undergo complex operations or to have check-ups. Many are relatively well off, even though they are not necessarily VIPs. The political factor also comes into play. The close relations that Ankara has established with the governments of Tripoli, Addis Ababa and Mogadishu explain why a certain number of sick or wounded Libyans, Ethiopians and Somalis receive care on Turkish soil.

Turkey is counting on the satisfaction that patients demonstrate when they return to their home countries to advertise its advantages: quality services, much less expensive than in Europe and the US, state-of-the-art equipment and, above all, an almost family-like welcome, which is likely to appeal to Africans disappointed by the cold bureaucracy of Western hospitals. Thus, the accompanying parent or spouse is put up in a cosy room adjoining that of the patient, and has their own bathroom. The VIPs live in apartment-like spaces.

Everything from translation services to shops, restaurants and pharmacies are provided in these hospital cities which, with their glossy floors, solid wood doors, gleaming escalators, designer furniture and Japanese gardens, resemble five-star hotels or malls, instead of places of suffering.

This is the case for Koç which, in 2021, welcomed 275,000 people, a fifth of whom were foreigners (including 958 Libyans), and the Florence Nightingale group, which has 800 beds and whose income comes from foreign patients. Its establishments in the Istanbul districts of Sisli and Atasehir, in particular, are getting more and more African clientele, even though its primary customer base is still mostly from the Gulf and Asia.

Cancerology, heart surgery…

“Our patients come from Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Libya, Nigeria, Senegal, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Tanzania to undergo difficult cancer treatments, heart surgery, etc.,” says Sinan Aran, the deputy director of the Florence Nightingale Group, which has a real African draw. During his medical studies at Marmara University (Istanbul), he befriended another student, Hussein Mwinyi, Tanzania’s former defence minister and now president of Zanzibar.

“Tika [the Agence Turque de Coopération et de Développement] built part of Muhimbili Hospital in Dar es Salaam. We were planning to cooperate on postgraduate medical training when the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted this project. We are about to resume discussions to reach an agreement,” says Aran. This senior official is sometimes part of the delegations that accompany Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his trips abroad.

He says these are privileged moments, from which cooperation projects are born. Because besides empathy – which is real – the Turks have a great talent for creating long-term business relationships. They employ the strategy of methodical encirclement, which has been utilised by a whole range of public institutions since 2005, from the Red Crescent to the Tika, via the Yunus Emre cultural centres and the Maarif Foundation schools.

Aware of the competition from certain continental clinics in Tunisia, Morocco and South Africa, the Turks are already planning ahead. “We must not be satisfied with just treating our African friends, we must help them set up efficient health systems and train their staff,” says Yenigün, who organises visits to Turkish hospitals and seminars in Africa as well as consultations with Turkish doctors in Cameroon (and soon in Niger).

“We want to export our know-how, by using our school, Istanbul Science University, where we train our own doctors (3,000 at the moment) and nurses,” says Aran. State, university and hospital partnerships, continuing education, giving advice to African colleagues… Mutual aid and medical cooperation with Africa is expected to increase in the years to come.

———–

 How much does it cost in Turkey? 

(prices include airport transfers, hotels/hospital stays, surgery, medication, check-ups and possible sightseeing in Turkey)

Cardiovascular surgery: $10,000 to $20,000

(compared to $80,000 to $150,000 in the US)

Hair transplant: $1,500 to $4,000 (compared to $8,900 to $20,000 in the US or Canada; $6,800 to $22,800 in France)

Natural hair wigs (hair from the Nigde region is considered to be the best quality in the world): $500 to $1,000 (compared to $2,000 to $10,000 elsewhere)

Liposuction: $3,000 to $5,000 (compared to $8,500 to $9,700 in France)

Rhinoplasty: $2,500 to $4,000

“Hollywood smile”: between €4,000 and €7,000, for the whole set of teeth, depending on the material chosen (porcelain, zirconium, etc).

Lasik surgery for both eyes: $2,400

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