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Nursing China’s aged back to health

Karen Cho |

If third time’s really the charm, then social entrepreneur Ninie Wang’s new business model should also really take off.

Her company, Pinetree, originally founded in 2004, then a provider of integrated recreational services to promote an active lifestyle among senior citizens, changed its focus in 2008 to help senior citizens become more computer-literate and internet-savvy.

Today, Pinetree’s business model has again evolved, into one focused on nursing. But the target audience of senior citizens has remained constant throughout, because Wang’s motivation to set up Pinetree originally centered around her own ageing parents.   

With 170 million people in China over the age of 60 -- the equivalent of about 13 per cent of the population -- Wang says there is an “urgent need for professional care”.

This is further exacerbated by the fact that many hospitals operate on a quick turnaround of patients, leaving the elderly who often need rehabilitation or convalescent care, back in their homes but not fully recovered. According to Wang, more than 98 per cent of seniors are ageing at home, because culturally, children don’t put their parents in nursing homes.

And this, she says, is where Pinetree comes in. Whereas her former business plan was a ‘nice to have’ for the elderly, she says healthcare is a ‘must have’.

So Ninie Wang (MBA ‘03D) started Pinetree Senior Care Services and became its CEO, with six nurses who went through “hundreds of trials in three months”. There are currently two service units from which nurses can be dispatched to different neighbourhoods, so travel time is minimised between homes.

But there are bigger plans as Wang reveals she aims to have 300 to 500 nurses serving at least a few thousand different homes by the end of this year. “The idea of this model is that it requires much less capital investment compared to institutional care; and secondly it can be replicated much more quickly to serve more people at the same time.”

Her five-year plan is even more ambitious. “In five years, we want to expand this to a national network of hundreds or even over a thousand different service units, and having tens of thousands of nurses in the network, serving at least five million senior citizens in China, ” she told INSEAD Knowledge.

Setting up a social enterprise, however, does come with challenges, and in some ways, may be more challenging than a conventional for-profit business. “When you look at not-for-profit or charity, you probably don’t care as much as businesses for customer and employee satisfaction; because for businesses, you really need to make the customer happy, make sure you can have a high retention of the customer -- you can build this in the long run. But for charities, most people just give and feel good. So in my mind, the customer experience or the quality of service may also suffer.”

The second problem, she adds, is scaling up such enterprises. “If you do it as a business, whereby you give people a way to make a living or even develop a career as well as give them purpose to the work, then you can really attract many more people, essentially in the end build an army of the talent to join you. But when you do charity or not-for-profit, (there’s) only a small pool of people who can contribute their time and effort and energy in initiatives like this -- so the impact you can accomplish is also smaller.”

Wang also thinks that entrepreneurs particularly in China have it tougher. That because with China at the epicentre of global economic growth, more opportunities abound – but so do distractions. “You have almost on a daily basis, new ideas or new opportunities for partnership. As an entrepreneur in China, you’ve got to be very clear about what you want to achieve and not to be tempted away too easily.”

That said, Wang cautions that China should not be the end game for entrepreneurs -- social or otherwise. “Of course, for now everybody is looking at China, but I think we should always remain open to this global perspective when we look at doing any business in this country, because China is also more and more open to the world.”

And she is putting this into practice at Pinetree. “This ageing challenge is not just China’s own problem; it’s global, it’s universal. And with that, we really work with international experts in this field ... We have a multidisciplinary team working from many different countries, addressing the universal challenges and problems from having a fast ageing population. On that front, Pinetree’s work is never going to be standing alone. We are hand in hand with many other countries in this.”

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