John Ataguba: 'I made a vow to myself that I would rewrite my story.'

19 September 2017 | Story Ambre Nicolson. Photo Michael Hammond.
Associate Professor John Ataguba
Associate Professor John Ataguba

Associate Professor John Ataguba has been the recipient of numerous awards recognising his prowess as both an economist and a teacher. He is a Commonwealth Scholar, a member of the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS), a Mandela Mellon Fellow and a recipient of a National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) Emerging Researcher Award and the Claude Leon Merit Award for Young Lecturers.

But, says Ataguba, none of these have meant as much as receiving the news that he had been accepted to the University of Nigeria as an undergraduate student.

He spent his childhood moving between towns like Gboko and Lakoja in Nigeria’s north-central region. His father was a civil servant and his mother an informal trader. The family went where the government posted them and Ataguba had the opportunity to witness first-hand the vastly unequal living standards of his home country.

By the time he was a teenager they had settled in Lagos and he knew that his family, while more fortunate than many, did not have the money to send him or any of his five siblings to one of the prestigious high schools that ensured a place at a good university. He knew that if he was to succeed, he was going to have to get excellent results in the national university entrance exams, conducted by the West African Examinations Council (WAEC).

He applied for the first time when he was 16, newly matriculated from secondary school and hopeful. He did not make the grade. The next year he tried again and once again did not succeed. In the third year the exam was cancelled due to university strikes. Finally, at age 20, he received an envelope that contained the news that he had not only won a place at a tertiary institution, but that it was at the respected University of Nigeria.

Economics of healthcare

“On that day, I made a vow to myself that I would rewrite my story,” says Ataguba. He set about this revision by choosing economics as his area of study. Four years later, he graduated top of his class, department and faculty. It had taken Ataguba almost a decade to attain his undergraduate degree but now he was determined to complete his master’s and doctorate in record time.

Looking back, Ataguba remembers having a sense of disbelief that he had made it that far. “I felt a bit like an imposter, but I persevered,” he says.

After completing his mandatory military service in Nigeria, he arrived at UCT in 2005. Coming to Cape Town was a strange experience. “This place is Africa but also not Africa. In Nigeria I would speak in pidgin English unless it was a formal situation.” Ataguba laughs. “Here it is one long formal occasion.”


“This place is Africa but also not Africa. In Nigeria I would speak in pidgin English unless it was a formal situation. Here it is one long formal occasion.”

It was at UCT that he discovered two things: a love of teaching that has never left him and a particular interest in the economics of healthcare systems. If he found the first surprising, he knew that the second was a result of his own experience of inequality in childhood.

“Living in some of the rural areas that I did as a child gave me a strong sense of what it means not to be able to afford basic services like healthcare. My work became more and more focused on themes of equity, universal healthcare and how to adequately measure the affordability, availability and accessibility of national healthcare systems around the world.”

Future focus

In 2011 he was awarded a split-site Commonwealth Scholarship that supported his doctoral studies for two years at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). He completed all his research in six months and graduated the following year with a doctoral thesis on the topic of health delivery systems. “I did not want to waste any time,” he says. “My wife was pregnant with our second child, so I had a very important deadline.”

In 2012 he became Dr Ataguba, in 2014 he was made senior lecturer and in 2017 he became an associate professor and director of the Health Economics Research Unit. In the same year he was awarded a Mandela Mellon Fellowship to make a comparative study of healthcare reforms between South Africa and the United States.

“I arrived there at a very interesting time in history,” he says. “Efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare were under way.” Ataguba is still working on a paper based on this research that looks at how different population groups access healthcare as well the social determinants of health, impact evaluation and health financing.

He says there are many countries in the world where national systems work very well in terms of access to equitable healthcare. “Rwanda comes to mind, as do Thailand and Ghana. That will remain my focus in the future: How can we ensure that more people have better access to better quality health?"

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