Investing In Health: Africa’s Medical Crutch
For the past 30 years Dr Ayo Ajayi has been traveling the world making a difference in the lives of people in desperate need for quality health care. Just before we started recording, Dr Ajayi on a lighter note shares that once he returned from a six-week trip and upon seeing one of his 6-year-old identical twin daughters, got their names tangled. For now, home, is his vacation.
At the World Economic Forum, I took a swipe of a chance to ask people randomly what the Gates Foundation does, and no one could elaborate further than their work with malaria. This goes a long way to illustrate that their dedicated work and focus is well under the marketing radar.
We were also privileged to have Haddis Tadesse, the Country Representative for Ethiopia and also a Representative to the African Union join in on our unique discussion.
Ventures Africa (VA): The Gates Foundation seems to be synonymous with Malaria (to the surprise of Dr Ajayi) – you now have a chance to set this record straight. What si the Gates Foundation all about on the African continent?
Dr Ayo Ajayi (DrAA): The Gates Foundation is all about partnerships to help people attain their full potential. All have the right to a fulfilling life. Human life is of equal value and we try to make that possible everywhere.
So, the Gates Foundation is synonymous with humanitarian support and much of it innovation and certainly accelerated development. In particular the Foundation is well known in three areas, for agriculture productivity and food security, for health, particularly the elimination of diseases that cannot be prevented, especially for children and women and the Foundation is very well known for their work for financial inclusion – making access to financial services to people completely outside of the mainstream.
VA: Malaria may seem like a simple problem to deal with. Why with 10 million school days lost annually in Africa does the problem still reside?
DrAA: We have the problem because we have not used the tools that exist as effectively as we should. We have a number of tools proven to quite effective. They won’t eradicate it completely but they will make it a negligible disease. Many forget or do not know that the US had the Malaria problem right up to the Canadian border for many years, eliminating it with the available tools and we can do the same.
The tools we now have are actually more effective than those we had before and we are working on additional innovations to make it even easier to manage. We talking here about insecticide bed-nets, treating pregnant women periodically and we are talking about treating everyone properly diagnosed with malaria with a full complement of treatment. In addition there is indo-residual spraying to eliminate the habitats for mosquitoes and these work. We do not have a vaccine for Malaria because we do not have vaccines for parasites and these are very difficult to develop.
In essence it is the delivery of these tools that require the dedication, focus and delicate management.
VA: Dr Ajayi, talk us through some of the partnerships in various regions that you are currently excited about….
DrAA: The Foundation has many levels of partnerships; partnerships at the global level with organisations like GAVI (the Global Alliance for Vaccines & Immunisations), the Global Fund for which the Foundation was instrumental in the formation of these bodies and channels resources through these institutions to developing countries.
Many of the Malaria programmes in Africa and many of the vaccines procured and distributed in Africa are funded by the Gates Foundation. The Foundation also has great partnerships the UNICEF and UN agencies.
The Foundation also has partners at a bilateral level, with the US and European governments and of course partnerships with government in developing countries where we work. The closer we are to the governments in the countries where we work, the easier it is for us to understand their development problems and priorities.
Then we have strategic partnerships which go a long way to helping countries and regions. We also understand that though we have a huge endowment, this is still far from enough to eradicate any problem in any specific country and thus we rely on partnerships for expanding the resource base as well.
Dr Ajayi as an example paints the stark reality of what he call the “resource curse”. Many countries discover new resources such as oil and gas and then think all their problems will evaporate because of the vast revenues. “We have seen cases to the contrary in Nigeria, Angola where the proceeds from those resources have not succeeded in lifting the lives of the common person…”
Haddis Tadesse (HT): One of the exciting partnerships we have is with the private sector in addition to what Ayo has described. These include our health work and partnerships with pharmaceutical companies for diagnostic device providers which is huge and then also in the financial sector our partnerships with private banks and telecoms companies is huge in the agriculture sector where we provide assistance to small holding farmers and then connect them to big buyers i.e. coffee for Starbucks, coca cola, Hershey, are some of the huge multi-nationals that are helping small farmers to produce better and more products to be able to supply to these large businesses and we that is an exciting and transformative partnership.
VA: What is needed in action on the continent because there is an unfortunate deficit between Government action and the investment by the private sector?
DrAA: I get uncomfortable when people criticise governments so much because we need to understand the role of governments. Governments never provide everything that everyone needs but they do however set the playing field and provide the policies needed, set up infrastructure and referee the playing field while providing security.
That is why you find that when governments go crazy the private sector cannot thrive. We would like to see the governments more focused on priorities. Lack of political commitment in some areas needs to be improved. When we talked about Malarias earlier on and where it worked very well we saw that government set the policy framework, thus we need the connection between the private and public sector.
HT: We need to hold governments in Africa accountable to their people but at the same time the private community has made so many promises to support these endeavours and yet less than half of the promised resources have come to Africa. In this light the global community also has to act a more serious manner to continue the development of the continent.
VA: If both yourself Dr Ajayi and Haddis were to choose success stories from your work as benchmarks for Africa, what would these be?
HT: I think one of the most significant improvements and impactful progress to date is the reduction of child mortality over the last 20 years. Countries like Ethiopia have seen a 67% reduction in child mortality over the last 16 years. These are lives save, children that are living now.
The same needs to happen with maternal mortality and what the global community has achieved in so far as child mortality is concerned, is nothing but impressive.
Agriculture is another area of success. 20 years ago Ethiopia was known as a basket case with the highest number of refugees and now is a host to the most refugees and one of the fastest growing economies –and agriculture has been the driving force changing the course of the country.
We project that over the next 10 to 20 years we will see many more success stories like this.