From a Fellowship to a Movement: The Future of Public Health in Africa
By Christie Akwaowo (Lead Writer)
Editor’s Note: Established in honour of the late Kofi Annan, the Kofi Annan Global Health Leadership Programme aims to support senior aspirational African public health leaders acquire advanced skills for transformational public health leadership in Africa. In this thought leadership piece, Dr. Christie Akwaowo, a Consultant Public Health Physician, Senior Lecturer in Health Management, Policy and Global Health and, fellow in the first cohort writes about her insightful and inspiring experience and the unique ‘Africanness’ she acquired.
I first saw the call for the Kofi Annan Global Health Leadership Programme in November 2020, while searching for career development opportunities online. The aim of the fellowship is to support aspirational public health leaders from Africa to acquire advanced skills and competencies to strategise, manage and lead public health programmes that will transform public health in the continent. This resonated with me as a means through which I could translate my public health leadership dream into reality while also gaining the necessary support for my advocacy for universal health coverage (UHC).
A prestigious fellowship
This fellowship is particularly remarkable as it was designed by Africans for public health leaders in Africa. At that time, although I knew very little about the Africa Centers for Disease Control (Africa CDC), its goals, and its direction, I couldn’t shake off the conviction that this was an opportunity I could not afford to miss. So, I sent in my application.
I was then invited for a virtual interview which was both rigorous and engaging. I shared my thoughts on the public health space, discussed my work as a consultant public health physician, and my expectations for public health in Africa. When the interview ended, I was so excited that when asked, “Do you have any questions?” all I could ask was, “ When are we starting?”
Two weeks later, I received an invitation to join the inaugural cohort, and my excitement knew no bounds. It took some time for me to come to terms with the fact that I had been invited to join the most prestigious fellowship for public health leaders in Africa. During the virtual launch of the fellowship in April 2021, I was humbled to learn that over 600 applications were received worldwide. However, only 20 of us were selected.
Living the dream
The fellowship programme of activities was readjusted to accommodate the restrictions placed on physical gatherings that were still in place, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, online sessions which stretched through 2021 and two contact sessions in 2022 replaced the initial six in-person sessions planned. Although it was easy for fellows to adapt to these adjustments, it must have required a lot of hard work to plan.
We had sessions with seasoned public health leaders — drawn from all over Africa and the entire global health community — who have made a mark in the global public health space. Professor Peter Piot, Professor Agnes Binagwaho, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, Dr John Nkengasong and Dr Ahmed Ogwell. The faculty led by Dr. Alex Coutinho and Dr. Ebere Okereke were truly amazing. It was inspiring listening to their stories, perspectives and learning how to set the African Agenda and decolonise global health.
A unique ‘Africanness’
The experience changed my worldview of Africa, education, and international health and diplomacy issues. It was all so new but familiar and above all, inspiring. It was intriguing to learn about Africa’s history, and culture, the African Agenda and the future of the African health ecosystem. Equally fascinating were our sessions on health diplomacy, advocacy and project management. By the end of the fellowship, I acquired an “ Africanness “ that is distinctly unique.
The formal coaching and mentoring integrated into the programme was life changing. I learnt how to reflect on my leadership journey and gained so much insight into myself as a leader, which makes summarising my experience quite difficult, but two words stand out: insightful and inspiring. We concluded the year-long fellowship with a mandate to make a difference in global public health, with a global, but ‘Africentric’ perspective.
The African Agenda 2063 and the New Public Health Order
The African Agenda 2063 and the New Public Health Order are critical tenets of the African Union and Africa CDC. Translating these into meaningful projects for the greater good of Africans and Pan Africanism is of significant interest to both organisations. However, this will require leaders courageous enough to continually speak up for Africa.
The New Public Health Order is central to the work of the Africa CDC. The Kofi Annan Leadership Programme emerged as part of the commitment to invest in the public health workforce and leadership programmes. The crop of leaders produced by this fellowship can make a difference, if they own and domesticate the African Agenda 2063 in their various contexts.
The Kofi Annan Movement
It was great to meet some members of the second cohort of the fellowship at the just concluded Conference on Public Health in Africa (CPHIA), and there, we mutually agreed that it is no longer just a fellowship but a movement; ‘the Kofi Annan Movement’.
The onus now rests on the Kofi Annan Global Public Health Leaders to join efforts with the Africa CDC to translate the aspirations of the Africa we want, as captured in Agenda 2063, to reality. It is also imperative that we integrate the Agenda and the New Public Health Order into curricula for medical and public health schools.
As a teacher, trainer and mentor to young health professionals, I am dedicated to moving the African agenda from the pages on which it is written into the hearts of young and aspiring global health leaders. This is also a call to put African history back into the secondary school curricula to instill the love, appreciation and pride of Africa in the hearts of future generations. This may contribute to stemming the brain drain currently engulfing Africa.
Finally, whether in the diaspora or at home, developing the skills needed to decolonise global health in Africa and push the boundaries of achieving the public health goals captured in Agenda 2063 requires truly Africentric leaders. The Kofi Annan Movement is certainly strategically positioned to accomplish this.