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Subsistence to Surplus: How Gifty Went from Barely Making Ends Meet to Meeting President Obama


Gifty Jemal Hussein met President Obama this week during his visit to Ethiopia. Read on to find out how she transformed her life from a subsistence existence to extraordinary success that’s benefiting her entire community—with a little help from the United States.

Gifty Jemal Hussein was a typical smallholder farmer in Ethiopia. She grew Ethiopian banana, corn and a few coffee plants in her backyard to feed her family and earn a meager income to make ends meet.

Harvests were low and unpredictable. Land was limited. This was life.

But 2013 was different.

In 2013, Gifty planted her small patch of land with new corn seeds, using techniques she’d learned from a development program in her community. She used just the right amount of fertilizer and checked on the corn stalks as they grew. When it came time to harvest them, she exclaimed to herself: Thank God! Her crops had yielded three times as much corn in a single season as before.

It seemed almost too good to be true. She touched every ear of corn she’d harvested. The results were real.

Gifty was so surprised, happy and proud of her harvest that she laid the ears of corn out in front of her house for all to see. She went door-to-door telling others and inviting them to see it with their own eyes. She took a quarter of the harvest to her four adult children in the capital city.

Her neighbors, impressed and happy for her, wanted to know how she’d managed to turn a sparse backyard garden into an abundant farm.

Gifty Jemal Hussein, a smallholder farmer in Ethiopia, spoke with President Obama today. Through a USAID-DuPont partnership, she began using high-yield corn that allowed her to increase her household income. / Daniella Maor, USAID

Gifty Jemal Hussein, a smallholder farmer in Ethiopia, spoke with President Obama today. Through a USAID-DuPont partnership, she began using high-yield corn that allowed her to increase her household income. / Daniella Maor, USAID

Unlocking Agriculture’s Potential

Gifty had been a leader in her community before 2012, but it took on new meaning now. People were paying more attention. She had newfound confidence that life could change—and she would be the one to make it happen.

Gifty went to the local government and asked to lease one hectare of land – for free – for her women’s group to farm. She rented a tractor with her own money to plow the land. She gathered other women in her community to help her sow the corn seeds that had given her a bumper harvest last season and then apply fertilizer, which she bought on her own.

As the corn grew, she brought the 20 women in her group to show them how tall the plants were getting. Then she asked each to invest in this farming venture – to become stakeholders in their shared success. Each woman paid a portion to compensate her for the cost of the tractor and fertilizer. The following season, they also helped buy the seeds.

“It isn’t reasonable to invest in something that doesn’t give you a return,” Gifty said. “So I don’t invest in the [old seed], instead I invest in the new hybrid seed.”

Gifty and her group opened a savings account for the income they were earning from better corn harvests. With it, they’re making investment plans for the future and have a safety net for tough times.

Women representatives visited from other districts to see the group’s bountiful corn crop. They were so impressed that they gifted Gifty a set of farm tools to honor her for her initiative and entrepreneurship.

Taller plants and larger ears of corn translated into more income for Gifty. She’s invested the returns into her farming enterprise, buying a cow, which she’s leveraged into an additional revenue stream by selling the milk and calves. With this money, she’s purchased extra seeds to grow more nutritious and lucrative crops like teff, cabbage, carrots and potatoes. She’s expanded the number of coffee plants she grows too.

Gifty is also using her income to improve her family’s standard of living. She built a new home—her proudest undertaking. She’s paid for her husband’s medical treatment for a disability he has and for her son’s final years of high school. She even had enough to contribute to one of her daughters’ weddings.

From Individual Success to Global Impact  

Fortunately, Gifty’s story is less and less unique these days. Rural communities across countries like Ethiopia are establishing a new normal: One with less poverty and hunger and with more prosperity and opportunity.

Smallholder farmers, with help from the United States, are moving from barely surviving off their farms to running profitable farming businesses—ones that give them enough income to pay for things like school, health care and new homes.

In Ethiopia last year, the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative helped more than 218,000 producers like Gifty use new technologies and management practices to increase their yields. And through nutrition programs, the U.S. Government reached more than 1.3 million young children in Ethiopia with help—including training more than 20,000 adults in child health and nutrition.

Results like these add up to impact, in the lives of individual farmers like Gifty and – increasingly – nationwide. Between 2011 and 2014, stunting – a measure of malnutrition often associated with undernourishment – among young children dropped in Ethiopia by 9 percent. This impact reflects the leadership and efforts of the Government of Ethiopia as well as U.S. Government.

The United States has led the world in taking hold of the tremendous opportunity to unlock the transformative potential of agriculture to connect more people to the global economy and pave a path out of poverty through initiatives like Feed the Future and partnerships like the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.

In fact, as President Obama was meeting with Gifty today, we announced that the program that helped Gifty jumpstart her success with new seeds – a public-private partnership between Ethiopia, the United States and DuPont Pioneer – is expanding to reach 100,000 more farmers and help them flourish, much like Gifty has.

The work is far from finished, but the results and impact are promising. The future looks bright for rural families like Gifty’s.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tjada McKenna is the Assistant to the Administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Food Security. She also serves as the Deputy Coordinator for Development for the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative.

Equipping Africa to Support Its Own Development

Thanks to Power Africa, increasing numbers of Africans can continue working well beyond daylight hours, helping increase their productivity and potential earnings. This Tanzanian man can sew at night thanks to a d.light solar lantern provided through Power Africa. / USAID

Thanks to Power Africa, increasing numbers of Africans can continue working well beyond daylight hours, helping increase their productivity and potential earnings. This Tanzanian man can sew at night when he uses a d.light solar lantern provided through Power Africa. / USAID

Every so often there are moments when you know you are watching history unfold. Events come together that crystallize an important moment of change, and the opportunity to shape those moments has outsize resonance.

Last week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the Third International Financing for Development conference proved one such moment of landmark importance for development with its emphasis on each country’s responsibilities to define, drive and invest in their own development path.

The resulting Addis Ababa Action Agenda is the right agenda for a world in transition – one where each country owns its own development – and to a new model for development predicated on partnership, results and accountability, local ownership, and harnessing innovation.

Since the first international conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey 13 years ago, we’ve seen the rate of extreme poverty around the world cut in half. Yet a billion people still live in extreme poverty, left behind from the incredible advances in life expectancy, access to education and technology, and good governance that has lifted so many.

To succeed with the ambitious new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we must focus increasingly on the poorest and most vulnerable, particularly those in fragile and conflict-affected states where the largest gaps remain in achieving the unfinished business of the Millennium Development Goals.

A worker checks equipment at the Geothermal Olkaria Plant in Kenya, a facility supported by Power Africa. / Carole Douglis, USAID

A worker checks equipment at the Geothermal Olkaria Plant in Kenya, a facility supported by Power Africa. / Carole Douglis, USAID

The United States continues to lead the world in official development assistance with nearly $33 billion in 2014 alone. But the most transformational moments occur when our resources are targeted and act as catalysts for much larger trends and pools of resources, like domestic revenues and private sector investment.

Nowhere is responding to these challenges more critical than in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite lowering the percentage of the population living in extreme poverty for the first time on record, the absolute number of people living in extreme poverty in Africa has yet to fall.

Before embarking on a trip to Kenya and Ethiopia this week, President Obama said Africa has the potential to become the next great center for economic growth on the planet. Indeed, seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa. The commitment at Addis enables the type of partnerships these countries need to spur inclusive growth and end extreme poverty.

In Addis, we launched and built on several partnerships that represent the best of what U.S. leadership can do to help African nations to achieve. The Addis Tax Initiative will help developing countries better mobilize and effectively use their own resources to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Donors, international organizations and developing countries—including Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Tanzania and Namibia—committed to a set of core principles for domestic resource mobilization, and the donor partners committed to double technical assistance for this purpose.

Domestic resource mobilization not only provides countries with a base of consistent domestic funds for development independent of donor nation budgets, but builds a virtuous cycle of accountability wherein the willingness of citizens to pay taxes is predicated on government service delivery and responsiveness.

This Ethiopian man and a crew of three others pick up milk twice a day thanks to a USAID livestock development project, part of Feed the Future, that focuses on fostering growth and reducing poverty through improving the productivity and competitiveness of Ethiopia’s livestock value chains. / USAID

This Ethiopian man and a crew of three others pick up milk twice a day thanks to a USAID livestock development project, part of Feed the Future, that focuses on fostering growth and reducing poverty through improving the productivity and competitiveness of Ethiopia’s livestock value chains. / USAID

We also doubled down on Power Africa through a partnership with the European Union, which adds $2.8 billion in resources to enhance Power Africa’s work to expand reliable electricity generation across sub-Saharan Africa.

Like the Addis Tax Initiative, this is a commitment at the ground-floor of development; without sustainable energy sources to power economic growth and everyday life, country-led efforts to meet development objectives can’t get far.

That’s why Power Africa seeks to leverage private sector investment and multilateral and bilateral donor commitments, and builds partnerships with African governments committed to making the tough reforms needed to attract that investment to their energy sectors. These efforts will connect people to the grid and bring off-grid energy solutions to those living beyond the grid, providing energy that can fuel economic growth across the continent.

And because Africa’s power sector will not advance without policy reforms and improved governance, our re-commitment in Addis also marks our guarantee to fill critical skills gaps and engage in diplomatic dialogues that drive reform so that the power sector we help build can be managed and maintained for generations to come.

There are many continuing challenges in sub-Saharan Africa, conflict and fragility chief among them. But with the U.S. and our partners working to put African countries in the driver’s seat on their respective development paths, the promise and potential of the SDGs becomes, as in a rear view mirror, much closer than they appear.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Thier is the Assistant to the Administrator in the Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning. Follow him @Thieristan.

Solar Lamps Shed Light in Rural Communities

Paris Wanjiru, 17, uses a solar-powered light created by M-Kopa to study at night. Before her home had electricity, she was ranked sixth in her class; now, she ranks second. / Morgana Wingard, USAID

Paris Wanjiru, 17, uses a solar-powered light created by M-Kopa to study at night. Before her home had electricity, she was ranked sixth in her class; now, she ranks second. / Morgana Wingard, USAID

When Paris Wanjiru, a 17-year-old student in Muranga, Kenya, first saw the solar-powered lamp her mother bought, she was so excited she stayed up until 1 a.m. studying chemistry. Now that she can study after the sun sets, her grades have improved; she now aspires to study chemistry at Kenya University.

Her mother, Nancy Wambui, 45, had saved for three months to buy the home solar system, providing the family with a personal power supply. Before, the family had relied on kerosene lamps for light, but their fumes are dangerous and they are costly to fuel — off-grid households spend about $200 a year on kerosene.

Off-grid alternatives to energy access benefit more than just families. Farmers who use solar lights to display their crops at evening markets sell more than they otherwise would, says John Njorge, a local solar lamp vendor in Muranga. Even shopkeepers with access to the grid use solar kits to keep their business running during power outages.

Besides providing school‐aged children with reading light, lowering household energy costs, and generating hours of productivity for businesses, these partnerships help generate income for small‐business owners like John.

Paris and John are two of many benefiting from companies selling affordable energy access to people in remote communities in sub‐Saharan Africa where electric lines have not reached. In partnering with the private sector, President Obama’s Power Africa initiative aims to help companies like these realize their potential and scale access to modern lighting across the region — a key ingredient for spurring economic growth.

Here are a few of Power Africa’s Beyond the Grid partners:

1. d.light

John Njorge, a “solar‐preneur,” sells about 60 d.light solar lamps a month at his shop in the small town of Maragua, Kenya. He also uses the lamps to light the shop so he can stay open later. / Morgana Wingard, USAID

John Njorge, a “solar‐preneur,” sells about 60 d.light solar lamps a month at his shop in the small town of Maragua, Kenya. He also uses the lamps to light the shop so he can stay open later. / Morgana Wingard, USAID

The company d.light was co-founded by Sam Goldman, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Benin. After a neighbor severely burned himself from a kerosene lamp spill, Sam says he was determined to find a safer, more reliable way for rural people to light their homes.

After meeting co‐founder Ned Tozun in graduate school, the two developed a prototype LED lamp that ran on solar power, and in 2008 d.light’s first commercial solar power lamp debuted on the market. Today, the company offers five off‐grid solar‐powered products that provide at least twice as much light as kerosene — and they’re cheaper and safe. The most affordable solar lamp goes for $5.

“Just as mobile phones adoption rates skyrocketed in the ‘90s, we see tremendous opportunity in the off‐grid solar market to enable consumers to secure basic energy access and radically improve their lives and opportunities,” Sam says.

Sam says public-private partnerships are key to bringing energy access to the most rural parts of Africa. “Market‐based approaches and policy decisions working together will accelerate efforts to electrify Africa.”

2. Solar Sister

Justina Balankena is a Solar Sister entrepreneur and small business owner in Bomani, Tanzania, where she sells small solar lights and energy-efficient cookstoves. Justina’s store brings the benefits of solar technology right into her town.

Justina Balankena is a Solar Sister entrepreneur and small business owner in Bomani, Tanzania, where she sells small solar lights and energy-efficient cookstoves. Justina’s store brings the benefits of solar technology right into her town.

Solar Sister eradicates energy poverty in Africa by empowering women with job opportunities. The company uses a women-focused sales network, recruiting and training female entrepreneurs to sell solar lamps, mobile phone chargers and fuel-efficient cook stoves.

Women like Justina Balankena, a small business owner in Bomani, Tanzania. At first, Justina’s customers simply weren’t familiar with solar power. When the unreliable grid in town goes out, Justina switches on her solar lamps. Her little kiosk lights up. “When people pass by, they say, ‘There is no power here! How do you have power?’ So they come and ask. That is how we sell,” she explains.

The store provides income for Justina’s family. It also brings her a strong sense of personal pride and independence. “I run the business. The advertisements are even in my name,” she says.

Innovative energy technology, combined with economic opportunity, goes beyond measurable results and really transforms lives.

3. M-KOPA

Lucy Sakuda, 47, uses her M-KOPA solar powered light in her home in Olorien, Kenya to cook at night. Before buying a solar panel, the nearest power source was 15 miles away. She has saved so much from not having to buy kerosene that she was able to get new furniture. / Morgana Wingard

Lucy Sakuda, 47, uses her M-KOPA solar powered light in her home in Olorien, Kenya to cook at night. Before buying a solar panel, the nearest power source was 15 miles away. She has saved so much from not having to buy kerosene that she was able to get new furniture. / Morgana Wingard

M-KOPA helps assure poor families nervous about investing in a new technology that this is a risk worth taking.

Enter June Muli, hired by M­-KOPA with one goal in mind: Establishing a real network of customer service. Raised in Nairobi, June joined as head of customer relations, making her the 10th employee. June is helping M­-KOPA build a spirit of “umiliki” — a Swahili word meaning “ownership” — in their community.

“We work very hard to keep our customers happy,” June says. “You don’t just go to the supermarket and pick it up; someone has to convince you that you should own the responsibility and that the investment is worth it for you and your future.”

M-KOPA boasts a 24-hour call center and uses a pay-as-you-go platform, allowing customers to pay for solar lighting systems over time via mobile phone. More than selling a product, M-­KOPA sells the vision of a better connected, more efficient Africa. “This starts with the human voice of a person and the real human connection,” June says.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rudy Gharib is the head of communications for Power Africa. Follow her @rudygharib and use #PowerAfrica to join the conversation.

Sustainable Finance Key to Health Equity

A newborn in Nigeria. USAID is intensifying efforts to develop, test and scale up simple, low-cost approaches to preventing newborn deaths in lower-income countries. / Amy Fowler, USAID

A newborn in Nigeria. USAID is intensifying efforts to develop, test and scale up simple, low-cost approaches to preventing newborn deaths in lower-income countries. / Amy Fowler, USAID

The world faces an alarming shortfall of funding needed to transform global health. If the world is to end preventable child, adolescent and maternal deaths, we need new forms of development finance to close a $33.3 billion annual funding gap.

A new financing platform announced this week at the Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia aims to do just that. The Global Financing Facility (GFF) is a country-driven financing partnership to accelerate efforts to end preventable maternal, newborn, child and adolescent deaths by 2030.

The launch of the financing platform brings together $12 billion from public and private partners, both domestic and international, to scale up national strategies in four countries particularly in need: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania.

Their five-year strategies include life-saving interventions based on evidence of what works best that will be expanded to reach those that are most in need.

Why is this financing platform important?

Donor resources alone are not sufficient to reach our targets and meet the Sustainable Development Goals. We need innovative approaches to financing, with increased domestic commitment from countries and regional development banks, as well as more involvement from the private sector. Our core intent is to support countries as they work to provide for the health of their own citizens, and help them along the pathway to sustainable financing.

How is this different from business as usual?

As a financing mechanism, the GFF is an example of how to use official development assistance to catalyze additional private sector funding. The GFF is partnering with the World Bank to raise money from capital markets for countries with significant funding gaps for child, adolescent and maternal survival.

Every $1 invested into the GFF is expected to mobilize between $3 and $5 from the private capital markets. The investments in the GFF are designed to help countries transition to self-financing for maternal and child survival programs.

Who is contributing money?

USAID is investing $50 million, subject to Congressional approval, into the financing platform at the country level to scale up national strategies to end child and maternal deaths in the DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania.

Other donors include Canada, Japan, multilateral organizations, host governments, civil society, and the private sector.

Is it working?

Tanzania is one example of the increased focus on women and children that the GFF can help bring about in country. By blending some of our grant funding through the GFF, we have enabled the Government of Tanzania to significantly increase financing for women’s and children’s survival and health.

A mother in Rwanda with her ​newborn ​daughter. Investing in survival & health can lead to greater individual and national productivity and growth. / Amy Fowler, USAID

A mother in Rwanda with her ​newborn ​daughter. Investing in survival & health can lead to greater individual and national productivity and growth. / Amy Fowler, USAID

Why just these four countries?

Over the next five years, the ultimate goal for the global facility is to support 62 high-burden low- and lower-middle income countries through the GFF. The DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania are part of the first wave of countries. Results from these nations will inform the best way forward for any continued U.S. government funding of the GFF.

The next group of eight countries eligible to benefit from the global trust fund will be Bangladesh, Cameroon, India, Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda.

Why invest in global health?

In low-income countries, child mortality is 15 times higher than in high-income countries, and maternal mortality almost 30 times higher. Despite remarkable progress across global health, the brutal fact is the world’s poorest people still pay the most for things like clean water and basic health services.

There is substantial evidence on the “health-to-wealth” pathway, and how investing in survival and health can lead to greater individual and national productivity and growth. Increasing access to health services — especially for the poor – is a sound and sustainable investment that can command great economic returns. To put it simply, people who are healthy are more productive at work.

We have a clear and conclusive case to invest in health. Now we must summon the will to mobilize domestic resources and activate creative co-financing approaches that will transform societies.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Ariel Pablos-Méndez was appointed by President Barack Obama to lead the Global Health Bureau at USAID. He is also the Agency’s child and maternal survival coordinator.

South Sudan Government Expels Top UN Aid Official—Why It Matters

Internally displaced women and children sit in a tent in Ganyiel village in South Sudan. Conflict since December 2013 has left tens of thousands dead and more than 2 million displaced and dependent on food aid. / Samir Bol, AFP

Internally displaced women and children sit in a tent in Ganyiel village in South Sudan. Conflict since December 2013 has left tens of thousands dead and more than 2 million displaced and dependent on food aid. / Samir Bol, AFP

News that the Government of South Sudan expelled the United Nations’ top humanitarian official in the country on May 29 has sparked outrage.

The UN Secretary General, the UN Security Council, the U.S. government, the alliance of U.S.-based NGOs InterAction, the South Sudanese NGO Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, the European Union and many other governments voiced condemnation of the action to expel Toby Lanzer.

Why are so many so frustrated?

Because South Sudan’s leaders and warring parties have put their struggle for power before the needs of their own people.

After nearly 18 months of fighting, the man-made crisis is only worsening. Renewed fighting, displacement and economic hardships have left the country on the brink of collapse.

And now they are punishing the brave humanitarians whose mission is to help the people of South Sudan.

All humanitarian staff — from the top UN official to truck drivers who deliver lifesaving food in highly insecure conditions — must be free to carry out their work and speak openly without fear of attack or retribution from the government, opposition forces or any other party.

Punishing those who are shining a light on the catastrophe in South Sudan creates a chilling effect and an atmosphere of fear for aid workers at a time when people need them most.

South Sudan — the world’s youngest country — is one of the most food-insecure countries in the world. Up to 4.6 million people — almost half of the population — will face life-threatening hunger by next month.

A woman carries a sack of food aid after a food drop in a field in Nyal, near South Sudan's border with Sudan. USAID is the largest donor to the UN World Food Program in South Sudan. / Tony Karumba, AFP

A woman carries a sack of food aid after a food drop in a field in Nyal, near South Sudan’s border with Sudan. USAID is the largest donor to the UN World Food Program in South Sudan. / Tony Karumba, AFP

Parts of the country are at risk of famine for the second year in a row. Desperate to feed their families, many South Sudanese have sold or slaughtered valuable cattle — and now have nothing left.

Conflict has forced more than 2 million people to flee their homes, half a million of them as refugees in neighboring countries. Tragically, many who fled have nothing to return to. Their homes, markets, schools and hospitals have been wiped out.

The number of severely malnourished children has doubled since the start of the crisis, and many people are at risk of deadly, but preventable, diseases.

The humanitarian community has done everything possible to alleviate the suffering amid widespread violence. USAID has been working in Sudan, including present-day South Sudan, for 35 years.

The U.S. government has long been the largest donor to South Sudan, providing $1.1 billion in emergency assistance alone to affected populations in South Sudan and neighboring countries since the start of the crisis.

USAID has also provided more than $1.3 billion in long-term assistance since South Sudan’s independence in 2011, directly helping the South Sudanese people withstand the catastrophic effects of conflict and build foundations for a peaceful future through education, health, agriculture and livelihoods assistance, as well as support for media, civil society and conflict mitigation.

Last year, the U.S. government, other donors and humanitarian actors helped avert the worst-case scenario of famine — only to see the same dynamics driving communities into extreme life-threatening hunger again this year. Time and again, we have had to resort to costly air operations to deliver food and relief items.

Women in Ganyiel, South Sudan, carry home food distributed by the World Food Program (WFP). USAID is the largest donor to WFP in South Sudan, where up to 4.6 million people — almost half of the population — will face life-threatening hunger by next month. / Waakhe Simon Wudu, AFP

Women in Ganyiel, South Sudan, carry home food distributed by the World Food Program (WFP). USAID is the largest donor to WFP in South Sudan, where up to 4.6 million people — almost half of the population — will face life-threatening hunger by next month. / Waakhe Simon Wudu, AFP

Aid workers, particularly South Sudanese, risk their lives daily delivering lifesaving assistance to people in need throughout South Sudan. Several South Sudanese aid workers have disappeared while carrying out their humanitarian work. They remain unaccounted for. Others have been killed on the spot.

Renewed fighting since mid-April, including direct attacks on humanitarian workers and supplies, has severely reduced the ability of aid organizations to reach people in need.

At a time when multiple humanitarian emergencies worldwide demand international action, speaking candidly about the situation in South Sudan is critical to garner the vast support needed to keep people alive and ease suffering caused by this crisis.

Toby Lanzer advocated tirelessly on behalf of the people of South Sudan. Expelling him or silencing anyone who speaks about the dire situation in South Sudan is misguided and a grave disservice to the South Sudanese people.

The government should act responsibly, end the suffering, and move the country past this senseless cycle of violence.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Tom Staal is acting assistant administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. Linda Etim is deputy assistant administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Africa.

Slam Dunk: Empowering African Women Through Sports

 Astou Ndiaye shows off her ball-handling skills at last year’s launch of Live, Learn, and Play, a partnership between USAID and the National Basketball Association. / Zack Taylor, USAID

Astou Ndiaye shows off her ball-handling skills at last year’s launch of Live, Learn, and Play, a partnership between USAID and the National Basketball Association. / Zack Taylor, USAID

In Senegal, where I grew up, I guess you could say girls look up to me. After all, I’m 6-foot-3. I also won a professional basketball championship, worked my way through graduate school, and now manage a successful career while raising three kids.

Sure, I was a natural fit for basketball. But there was more to it than just the rebounds and my jump shot. The skills I learned playing the sport have led to my success off the court as much as on it.

I was back in Senegal last year to share this idea with hundreds of my compatriots at the launch of a new partnership that brings together the development expertise of USAID and the global cachet of the National Basketball Association.

The project — called Live, Learn and Play — provides opportunities few of us had when I was growing up. As an alumna of the WNBA, the women’s counterpart to the NBA, I was happy to support this new project, which uses basketball to train youth ages 13-18 in leadership, gender awareness and equality, and community participation.

Basketball changed my life. During the course of my career it opened doors, exposed me to new experiences, and taught me a lot about the world and myself.

But in any capacity–professional or not–getting involved in a sport means mastering skills, having the discipline to stay in school, keeping out of trouble, and leading a healthy lifestyle. These little things give young people the inspiration and ability to become leaders in any field. What you learn on the court can apply to any aspect of life.

Growing up in Dakar, I was fortunate to not lack the basics. However, with 20 siblings you can bet I learned to fight for my share. My mother always emphasized the importance of a good education–when I had to find a creative way to pay for schooling, those lessons in “fighting” paid off.

From the age of 13, I focused all of my strength and toughness on basketball. I practiced all the time: in the rain, and even through Ramadan, when I couldn’t get a drink of water until sunset. Luckily, some great coaches showed me that basketball was something positive that could lead to better things down the road. Mentoring is critical.

A few years later, I made Senegal’s national team. When I figured out that my game could open academic as well as professional doors, I took advantage of an athletic scholarship to go to university, where I graduated cum laude. After being drafted into the WNBA in 2003, I not only had the joy of having triplets, but also of being a part of the Detroit Shock championship team.

Girls learn basic basketball skills under the Live, Learn, and Play partnership with the NBA.“What you learn on the court can apply to any aspect of life,” former WNBA star Astou Ndiaye says. / Zack Taylor, USAID

Girls learn basic basketball skills under the Live, Learn, and Play partnership with the NBA.“What you learn on the court can apply to any aspect of life,” former WNBA star Astou Ndiaye says. / Zack Taylor, USAID

Basketball careers can’t last forever, so in 2008 I retired, became a coach and pursued a graduate degree in human resources. I’ve settled down now, and work with the state Health Care Authority in Oklahoma.

I know that my natural athletic gifts and supportive upbringing gave me better chances than many girls in Senegal. Still, I am convinced the principles I learned on the court led me to where I am today. If you understand early that hard work will pay off, everything else “comes around at the boards,” as they say in basketball. That means stay healthy, pay your dues, and know nothing will be handed to you.

Back in Dakar for the Live, Learn and Play launch, I had a chance to speak to the kids in the program. I told them that the odds of making it to the big leagues are tough, but that’s okay.  Dedication to basketball–at any level–teaches the toughness and resilience you need to find a pathway to a bright and successful future.

What’s great about Live, Learn and Play is the development of a network of skilled coaches, mentors and role models who will help thousands of kids become solid, productive citizens and active community members, whether they continue with sports or not.

This program can help empower girls in Africa, an issue close to my heart. Senegal is among the more forward-thinking countries in West Africa, but women there still face significant hurdles because of their gender.

Wherever I go, I encourage women and girls to push themselves to the forefront in whatever they do. Get out there and own it. Because when women get that, they are the real champions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Astou Ndiaye, a former star in the WNBA, is a human resources specialist at the Oklahoma Health Care Authority and motivational speaker.

Young Storytellers and the Power of Literacy

A Rwandan child reads with his teacher. / Jackie Lewis, EDC

A Rwandan child reads with his teacher. / Jackie Lewis, EDC

Editor’s Note: Parts of this blog post originally appeared as a longer feature story from Education Development Center (EDC).

The tale “Old Woman and a Hyena” tells the story of a Rwandan mother and her four sons who live in terror of a marauding hyena. Each day, while the sons are away hunting, the hyena comes to the family’s hut and steals their food. The boys are hungry but too scared to confront the creature. One day, the sons finally muster up the courage to fight the beast—and it is the youngest who finally kills it. He is then richly rewarded by his mother, for though he had been the most scared, he was the one to show the most bravery.

In a land with an oral history as rich and beautiful as the hills that roll across it, this tale is special—it was written by an 11-year-old boy named Francois Hakizimana.

Andika Rwanda, a national writing competition, was popular because it presented a nationwide opportunity to improve reading and writing in a way that was culturally relevant and important. / Jackie Lewis, EDC

Andika Rwanda, a national writing competition, was popular because it presented a nationwide opportunity to improve reading and writing in a way that was culturally relevant and important. / Jackie Lewis, EDC

Hakizimana was one of the winners of Andika Rwanda (Rwanda Writes), a national writing competition that captured the minds (and pens) of young and old storytellers alike. Three thousand entries of original children’s stories and poems poured in;12 winners were honored at an awards ceremony last fall. Their entries have been professionally illustrated and published in a book that will be distributed to every primary school in the country.

The competition was organized by Education Development Center’s USAID-funded Literacy, Language and Learning project in partnership with the Rwanda Educational Board and the Rwanda-based book distributor Drakkar Limited. Since 2011, the project has worked to improve literacy education in Rwanda through development of instructional materials, teacher training, policy development, and delivery of education materials directly to Rwandan communities.

According to Jackie Lewis at Education Development Center, Andika Rwanda was so popular because it presented a nationwide opportunity to improve reading and writing in a way that was culturally relevant and important.

“Rwanda prides itself on homegrown solutions,” she says. “Many schools have a shortage of storybooks, especially for younger children, and especially ones written by Rwandans in the local language of Kinyarwanda. The competition was meant to generate locally authored stories for primary school children, as well as contribute to a culture of reading and writing.”

Rwanda Literacy Week celebrated reading and writing across the country. / Jonathan Padway, USAID

Rwanda Literacy Week celebrated reading and writing across the country. / Jonathan Padway, USAID

A Global Effort

Rwanda is a success story and representative of the education work being done in dozens of other countries around the world. In addition to the Andika Rwanda competition, USAID supports many other innovative teaching and learning tools that target basic literacy and numeracy skills at the primary level. These efforts are focused on improving school quality now that Rwanda has increased access to education – in 2012, 96.5 percent of children were enrolled in primary school, and girls were enrolled at a slightly higher rate than boys.

Literacy isn’t just about kids, either–it’s about the economy, too. The Government of Rwanda has laid out ambitious plans to create a knowledge-based economy built on a skilled workforce that will allow Rwanda to compete both regionally and internationally. A literate population is the foundation of these efforts.

Improving literacy can also play a critical  role in addressing other issues faced by developing countries, including gender equality, economic growth, environmental sustainability, health and food security. Unfortunately, illiteracy is still widespread, with disadvantaged groups – including girls, minorities and people living with disabilities – suffering the most.

This is why, for decades, USAID has been a global leader in improving reading for developing countries. The Agency’s strong focus on reading is in itself an innovative practice. Driving and supporting a strong focus on reading puts us in the forefront of educational development.

On this Leaders for Literacy Day, we must remember the importance of policies that advocate for quality and equality in learning for all children and youth, so that stories like Hakizimana’s turn from extraordinary to commonplace.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christie Vilsack is the Senior Advisor for International Education at USAID working to ensure ALL children have access to a quality education. Follow her @ChristieVilsack.

A city in need: A case study of climate change adaptation from Mozambique

During his first visit to Pemba in January 2014, Colin Quinn visited Cariaco, a neighborhood built on a steep hill. By April, some of the houses in Cariaco had been swept away in a landslide. / Carlos Quintela, CCAP

During his first visit to Pemba in January 2014, Colin Quinn visited Cariaco, a neighborhood built on a steep hill. By April, some of the houses in Cariaco had been swept away in a landslide. / Carlos Quintela, CCAP

The first time I visited Pemba, Mozambique to begin a project that would help the port city adapt to climate change, I was not prepared for what I saw.

After a few days of severe rain last year, neighborhoods resembled wetlands, streets had turned into rivers, and a large piece of the main coastal road had fallen into the ocean. Residents of beachside villas were pumping water out of their living rooms. In Cariaco, a neighborhood built on a steep hill above the ocean, one man showed me a crack that had formed in his yard and under his house, an ominous sign.

I had flown into Pemba in January 2014 to talk with the mayor about USAID’s Coastal City Adaptation Project. Pemba is a rapidly growing coastal city of about 150,000 people with a lot of economic potential due to the recent discovery of natural gas. But like most coastal cities in Mozambique, Pemba suffers from a lack of infrastructure — making natural disasters much more destructive. City officials and residents told us that the flooding I encountered had not been seen in Pemba for decades. The silver lining? We had clearly arrived at a fitting time to discuss climate change adaptation.

The future of Pemba, and of Mozambique, depends on its residents’ ability to adapt to climate change. Mozambique is among the African countries most vulnerable to climate change, with over 1,550 miles of coastline, more than half of its population living along the ocean, and cities that function as the nation’s economic hubs. Floods, droughts and tropical cyclones are all common. In places like Pemba, floods will likely become less predictable and more severe, magnified by sea level rise.

A boy in Paquitiquete, the lowest lying neighborhood in Pemba city, walks through a wet section to reach his friend in July 2014. People in Paquitiquete are used to the flooding as a result of tidal changes. Gradual sea level rise and extreme rain keep many houses wet -- the wait for the water to retreat and for houses to dry can be long. / Cristina Miranda, USAID

A boy in Paquitiquete, the lowest lying neighborhood in Pemba city, walks through a wet section to reach his friend in July 2014. People in Paquitiquete are used to the flooding as a result of tidal changes. Gradual sea level rise and extreme rain keep many houses wet — the wait for the water to retreat and for houses to dry can be long. / Cristina Miranda, USAID

Now over a year into the project, our efforts have better prepared Pemba for climate change. Working with the local and central Mozambique government, we have developed an early warning and response system so that residents are better protected from severe floods. This system uses simple texting technology, on ‘smart’ and ‘dumb’ phones alike, to send alerts and request data that officials can use to respond to the hardest-hit areas first.

We have created maps to inform future city planning that show areas vulnerable to climate change. We have begun an ongoing, open dialogue with city officials, community leaders, local NGOs and other stakeholders about what it means to adapt to climate change. As a result, we are about to break ground on prototype climate-smart houses and rain catchment systems with local communities. We are also planning a project to stabilize dunes to help prevent flooding. We hope these activities will help Pemba prepare for an uncertain future.

In Pemba, Mozambique, many areas are vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding. Paquitiquete, a neighborhood of fishermen in Pemba, is one of the most vulnerable. This map shows houses that are most at risk there.

In Pemba, Mozambique, many areas are vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding. Paquitiquete, a neighborhood of fishermen in Pemba, is one of the most vulnerable. This map shows houses that are most at risk there.

I found myself back in Pemba in April 2014, two months after my first trip. The rains had returned–this time they were worse. A temporary camp was constructed for 66 families while they looked for places to rebuild their ruined homes. Food and drinking water were being distributed to those in need. A makeshift canal used to drain water from a neighborhood in January was now a full drainage canal covered by a permanent bridge. When I went back to Cariaco, the house over the crack in the ground was gone; it had been swept away in a landslide. There are no official numbers, but residents later told me 14 people had died in that area, with two people still missing.

We envision a city that is more resilient to extreme weather. When the rains return to Pemba in the future, our work will help families and communities be more prepared.

Through our capacity-building approach, better city planning will result in fewer people impacted, dunes will prevent floods caused by storm surge in soon-to-be-developed coastal zones, and families living in vulnerable areas will have built houses that are more suitable for extreme weather.

In the case of an emergency like last year’s flooding, the early warning response system we developed will alert people to danger so they can take necessary precautions. Over text, community leaders can inform emergency response officials about local risks and damages to ensure an appropriate response.

When I first arrived in Pemba I was not prepared for the magnitude of need I was going to see. After visiting, I know one thing for certain: We are working in the right place.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Quinn is a Climate Change Advisor and Natural Resources Officer with USAID’s mission in Mozambique.

Training the Next Generation of Ebola Fighters

To learn how to safely treat Ebola patients while staying alive, doctors and nurses must learn how to navigate an Ebola “maze” run by the U.S. military in Liberia. / Carol Han, USAID

To learn how to safely treat Ebola patients while staying alive, doctors and nurses must learn how to navigate an Ebola “maze” run by the U.S. military in Liberia. / Carol Han, USAID

Walk into the gymnasium of the Liberian National Police Training Academy and you’ll come across a maze so bizarre—and as it turns out so high-stakes—that  successfully navigating it could mean the difference between life and death.

Welcome to the nerve center of the U.S. health care worker training program. It’s a replica of an Ebola treatment unit (ETU), where doctors, nurses, hygienists, and others learn how to safely care for Ebola patients while staying alive.


The U.S.-run Ebola health care worker training takes place at the Liberian National Police Academy, where the gymnasium has been transformed into a mock Ebola treatment unit.  / Carol Han, USAID

The U.S.-run Ebola health care worker training takes place at the Liberian National Police Academy, where the gymnasium has been transformed into a mock Ebola treatment unit. / Carol Han, USAID

“Everything is about safety—the safety of the staff and the safety of the patients,” said U.S. Army Colonel Laura Favand, who helps oversee the Ebola health care worker training program.

During the week-long class, students first spend three days in the classroom where U.S. military doctors, nurses and medics teach them every aspect of Ebola care, from diagnosis and patient recordkeeping to proper disinfection techniques and safe handling of the dead.

Cross-contamination is the biggest threat in an ETU, which is why there’s an entire class dedicated to proper hand-washing techniques. Another critical lesson: how to take off protective suits, goggles, and gloves without inadvertently contracting the disease.

According to Colonel Favand, this is one of the most vulnerable times for Ebola health care workers.


Taking off protective suits—like what’s being done here at a USAID-supported ETU in Sierra Leone—is a vulnerable time for health care workers. That’s why so much time is spent teaching health care workers how to prevent cross-contamination.  / Carol Han, USAID

Taking off protective suits—like what’s being done here at a USAID-supported ETU in Sierra Leone—is a vulnerable time for health care workers. That’s why so much time is spent teaching health care workers how to prevent cross-contamination. / Carol Han, USAID

“You’ll see someone getting ready to take their gloves off and their hands are shaking,” said Favand. “They know how important this is.”

Classroom time is followed by two days spent in the “mock ETU” where students are taught how to navigate in a clinical setting and practically apply all that they have learned. Actual Ebola survivors play the role of patients, offering invaluable insight into what actually happens in an ETU. According to participants, the survivors also help teach them how to communicate with patients.


Actual Ebola survivors play the role of patients at U.S. Ebola health care worker trainings, providing invaluable insight. Here, a student assesses a child patient and Ebola survivor during a training session in Greenville, Liberia under the watchful eyes of the instructor. / Col. Laura Favand, U.S. Army

Actual Ebola survivors play the role of patients at U.S. Ebola health care worker trainings, providing invaluable insight. Here, a student assesses a child patient and Ebola survivor during a training session in Greenville, Liberia under the watchful eyes of the instructor. / Col. Laura Favand, U.S. Army

“We learn some different terms in Liberian English that allows us to have a more accurate perception of the patient,” said Ephraim Palmero, medical director for the International Organization of Migration, an organization being supported by USAID to run three U.S.-built ETUs in Liberia.

“For example, instead of saying ‘how are you,’ Liberians ask, ‘how’s the body,’” Palmero explained.


On the Road: The U.S. military has deployed mobile training teams throughout Liberia to offer the same course to those who can’t travel to the main training site in the Monrovia metro area. / Carol Han, USAID

On the Road: The U.S. military has deployed mobile training teams throughout Liberia to offer the same course to those who can’t travel to the main training site in the Monrovia metro area. / Carol Han, USAID

Besides running the training at the Liberian police academy, the U.S. military deploys four mobile training teams throughout Liberia to offer the same course to health care workers who are unable to make it to Monrovia.  Liberian health officials — in charge of training the next generation of Ebola health care workers — also take the class.

“I love doing this mission,” said U.S. Army Captain Alex Ailer. “I like that people here are being helped and that we are also helping local people help themselves.”


U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Alexander Muniz and U.S. Army Captain Anna Bible take a break while teaching an Ebola health care training course in Harper, Liberia. They are part of a mobile training team. / Carol Han, USAID

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Alexander Muniz and U.S. Army Captain Anna Bible take a break while teaching an Ebola health care training course in Harper, Liberia. They are part of a mobile training team. / Carol Han, USAID

As of early January 2015, more than 1,500 Liberian and international health care workers have taken part in the training, including several USAID partners that are now running the U.S.-built ETUs.

“The training was incredible and great for me because it alleviated my fears,” said Micaela Theisen with the International Organization for Migration. “It [made] me feel good and ready to get to work.”

Her colleague Catherine Thomas agreed.

“The staff there, their medical knowledge was very comforting to us who were just starting out.” said Thomas. “They were just great.”


(from left to right) Health care workers Catherine Thomas, Micaela Theisen, and Rene Vega—all working at USAID-supported ETUs—have taken the U.S. Ebola health care worker training course. “The training was incredible and great for me because it alleviated my fears,” said Theisen.  / Carol Han, USAID

From left to right: Health care workers Catherine Thomas, Micaela Theisen, and Rene Vega—all working at USAID-supported ETUs—have taken the U.S. Ebola health care worker training course. “The training was incredible and great for me because it alleviated my fears,” said Theisen. / Carol Han, USAID

 


The Ebola Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) is overseeing the U.S. Ebola response efforts in West Africa. The DART includes staff from across the government, including USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carol Han is a Press Officer for the Ebola Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), which oversees the U.S. Ebola response efforts in West Africa. The DART includes staff from across the government, including USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services.

At the Heart of Ebola — Health Systems That Need Strengthening

A man at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas tested positive for Ebola September 30th, the first case of the disease to be diagnosed in the United States. According to many experts, it was only a matter of time.

Health officials in the U.S. have been preparing since summer in case an individual traveler arrived here unknowingly infected. With stringent isolation protocols in place, infection-control steps to prevent the virus from spreading in health facilities, and efforts to trace people who have had close personal contact with the ill person, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Tom Frieden, was confident addressing media, saying “I have no doubt that we will contain this.”

But in West Africa, the Ebola epidemic is a sobering reminder of the lethal consequences of limited infectious disease surveillance and response capacities, and the vast development needs that persist in some of the region’s poorest countries despite rapid economic growth and investment.

At the heart of the Ebola epidemic sweeping across Africa, is a matter of health systems.

Health workers in personal protective equipment (PPE) wait to enter the hot zone at Island Clinic / Morgana Wingard

Health workers in personal protective equipment (PPE) wait to enter the hot zone at Island Clinic / Morgana Wingard

Much like cholera preys on weak water systems after a disaster, Ebola is preying on a weak public health system after years of conflict and upheaval in Liberia. And health system perfor­mance in many partner countries is challenged by critical health worker shortages, inadequate financing, poor or disjointed information systems, lack of essential information on public health threats, and inexperienced leadership.

Countries that already have limited ability to provide health care for their citizens can ill-afford to lose health care workers to sickness and death, close health facilities, or redirect resources for other development priorities to battle this epidemic.

As Ebola spreads, citizens are impacted not just by the virus itself, but also by the loss of other critically needed services. As hospitals and clinics become overwhelmed by the epidemic, they are unable to provide necessary maternal and child care and life-saving treatment for malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases.

Dr. Ariel Pablos-Mendez, USAID’s Assistant Administrator for Global Health, said, “The state of the health workforce and health systems has hampered the ability of these countries to respond to the Ebola epidemic – but these countries are hardly alone in having inadequate training, support and numbers of health workers.”

Zaira Alonso, a finance and administration director for USAID’s Rebuilding Basic Health Services project in Liberia implemented by John Snow International, paints a bleak picture. “The entire Liberian landscape has changed dramatically in just a matter of weeks. Many government ministries are practically empty, as non-essential staff were placed on 30 days compulsory leave. Roads are empty, as many Liberians are staying at home to remain safe, and a large part of the expatriate community has left the country. Most people are just simply scared.”

The U.S. Government, including USAID and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and others are using a broad disaster management approach to contain the epidemic. Since the spring of 2014, the United States has been providing health equipment and emergency supplies, training and supporting health care workers on infection control and case management, supporting public outreach campaigns and helping build the capacity of local health care and emergency response systems.

As part of the overall U.S. Government response effort, the United States recently provided support to the African Union’s urgent deployment of trained and equipped medical workers to West Africa to help combat the Ebola epidemic. This support is helping transport doctors, nurses and other essential personnel to manage and run Ebola treatment units that isolate and treat those affected by the disease, helping minimize the spread of Ebola. It will also provide urgent emergency supplies and health equipment to help these medical workers respond.

A health care worker checks on patients admitted to the Ebola Treatment Unit in Island Clinic. / Morgana Wingard

A health care worker checks on patients admitted to the Ebola Treatment Unit in Island Clinic. / Morgana Wingard


And President Obama earlier this month announced a major surge in U.S. assistance in West Africa to help recruit, organize and train new health care workers and build treatment clinics.

Adding qualified and trained health workers will make a big difference. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are among 83 countries worldwide that the WHO last year reported to have below the minimum ratio of doctors, nurses and midwives (22.8 per 10,000 people) needed to provide basic health services to a population. WHO and the Global Health Workforce Alliance estimate at least 7.2 million doctors, nurses and midwives are currently needed globally – a gap that could creep to nearly 13 million by 2035 if we keep with the status quo.

Dr. Larry Barat, senior advisor with the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative said one distinguishing factor of countries in Africa that have controlled malaria from those who still struggle to do so is the functionality of their health systems and their skilled human capacity. “Countries like Rwanda, Senegal, Ethiopia and Zambia have successfully reduced malaria burden, in part, because their health systems are able to deliver essential commodities to all parts of their countries, and people can access health services, with trained personnel.”

Haja Wurie, of COMHAS and the ReBUILD Consortium in Sierra Leone, where she has been working on health systems research, painted a vivid picture of a health system already weakened by years of war. Ebola first hit isolated, remote communities with limited access to health services. Their reliance on traditional healers and informal providers of health care may have exacerbated the spread of the illness. “Health staff face a very uncertain future as they bravely respond to Ebola,” she said. “They have inadequate supplies of the commodities they need to protect themselves. Many have watched their colleagues succumb to the illness die. They need urgent support and solidarity from the international community to motivate and incentivise them to face the tough times ahead.”

The Ebola epidemic reminds us that our global efforts to build the capacity to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to infectious disease threats like Ebola have never been more vital. If we use all of our might to ramp up the response to Ebola while also investing in strengthening critical health care systems (including the components that prevent, detect, and respond to infectious diseases), we can help bring the current epidemic under control and reduce the possibility of future outbreaks.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Thomas is a Communications Advisor in the Bureau for Global Health providing strategic counsel to political and civilian leadership and technical staff on matters of public interest.

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