Finding a Voice for Rwandan Healthcare

Global Health Corporate Champions in Kigali Collaborate to Communicate

This is part one in a series highlighting the multi-company pro bono cohort, the Global Health Corporate Champions (GHCC), serving in Kigali, Rwanda, from February to March 2018. The GHCC, an activity of USAID’s Global Health Fellows Program II, is implemented by the Public Health Institute in partnership with PYXERA Global. Read part two here.

For more than a decade, Health Development Initiative (HDI), a local health organization located on the outskirts of Kigali, has attended to the critical and often taboo health needs of underrepresented Rwandans including the poor and LGBTQ communities. In Rwanda, participating in sexual activity as a youth, a sex worker, or a homosexual – HDI’s target healthcare recipients – is either illegal or so heavily stigmatized that it can destroy lives and fracture communities. Therefore, seeking – and providing – care for these individuals can be a risky endeavor.

Dr. Adflodis Kagaba, the co-founder of HDI and its executive director since inception, explained the organization’s underlying philosophy, saying, “Since we have the privilege of being physicians, we have two choices. We can wait for the patients to find us in the hospital, or we can do something and prevent them from getting to the hospital in the first place.”

We can wait for the patients to find us in the hospital, or we can do something and prevent them from getting to the hospital in the first place.

Using a unique, rights-based approach that targets the entire healthcare value chain, HDI has expanded to serve thousands of marginalized individuals who would otherwise have nowhere to turn for their healthcare needs. HDI not only protects vulnerable populations but also educates, informs, and teaches doctors, students, and policy makers how to secure a healthier, more inclusive future for Rwanda’s people. This approach engages all stakeholders and paves the path for sustainable outcomes. But it’s difficult to get the word out, given the associated social stigma. With little internal expertise in public communications, especially in potentially controversial subjects, the organization faced an ever-widening gulf between what they had to offer and the people who needed it most.

Enter the Global Health Corporate Champions (GHCC), professionals supported by their companies for short-term consulting assignments, bringing their skills to increase the capability of organizations in underserved communities, at no cost to the community or the organizations they serve.

The GHCC, an activity of USAID’s Global Health Fellows Program II, is implemented by the Public Health Institute in partnership with PYXERA Global and addresses immediate and emerging human capital needs in the global health sphere. This innovative, collaborative approach brings together the diverse perspectives and talent from the public, private, and social sectors to address high-priority health challenges like the ones HDI addresses.

Nine professionals from four companies, The Dow Chemical Company, SAP, GSK, and WE Communications, arrived in Rwanda in late February, 2018 for four weeks to serve three local health organizations, bringing with them a variety of expertise from business and project management to communications and public affairs.

The latter was a direct match to a high priority need identified by Dr. Kagaba: higher visibility and stronger branding for HDI. Despite meaningful and fruitful personal relationships with many of its stakeholders, HDI struggled to find its voice and articulate its mission to the broader population. Dr. Kagaba recognized communication as a high priority but also understood the limitations of his staff to develop a strategic approach to communications to support the growth of the organization.

HDI Executive Director Dr. Adflodis Kagaba, at his office above HDI’s clinic in Kigali, Rwanda.

“Sometimes we are misrepresented in the media. In the past, we have avoided media, but if you don’t involve them and provide them with the facts, they write very negatively. We must provide the facts and get ahead of the story. We have some communication, but not cohesive, consistent, strategic communication. The [GHCC] team is pulling out many details we have not had the time to look at and it’s very helpful.”

While highly skilled professionals, GHCC participants faced a steep learning curve, working with a new team in a foreign context. They approached the task of completing a comprehensive communications strategy in a short time frame with some apprehension. Some were uncertain how their expertise would apply; some were unsure that the project would challenge them. As the team members became acquainted with one another, they discovered their expertise and backgrounds were complementary. Oftentimes, their critical thinking and project management styles served the team more than their technical skill. In sharing their experience on a multi-company pro bono team, each team member noted the importance of ‘taking a step back’ in order to recognize and appreciate the different approaches, and then, informed by HDI’s input, move forward with the most appropriate approach.

Yannick Pfister, Project Manager for Innovative Business Solutions at SAP, said, “I felt nervous about working in the health sector, because I have no health sector expertise. This intensive experience has allowed me to gain a new perspective. You can bring in your perspective, but you need to meet your team halfway sometimes. Your teammates have different perspectives but different doesn’t mean better or worse. On the other side, you need to recognize your host client’s strengths.”

Yannick Pfister (SAP) collaborates with HDI team member at the HDI offices.

Kelly Chandler, Communications Leader for DowDuPont Transaction, Dow, added, “The challenge was identifying the tools we can leave with them to make HDI successful. They have been great partners in being open, honest, and welcoming feedback. You have to build a relationship and trust within a shortened timeframe. But I could not have picked better people to work with. It’s a very collaborative, balanced team.”

This partnership came at the right time for HDI as it elaborates its five-year strategic plan. A new communications plan, the expected deliverable from the GHCC team, will now inform the larger organizational strategy. In the absence of this timely pro bono support, a comprehensive communications plan may have taken years to complete.

This partnership came at the right time for HDI as it elaborates its five-year strategic plan. A new communications plan, the expected deliverable from the GHCC team, will now inform the larger organizational strategy.

Dr. Kagaba expected high level recommendations, but was delighted to find the team provided specific tactical and actionable recommendations for activities that would lead to an immediate increase in and impact of HDI communications. In implementing the suggested communication strategy, HDI hopes to reach partners, like-minded organizations, and a broader audience.

As the project comes to a close, GHCC team members leave capability with HDI, and they return to their own companies with stronger leadership skills, flexible cross-cultural communication abilities, and a new lens through which to approach innovation. Their experience is consistent with the findings of the Global Pro Bono State of the Practice report, which reports on the experience of more than 30 corporate programs. GHCC participants have the added benefit of learning to collaborate closely with employees from other companies as well. Immersed in a foreign context and surrounded by a variety of work styles and cultures, they quickly learn to combine their own strengths and those of their team members to achieve a common goal.

The HDI GHCC team from left to right, Patricia Kenis (WE Communications), Yannick Pfister (SAP), Kelly Chandler (Dow).

“HDI has provided us access to the required information and also enabled us to sit down with their people understanding various prevailing external as well as internal challenges. Being able to get various perspectives of the organization but also taking a step back and having an external view has demonstrated one thing very clearly: It all comes down to communicating properly and communicating with purpose. I am striving to internalize this learning and also to putting it into practice when returning to my team back home,” said Patricia Kneis, Account Director at WE Communications.

Yannick Pfister also felt he had experienced profound change. “I will take back better cultural perspective. I work on an international team and we have teammates and clients all over the world. I can use these experiences here to work with international teams in the future. I can also step back and see things differently already. I had a call with a colleague this morning and I could see my perspective and what I perceived as important has already shifted. I would like to try to keep this new perspective.”


A second multi-company GHCC cohort is planned for Senegal July-August, 2018. Learn more and indicate interest here

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