Imbako Public Health: Reaching Women, Teaching Children & Healing Communities In Rural Kenya

We feature Imbako Public Health LLC., a non-profit organization based in Kenya and the United States that seeks to address poverty and its effects by educating women and children, and providing accessible healthcare to rural Kenyan communities. Imbako has come a long way from its inception to becoming an emerging leader and a force to reckon with in addressing some of the pressing issues on disparities facing vulnerable communities.

We sat with Dr. Irene Okech, the Director of Healthcare Policy at Imbako, as we got to know more about this influential organization’s work in Kenya.

So our first question for you is, when and why did you start Imbako?
Imbako Public Health LLC was founded by Mrs. Judith Okech, my mom, and me. My mother had been a registered nurse (RN) and a midwife for over 26 years. She had seen the effects of lack of healthcare on women and children in the African countries, and had seen it first hand in rural areas of Kenya where we have a farm. Her vision as a midwife had always been to try and reduce the avoidable deaths that occur and also to simply give pregnant women and newborn children a chance at healthier life outcomes. She had always envisioned a forum where local women would come to her and learn from her and other skilled healthcare professionals, and then use that knowledge to train themselves, and their children to have a better future in maternal and child healthcare.

Can can you tell us a little bit more about the work your organization does and the programs you run, primarily in Kenya?
Thank you. Imbako PH’s mantra is reaching women, teaching children and healing communities. Basically we are involved in the areas of healthcare, education and the environment. In the aspects of healthcare, our two main concerns are HIV and AIDS awareness and maternal and child health. In terms of HIV/AIDS awareness what we do is that we hold workshops in the communities, where we educate the community members about HIV/AIDS, and collaborate with the Ministry of Health to provide booklets and supplies that would be used towards the reduction in the spread of HIV as well as increase awareness of HIV in Kenya.

In regards to Maternal and Child Health, what we do is that we hold maternal and child health clinics for women and teenagers whom we target as potential mothers, where we then educate them on the benefits of pre and post natal care and also on access to available pre-post natal care services, within their localities. We also partner with local hospitals and clinics to enhance the education and provision of these care. In addition to that, we also hold forums for ladies, where we discuss hygiene and other female emotional and social etiquette issues. Furthermore, we hold workshops to train traditional birth attendants, who in most rural areas may be the closest source of pre-natal care that these women get, either because they cannot afford the hospital fees or transportation to the hospital or are simply not aware of the services. By educating the traditional birth attendant, if she is the only one available to give care, we try to ensure that she gives safe care in a way that will not harm her or the child and the mother. So in cases like this, our goal is to partner with other like-minded organizations that can help us to provide safe delivery and hygiene kits to these traditional birth attendants as they assist the pregnant women to deliver their babies. This is what we do in healthcare.

When it comes to the environment, what we try and do is to create awareness of the conservation of all that is green in the environment – the trees, plants and flowers. To begin with, we have an initiative called the “Plant A Tree For Your School” initiative where we tell local schools that for every number of trees they actually plant in the school and in their communities, they are eligible to receive a free laptop or computer which they can use towards building a library at their respective schools.

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Secondly, we educate the local farmers on the use of local cultivar, and on how to  get the best yield from the seasonal farming processes. We also educate them on how to safely  store and sell their produce and other principles of farming which we may think are basic, but are not. For example, the fallowing of the land, the rotation of the crops and things like that. Another initiative on the environment that we have is on apiculture which is the rearing of bees in farms. We actually target women and train them on how to keep bees, harvest the honey and sell it.  One other environmental aspect that we have is the push toward organic farming. We teach them how to use the waste from their animals to form mulch and fertilizer which is then used on their farms. We also have an initiative on the conservation of wood and fuel – the Rocket Stove. Last year we had a workshop on the use and construction of the energy efficient Rocket Stove. A rocket stove achieves efficient combustion of the fuel at a high temperature by ensuring that there is a good air draft into the fire, controlled use of fuel, complete combustion of volatiles, and efficient use of the resultant heat. It has been used for cooking as well as space and water heating. It uses less wood than a traditional open fire, can burn smaller diameter material, produces less pollution and can be easily constructed from low-cost materials. It is well suited for the rural communities. The women who are faced with taking care of their households every morning, afternoon and evening are afforded less exposure to smoke, and this eventually reduces their risk of the effects of their exposure to every day smoke.

This now brings us to an aspect of our environmental initiatives that Imbako is heading towards: a research initiative where we will  collect data and publish these data so that we can advise on, and advocate for more policies that would influence policy, such as the use and benefits of these rocket stoves for the in households belonging to vulnerable populations. Studies have shown that contact exposure to smoke may be associated with eye cataracts. We have seen a lot of the women in these vulnerable communities with cataracts but we never really associated it with continuous exposure to smoke. We are now trying to see if our rocket-stove initiative may have a positive association with the cataracts in the women in rural communities where wood fire is the main source of fuel for livelihood.

Our third initiative is the education initiative, and this is where Imbako has  partnered, and continues to seek partnership with other organizations internationally and locally in order to decrease the disparities in education facing women and children in rural areas in Kenya. So far, Imbako has partnered with Georgia State University on an initiative that we call The Global Impact Project from which, 10 girls have been afforded the unique opportunity to go to college to get university level education in Kenya. This is our main education initiative that we have; to try and bring education to these women and children, females especially, who we feel and we see have hope and have the potential to be leaders, but do not necessarily have the resources to get there. Our educational initiative is however not just about providing them with school fees, we actually help to mentor the girls to become future leaders in their societies and to give back to those that are coming behind them as well as to mentoring them to  becoming ambassadors of the Global Impact Project.

This sounds great! So as a follow up to this, there are a few organizations that provide services in Kenya, what makes Imbako stand out from the crowd?
Thank you again for that. Well several things make us stand out. I think the first thing is that we have a passion for what we do. We are not in this for the money or the fame. We are in this because we feel that we have the capacity to make a difference, we have seen the need and we have been blessed with the talent and the skills to actually execute and do something about it. Secondly, we did not enter into this without having a vision. Imbako has a vision to grow the organization to a brand that connotates quality, policy and public health. Our vision and the short and long term goals stemming from it direct our daily steps that we take along the way, and the decisions that we ultimately make are those that consciously influence our  choice to become a leader in quality service provision. So it is not just about the next girl going to school, but it is about choosing how to invest in someone’s life so that it becomes a lifetime investment and not a one-time public stance that then ends as soon as it starts. We are looking at a lasting vision, a lifetime journey and growth indefinitely, and  anticipate publications that will influence decisions not only in our generation but those to come. So we are looking at leaving the world that we found a better place and leaving a legacy.

So how would you describe the communities that you serve – The people that benefit or could potentially benefit from your services – how would you describe them?
The typical Imbako community is considered to be rural, which means a typical family with an average of 5 children or more, and the highest level of education which the children have is mostly high school. If the children come from a mix of boys and girls, chances are the girls have not even attended high school. Typically these communities would also have inadequate access to healthcare facilities, and to education – so we step in to see how we can try and bridge the gap. We target vulnerable people, who in our case we feel are the women and children in society and mostly the female children because we feel and we know that when you invest in a woman, or invest in a female child then you actually receive more out of your dollar as long as you select the right person.

So what do you believe are the challenges, if any, that face Imbako? If there are any obstacles or what you feel could be potential obstacles in the future, what do you conceive these to be?
One of the obstacles that we face is the question that we are being asked constantly, which is “What makes you different”? And we have to end up proving ourselves because what we have learned from in the past is that not every organization that was initially given a fresh start ended up being a good one. Now because we have seen it, we have learned how to go in expecting to deal with it and show ourselves for whom we are. It is a challenge that we face, and one that we keep on facing, but now we are being proactive about it. We tell our partners and our donors that the one thing that has set us apart is going to be our integrity and our accountability to them because we are not after the fame and the money as much as we are trying to partner with them to use their skills and talents to work with us and make a difference.

We also face a challenge in that given our operations are in a foreign country, having a foreign name in the United States poses a challenge sometimes particularly when you are trying to break into circles of brand names which already exist. We have talked about changing our name to sound more “western”, but the point is as long as we keep up with our work, our brand name will slowly be connotated with quality and that is what we would like to give. In the near future we may revise our name to help us fit in but it has been a challenge to have a foreign name in a country like the States which is used to names like “Smith” and other names like this.

Another challenge that we face is in Kenya itself where although we try to help people, not everyone is honest. Sometimes people present situations that are not real and you end up picking an individual on the basis of false information that they presented. What we have seen however is that while we are shocked when this happens, we have now learned how to handle it and teach the community about values on integrity, because it is not an uncommon thing that you see occur. We teach them to have values of honesty and integrity, and if the blessing is theirs it will be theirs. It may not be theirs now but it will be theirs later on.

On the flip side, what are the keys to your continued success? Imbako has obviously created a name for itself, it has done a lot of good work and it has received the good will of its partners and individuals who continue to support the organization. What are some of the keys to your success so far?
Thank you. The first thing that I will tell you is that Imbako was founded by two Christian women so anything we do is based on seeking God and allowing him to lead us in terms of the mission, vision – in everything. We believe that the partnerships that he has allowed us to have have all come from him. So it will be up to us to make sure that whatever we are given, we are accountable for every single thing that is placed in the hands that we have. For us it has been accountability for every cent, every meeting, every person we have and using whatever is placed in our hands to the best we can and stretching it out as far as it can go for us.

Also, we continue to be strategic about whom we approach at the moment. We are approaching people who are passionate about our work. Once we start collecting our data, we will then approach people who are more data oriented. Eventually we will reach a point where we will be able to approach everyone because we have a segment for everyone. I think this has all involved learning our market slowly and not rushing, pacing ourselves but having a vision and a goal to work towards. We are pacing ourselves so that we do not miss out on learning new things along the way.

Can you describe one of Imbako’s biggest success stories? What stands out to you as a huge success so far?
Thank you. Well, I have two which come to mind. When Imbako was chosen from among the organizations in Atlanta to be a partner in the Emory Goizueta Board Fellowship Program, that was a huge, huge success to us because everyone in Public Health wants to be associated with Emory. So for us, being chosen among the twelve selected was an honor and could only have happened if someone, somewhere had known about us. We are truly honored for that. The next one we feel is our partnership with Georgia State University, which to date, under the Global Impact Project has enabled ten girls to attain or to be able to attain an undergraduate education in Kenya. This we feel is huge considering that two years ago, these girls were hopeless; they had potential but it was untapped potential. However, through partnerships in the United States we were able to slowly untap that potential, and right now, we cannot tell how far we will go as long as keep on investing in these ladies and many more like them. So what we have really learned is that one can not do this alone. You have to build a name for yourself, but you also have to look out there for skills and talents that you need to push yourself forward.

And that is a perfect segue to our next question – You have mentioned the Global Impact Project,and obviously it has been one of your largest programs – talk to us about it and what the driving force was behind its creation.
That’s a very good question. When Imbako began, I think both Mrs Okech and I had initially spoken on healthcare, and I remember that we kept on trying to approach hospitals and it seemed like every door was being closed until one day, we received an opening from this school. As much as we had seen a need around education, we didn’t know it would be the first open door or sit at the top of the agenda that we had. Educational disparities exist in rural Kenya, and we do know that the female child is actually at a loss in regards to this because in most of the families she has no voice to step up and say that she would like to go to school. Also, most of the time the families cannot afford to send her to school. Instead, she sold off early so that the family can receive money to support themselves. We knew that it was an issue, but based on our skill set in healthcare we felt that we would first build up our portfolio in healthcare and then go on to the educational field. However, as things turned out, we were approached by a college in Georgia that was looking to partner with an organization that was looking to help bridge disparities in education in rural Kenya. So we had a portfolio waiting to be developed, but we thought it would be number two on the list. Well, it ended up being number one because our first partnership came from them. So this is born from an existing need in terms of lack of an access to educational opportunities due to the fact that you are virtually a girl child in a rural area in Kenya.

Secondly, our family has been privileged to go through the educational system and so we know the value of having an education. Knowing this, if we were given the chance to impart that knowledge or value to anyone else, we would take it. This is how we were approached; we took the chance and grew on the Global Impact Project.

You mentioned that ten girls so far have been able to attend school. What other impact has it had on your partners and people who have worked closely with you on Imbako to achieve the Global Impact Project?
I remember during the first year that we announced we were sending a single person to school, a lot of our partners were like “wow, this is good”. By the time that we announced that we were sending the tenth girl, we started to see more partners asking how else they could help, in like and/or in kind. That helped us show that it was not so much that our partners did not see the need, it is that they were not sure that we were credible enough to follow through. Now, having built that credibility, we have seen more support from our partners, especially in kind. We have had people tell us that they would like to accommodate a girl in Kenya, or of their desire to sponsor a girl or many girls to attend a conference in the States.

 

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Some have said that they would like to travel with us to Kenya and help us build our campus there. So we have definitely seen more support after they have seen results, and ones that are tangible and that we have been accountable for. This sentiment has been shared across all sectors and across all partners. We have also had some individuals asking how else they can support this initiative.

That’s amazing. So what plans do you have for partnership in the future now that you are slowly gaining traction and are definitely a very credible organization doing great things. What plans do you have in the future if any?
Overall our long term plans are to build in Kitale, Kenya, something that we call the Imbako Public Health and Community Research Center. We want to be the hub for data in Public Health in Kenya. Public Health is not strictly healthcare, there is a focus on education and the environment, and we want people to know that. The center will be used for training, conducting meetings while at the same time, holding income generating activities as well. Our short term goal is to quantify the projects that we are doing to eventually become publishable studies. We are currently collecting data with the hope to turn those into publications and use that to grow the existing initiatives that we have. We are hoping to grow our marketing and brand exposure in the United States as well. We do know that we have a lot to do in the present but it all ties into us having a long term vision or goal towards being that hub in Kenya for quality Public Health data.

Well, in closing, what are three things you would like people who are either interested in working or partnering with Imbako, being supportive or even observers of Imbako, to know?
Well the first thing is just to say that we are looking for partners, talents and gifts in every way or form, in like or in kind, whether it is an internship for two hours, a skill or a talent in IT, in editing, writing or video-anything!

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Mother and daughter team, Irene and Judith Okech, co-founders of Imbako Public Health

Everyone’s skills and talents contribute to the big picture. The contributions don’t have to be monetary, but we would truly, truly appreciate that. Secondly, go to our Facebook page and like us, our twitter account and follow us, and very soon we will have our new website up, so you can always go on and comment. The last thing that we would like to leave you with though, is that if you have a vision to make a difference, don’t give up on it. You don’t have to save the world, but you can save one person and that is what we at Imbako did. We may not be able to save the world, but we can save one girl here and one girl there; if we partner with you, we can save a lot more. If you cannot do it on your own, go out there and look for people who are doing the same things and join them. If our mission, vision and initiatives are things that you feel you are interested in doing, please do come join us. Do not give up on your dream or passion, or something that you feel you are called to do, just because you don’t have the capacity to do it. Partner with those who are already doing it.

For more information, visit: IMBAKO PUBLIC HEALTH

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