#CareerConversationsWithLLA: “Public health for me is beyond a career, it’s a calling. I was tired of seeing Nigerians die in the hospital from preventable diseases,” Dr Chioma Nwakanma-Akanno, Public Health Physician & Founder of Smile With Me Foundation

Image credit: Dr Chioma Nwakanma-Akanno

Onyedikachi Chioma Nwakanma is a Nigerian board-certified doctor and public health physician-in-training, writer and public speaker with over 4 years of experience in health communication, advocacy, leadership and project management in healthcare. 

She is also the founder of SMILE With Me Foundationan NGO leveraging on digital health technology to reduce mortality rates from preventable diseases in low-middle income African communities using health education and health aids as tools.

The core of her work is in cancer prevention and treatment, sexual and reproductive health and Maternal and child health. She is a childhood cancer ambassador for Dorcas Cancer foundation and she is currently leading the campaign as a 2019 appointed Ambassador for the Pink October Walk in Lagos “Sporting for Pink”. A project supported by U.S. Consulate Lagos, for Project PINK BLUE to create cancer awareness in local languages, engage communities in sports, and medical screenings. 

Chioma believes universal health coverage is possible in Nigeria and that health education is a powerful tool in prevention, hence her life’s commitment to curb Africa’s mortality rate through public health education. 

Popularly known as Dr Zobo on social media, she is bridging the healthcare gap through her health tech communications company Medically Speaking Africa, by her creative use of digital and social media tools for health promotion and advocacy. Her influence and impact can be seen in the significant turn around in the health-seeking behaviour of over 10 million Nigerians who she reaches weekly via social media. In 2019, she worked with the Partnership for Advocacy in Child and Family Health (a coalition of 22 NGOs in Nigeria, advocating for increased Health funding), on a campaign #FundMyHealth2020 to get Nigeria’s Federal Government to provide 15% of her total budget to health care, a campaign that got the FG’s attention. 

In this interview with Leading Ladies Africa, Dr Chioma, popularly known as Dr Zobos shares the inspiration behind becoming a public health physician, how she leverages her medical knowledge to help better lives and why mentorship is important for every career woman. Lean in!

Can you briefly describe yourself and what you do?

I am Chioma Nwakanma, a medical doctor in public health practice. I am a health literacy expert, SDGs ambassador and an advocate for universal health coverage and cancer prevention. As a health content creator, I creatively use my storytelling and writing skills to bridge the health gap in Africa through health education both on and off social media. I am also a digital media strategist for health brands.

Through my NGO, over 5,000 women have been reached with free health education, with over 2,000 screened for free. Also, over 10,000 students in about 15 schools in Nigeria have been reached with basic health tips and first aid skills needed to survive. I am a goal getter, a team player and a budding policymaker with a good sense of humour and keen attention to details. I am very passionate about sexual and reproductive health, maternal and child health. I love to teach and mentor teenagers in career development. 

Image credit: Dr Chioma Nwakanma-Akanno

How did you start out your career and how long have you been in the corporate world? 

My career path wasn’t pretty straight forward, I had bumps and decision-making obstructions here and there that have gotten me to where I am today. I first wanted to be a paediatrician before MED school and then a dermatologist while in MED school.

However, I found myself in public health now and I love what I do. I started out my career in public health after graduating from medical school as a doctor. I have always been a passionate talker and a policymaker having been a student politician. I knew I was going to continue in that line of policymaking and education, this time in health. However, what informed my decision to move from clinical practise to research and community practice was when I witnessed first hand, the number of persons who worked into the hospitals from the community with little to no idea about their health.

A lot of long-standing, ill medical practices – the hospital was the last resort for most people and this was fueled by poverty. Health insurance was alien and unavailable to them. I knew in the last days of my internship that I had to do something. I had to attack this from the root. Focusing on preventive healthcare is what we need to reduce the mortality rate and achieve UHC. Through health education, making and enforcing health policies, having working health insurance and improving our primary healthcare system – these are some of what I do, while also focusing on health education, early detection service and advocacy.

Public health for me is beyond a career, it’s a calling. I was tired of seeing Nigerians die in the hospital from preventable diseases. I traced this to the high rise of illiteracy and poverty in the country. Our people don’t know about their health and can’t access adequate health care even when they know. And so, I started the journey to further my studies in public health care while still practising, because in medicine, learning never stops. I have been in the corporate world for 4 years now. 

Tips for diversity and inclusion in the workplace (esp. for women)?

  • Employers should be intentional about employing women who are qualified for the job. If the only reason she didn’t get the job is because of her gender, then, that’s wrong. Encourage women to take up leadership roles.
  • Have a work culture that frowns at or punishes gender discrimination in the workplace, no matter how subtle. 
  • Women shouldn’t be made to always ‘prove’ themselves for roles they are obviously qualified for, especially when this isn’t the case for their male counterparts.

If you could have a lunch date with one woman you admire, who would that be and what would you ask her?

It would be Oprah Winfrey because her story of success against all odds intrigues me. I love the media and I believe it’s a powerful tool in any sector. I would like to know more about her work ethic and how she was able to succeed as a woman in the media. I’d ask if I can shadow her for 6 months as an intern.

Image credit: Dr Chioma Nwakanma-Akanno

What’s your take on cliques or “you can’t sit with us groups” at work? How does one navigate such? 

I am big on networking. So, I have never really understood how people are snobbish. However, I’ve come to understand that we don’t live in an ideal world, so we will definitely have the good, bad and the ugly. I strongly believe that even though cliques exist and we as people naturally get drawn to people with shared passion and likeness, it shouldn’t be a tool to discriminate or make others feel less of themselves as they could have something of value to add. There are more subtle and less obvious ways of asking for group privacy when needed, this shouldn’t be an everyday occurrence. 

Teamwork and networking should be fostered in the workplace. To navigate this, I’d say it’s important one adds value to oneself, that way, you’re needed, instead of being the one who looks needful. Also, this kind of attitude can make a team less productive. 

3 tips for navigating office politics?

  • Be a person of value. Consistently add value to yourself, that way, it will be to their detriment that you’re not on the team.
  • Speak up and demand for your worth. Challenge the status quo.
  • Network, collaborate and support others. Be a part of the politics. Don’t be non-partisan and expect things to be handed to you.

When you’re creatively stuck, you…?

I take a bath, pray and sleep off listening to Hillsong Worship, with my jotter and pen beside me. 

Image credit: Dr Chioma Nwakanma-Akanno

What’s your take on mentorship? Important or Nah? 

Very important. You can see far on the shoulders of a giant. It’s always helpful, having someone show you the ropes. That way, you don’t repeat their mistakes. They also introduce you to a larger network. I must say having a mentor, a great one at that has shaped my career, still is. You can’t know it all. 

What’s your worst and best career decisions? What have you learned from them? How have they shaped you to become the WOMAN you are today? 

Worst Career decision? Hiring and trusting the wrong person for the job. I went with my emotions rather than logic. Now, I choose logic first, before emotions and the only emotion I use is my intuition. It has helped me to choose capability over-familiarity. When a familiar person is capable too, I’d hire them too. The ability to lead with logic and discernment is so vital. This gets the work done effectively. 

Best career decision would be getting a mentor in public health. I can’t tell you how that has helped shape my career. It’s like having an extra sight and clarity. Plus, it always feels good to know that the challenges I have now are not far-fetched and they are normal. Having someone who has been through the same road makes it easier to navigate. These decisions have made me become a better and more confident woman and leader. 

 

The Leading Ladies Africa weekly Career Conversation series focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.

Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to lead@leadingladiesafrica.org and we just might feature her.

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