#LLAInterview – “I want to be remembered as an influence in health policy and an advocate for global health policies.” Dr Irene Okech, Co-Founder Imbako Foundation
Education is her passion, health is her calling and her mission is to engender healthcare policies in the global landscape that will provide quality and equal access to healthcare to all. Meet Dr Irene Kenya, a consultant in health policy and the Co-Founder of Imbako Public Health /Imbako Foundation. In our interview with her, she dishes out details on the work her NGO is doing to improve healthcare, education and the rights of the girl child in Africa.
Hello Dr. Irene, can you please tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi, I was born in Kitale, Kenya and I am the third in a family of 5 children. My family moved to Nairobi, Kenya when I was 5 years old. I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya where I attended elementary, high school and college (undergraduate; Bachelor of Science) & obtained my CPA (K). At 24, I relocated to the USA where I have since then obtained my MBA & PhD among other academic qualifications. Together with my mother, I co-founded Imbako Public Health /Imbako Foundation at the age of 28. I currently work as a consultant in health policy, teach, perform research and I am an advocate for health policy both locally and globally. Personality wise, I am a quiet person and I generally find my ideas, thoughts and calm in peaceful & quiet spaces. My name Irene means peace.
Why did you set up an NGO and what special benefit does your NGO bring to the table?
The NGO was founded to assuage disparities in access to healthcare services, health education, access to undergraduate education & access to libraries, experienced by vulnerable communities in the rural areas in Kenya. We partner with schools and universities in the USA (so far in the states of Georgia and South Carolina) & work together with them to educate and empower communities in rural Kenya as they build a legacy/plant a seed in a global setting (in this case, Kenya-Africa).
You are an advocate for healthcare in Africa. How do you think the government can help make healthcare services more affordable?
Africa in itself is a continent. I cannot suggest a single solution to affordability of healthcare in Africa as the countries within have varied budgets, allocations and health policies governing the healthcare affordability in their nations. For example, the systems that govern Namibia and those that govern Kenya are vastly different. This in turn affects, cost, affordability and access. I can suggest one improvement in the Kenyan Healthcare system: to invest more in research in hospital and health governance, measure outcomes and then re-draw policy and institution based on outcome. Many times, in healthcare, unfortunately, it is forgotten that quality healthcare to the consumer is the ultimate goal; we are in the profession to save lives and offer quality as we do that. When this is forgotten, then negligence or avoidable/preventable accidents and deaths sometimes occur.
Imbako Public Health deals with education, healthcare and environmental issues. Why the three at the same time?
We chose education as that is my passion. I know how education can change the outcome of generations. Healthcare is where my calling (and my mother’s) lies; working in, speaking of, advocating for, teaching healthcare/public health/medicine is really cool! We chose environment, for several reasons, one is that my dad was one of the top agro-econonomist in the country. While Environment and healthcare go hand-in hand (see studies on zip-codes and health), when tied together with education, then a holistic picture is created. Education is the binding factor. That is why we chose the three at the same time.
Your NGO is based in Atlanta Georgia and Kenya, what are the differences between these two terrains?
The terrains are vastly different. Atlanta, Georgia is one of the richest cities in healthcare research, employment, education, training and access. Kenya, specifically, Kitale, Kenya is a rural area. There is dearth of access to healthcare facilities, education, research and employment in the field. It’s interesting yet rewarding to work in the 2 different environments as lessons from one can be applied in the other in totally different ways though.
You are actively involved in making sure that that the girl child goes to school. Do you think there’s more we can do especially in Africa to ensure that more girls go to school?
Yes. If the governments set aside, funds, budgets, programs and on-going training specifically for the girl child, then more girls will go to school. Additionally, if governments support & collaborate with organizations such as Imbako Public Health/Foundation which advocate & work towards girlchild education, then more girls would go to school.
How do you get funds to carry out your projects?
Funding is obtained via donors, partners in projects and grants.
What’s the toughest part of your job and how do you overcome it?
Obtaining consistent funding to run needed initiatives is tough. Our organization is still young and very small. I currently handle/juggle several roles. I am thankful for the CPA, MBA and PhD combined. It comes in handy when I take on the roles or supervise the volunteers who help us in the initiatives. Towards funding, it is learning from the past and deciding to strategically move forward, pushing yourself, surrounding yourself with networks. Above all its being patient and consistent towards the goal, knowing success does not come overnight.
What did you wish you knew when you were starting off this NGO?
How difficult it is to find someone in IT who can manage the website and it’s for you!
What are your future plans for the NGO and your career in general?
For the NGO, we plan to incorporate research in public health, global health and community health. We also intend to commence curricula educating community on varied academic platforms
In your opinion, what’s the one thing NGO owners need to do to keep the organization going?
To have a clear purpose for why they do what they do. This way, they have a drive to keep going in both high and low times.
How do you relax?
By running outdoors and or by spending time in worship with God.
What will you say is your biggest achievement is so far?
One of them is the Hall of Fame Award in the USA, and thus representing my country, children, youth, women. See
Also, advocating for access to education and constant improvement in health policy locally and globally.
I believe my biggest achievement is yet to come. I may have done a lot, but there is still a lot more to come. My hope is that when you see /hear of my next venture in health policy, you will understand what I mean.
What do you love most about Africa and Kenya?
Hmm…that’s not easy to answer…. Africa to me is still mysterious and so full of potential, hidden gems and undiscovered talent. Kenya is home. There is a sense of peace that comes when I am at the farm in Kitale, breathing in fresh air as I walk in the farm or sitting on the verandah/outdoor patio as the rain falls.
What would you love to be remembered for?
That I was a daughter, sibling, wife and mummy who loved, respected, honored and supported those around her. That I was an influence in health policy, an advocate for global health policies that engender quality access to and quality of care to all, especially children and women.
The Leading Ladies Africa Series is a weekly interview series that 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.
It is an off-shoot of Leading Ladies Africa, a non-profit that promotes women empowerment and gender inclusion for women of African descent.
Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we just might feature her.