NL editie / World edition

Africa Can Help Itself

by Ilona Eveleens

Where others see dry savannahs, Kenyan business woman Atia Yahya sees fertile ground. “We are not immature, backward people. We Africans have our own ideas about how to solve our own problems,” she says. The evidence? Her innovative ideas for providing affordable healthcare to millions of Kenyans.

Africa Can Help Itself Atia Yahya (56) may be a cunning business woman, but she is also big-hearted. As a Kenyan medical insurance consultant, Yahya manages to combine sound business practice with effective social justice.

HIV insurance
A do-gooder she is not. “I want to help my fellow Kenyans without making beggars out of them,” says Yahya, while spinning in place on a stationary bike in a Nairobi gym.
She came up with the idea of insuring companies against HIV; a first in East Africa. “That idea was born out of the reality of HIV. Treatment was expensive and many people died because they could not afford anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs). Enterprises lost not only people but also expertise. That was true for the insurance company where I then worked. I could not understand why other chronic diseases like diabetes or epilepsy were part of insurance packages, but not HIV.”

Her idea for “HIV insurance” was an instant hit. Big companies started to insure their staff against the disease. Other insurance firms followed suit.
In Kenya, where half of the population lives below the poverty level of 1 euro a day, people die on a daily base of ordinary diseases like diarrhoea and malaria. Like most other African countries Kenya has no effective National Health Service. Good medical care is offered in several hospitals, but with a hefty price tag. Only companies and wealthy individuals can afford health insurance.

The Kenyan health insurance market is small. Of the more than 38 million Kenyans only 2 million are insured. This shocking statistic got Atia Yahya thinking. “I realised that an insurance policy which brings in only a small profit is still very profitable when I can make use of the potential of millions.”

That thought lead to Changamka (literally: “Uplifting”), a primary health care insurance for the lower middle class. It comes with a “smart card” worth 50 eurocents. A Changamka policy holder pays 4.50 for a doctor’s visit, tests and medicine combined.

The new insurance is targeting some 10 million people who are able to put aside small sums of money. They put funds on their smart cards for the day someone gets sick. The insurance not only covers the card holder, but can be used by others as well. “Family, friends, acquaintances and neighbours can use it. Employers get the smart card for the time when employees fall sick,” explains Yahya.

Insurance company General Accident has signed contracts with hospitals, where good medical care is offered at a low cost. The smart card is currently only operational in the capital Nairobi and other big cities. But expansion to rural areas is planned for 2011. Neighbouring countries have also shown an interest in this new kind of insurance.

Business women
Within the health care sector, Yahya is praised for her innovative idea. “A business woman through and through,” is how her business contacts describe her. Companies where she used to work saw their profits rise, in part thanks to her ideas. “A manager who demands a lot of herself and as much of her employees,” says someone who worked for her.

Colleagues do wonder where her motivation comes from. “I think it is my upbringing. I come from an Islamic family where we were taught the importance of sharing. Those who have should share with those who have not. That is a very essential part of the Muslim philosophy.”

But it was not just religion. She points out how “social involvement” is an integral part of the African tradition. In Kenya ‘Harambees’ are being held almost every day. A Harambee is a collective meeting to raise money for a wedding party, school fees, surgery, or study fees for an intelligent young man or woman wanting to attend a university abroad.

“Africa might be at the receiving end of foreign aid, but Africans help each other as well. Maybe not an unknown person, thousands of kilometres away, but they help someone in the village, in the school or within the family,” says Yahya. “That was instilled in me from my early childhood.”

After growing up, Yahya slowly but surely climbed the career ladder within the insurance business. As her career grew so did her bank account. She garnered respect, and was invited to join the Rotary Club. Within that organisation she helped establish scores of projects for the less fortunate.

Yahya is interested in eating healthy food, and is a loyal visitor to the gym. She intends to grow old in a healthy body. At the gym she often hears about private initiatives to improve the lives of ordinary Kenyans.

I once told her of an encounter with an ordinary woman who had taken a dozen orphans into her home, with no outside help at all. Yahya asked for the lady’s phone number. After a few weeks she told me that the Rotary, acting on her advice, had provided the un-official orphanage with basic essentials like bedding and clothing. The Rotary Club also made sure that an international organisation put a substantial amount of money into a bank account. The woman who established the orphanage was able to run the place with the interest of that lump sum.

“This woman did not beg,” says Yahya. “She did it herself. That kind of initiative deserves help.”

A new foundation
In 1997 a group of people, Yahya among them, created the Kenyan Community Development Foundation (KCDF). “We believed that too much was lost in the efforts to help communities in Kenya. People were rarely asked what they wanted, and what they thought of a project. The aid was more or less imposed on them by foreign aid organisations.

“One year women were a popular target within the international aid community. The year after it was agriculture, then children or the disabled. These well-intended ideas ignored the culture and the ideas of local communities. Quite a number of projects ended prematurely or faltered after a while without any results,” says Yahya, who was recently elected to become Chair of the KCDF.

She hates begging. She believes in development through sound business practices. “At the KCDF we are also pragmatic,” she says with a chuckle. “We can be hired ourselves to take care of the insurance administration of projects by foreign development organisations. With the proceeds we finance our own projects, which come from the dreams and ideas of our people.”

One such KCDF project was developed in Isiolo, a dry area 300 kilometres north of Nairobi. A group of farmers wanted to grow vegetables in greenhouses. The local nomads laughed. No aid organisation was ready to invest in the idea.

“The people behind the project were not only enthusiastic but also had a good plan and had done extensive research. After our own assessment we could only endorse their idea, and we provided them with the starting capital,” says Yahya. “You should see the fabulous vegetables that are now for sale on Isiolo market. A foreign organisation would not have gotten into a project to grow tomatoes on the savannah.”

Yahya believes the time has come for Africa to be taken seriously by the rest of the world, and for Africans to become more self-confident. “We are not an immature, poor, backward people. We have our own ideas about how to solve our problems. Maybe with some foreign financing. But preferably in the form of a business deal.”


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Ilona Eveleens

Ilona Eveleens

Ilona Eveleens has lived in Africa since 1994. First in South Africa, then moving to Kenya almost 15 years ago. She freelances for Dutch and German newspapers and South African radio station Capetalk.


"One11 is a chance to let unique “ordinary” Africans speak. There’s more to the continent than the clichéd media images of thieving dictators, crazy militia fighters and starving children. This is an opportunity to bring Africa’s image a little bit more in line with the reality.”