Health sector remains a priority in Nigeria – Director, Bill and Melinda Gates FoundationInterview 

With the increasing need to work with partners to improve Nigeria’s health service delivery, agricultural productivity, expand access to digital financial service among many others, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation appointed a new director for its Nigeria office.
Dr. Jeremie Zoungrana - Bill and Melinda Gates foundation

The new director, Dr. Jeremie Zoungrana, who joined the foundation January 2021 in an interview with Lafiya360 said Nigeria’s health sector remains a priority.

Zoungrana, a health sociologist and program management specialist bring more than two decades of leadership and experience managing complex, large-scale family planning; reproductive health; maternal, newborn and child health; HIV; and community health projects across both the public and private sectors in sub-Saharan Africa.

He has had a long and multifaceted career driving Jhpiego’s operations in many African countries and currently serving as Jhpiego Country Director in Burkina Faso and IMC Chief of Party, while supporting the organization’s West and Central Africa region portfolios.

Before joining the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Zoungrana served as Jhpiego’s Tanzania country director, directing a portfolio of about $75 million in program funding. The portfolio covered an array of projects and donors, including the management of more than 600 staff. His career has also spanned country director roles in Rwanda and Program Manager for Cameroon, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Togo focused on maternal and newborn care.

Lafiya360: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation commits huge number of resources to a wide range of projects across Africa, and Nigeria in particular. What is your assessment of Nigerian public and private authorities’ commitment to these goals?

Dr Zoungrana: Thank you so much for that, I think it is an excellent one. Yes, we know the Foundation icommitted a lot of money to Nigeria. However, when the Foundation wants to make investment, or use any of our assets as I mentioned, it has always been in partnership with the government and we assess the commitment before engaging together because whatever we do, we have to do it with the government. This we have seen through different programme that has eventually become a priority for the federal government. We saw it through the polio virus eradication where we saw high commitment from different actors, down from the community level, and we are seeing it with the primary healthcare system transformation.

In the context of Nigeria, everything in the health sector remain a priority and we are working together with the government to make sure that we accelerate progress on these areas to ensure that people are not only healthy, but can contribute to a productive life.

Lafiya 360: What new programmes, if any, do you have in mind for sub-Saharan Africa and Nigeria in particular?

Dr Zoungrana: Of course, it is not because I am a new director that everything should be new, so, I am here to ensure that we have continuity on our commitment. That remains on top, and I will not talk about new programme because our priority remains the same and we need to make sure that we fulfil them efficiently before moving to a new thing. As we continue to implement and collaborate with different partners and the government, we need to make sure that we bring innovative approaches to accelerate progress. We also need to ensure that we tackle the most important issues that are critical to development. In the context of Nigeria, I think we remain committed to what we want to do, and we want to make sure that we accelerate progress because in the health sector for example, there is a need to really accelerate on maternal mortality reduction, strengthening routine immunisation so that we don’t get the polio virus coming back, reducing childhood mortality.

Also, on the agriculture sector, we need to support small-holders to have more productivity, financial inclusion.

Lafiya360: Over the last 12 months, insecurity in Nigeria has worsened, going by the numbers, and of course indices- kidnappings and killings nationwide. How does this affect the Gates Foundation’s immunisation programme in the country?

Dr Zoungrana: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, security has been a big issue and a big concern for all of us including the Foundation. It is clear that the security issue is not without negative impact on access to services, including service provision across the country. During our MoU review with states, we have many governors who attested that there are a lot of challenges with security and its impact to key essential services like immunisation.

I think a lot of innovation have been developed together with partners to improve access in different ways. New points of services are being created for those who cannot have access and help is being proposed for some people to have some information, outreach activities are being developed. This is mainly for the internally displaced people, and also people who are in areas of difficult access.

I know that other interventions are aligned to mitigate the consequence, which is also part of our area of concern, and we are working closely with states to make sure that essential services are made available.

Lafiya360: As you are aware sir, there are lots of misinformation in the public space already, even before the pandemic, like cholera and other diseases, but the COVID-19 pandemic actually made misinformation worse. Is the Foundation willing to fund projects to tackle misinformation in Nigeria?

Dr Zoungrana: Your question is really of high importance, understanding that miscommunication is a big concern across the development world. The Foundation is already working with different partners and entities to address miscommunication. The Foundation is also considering helping, supporting any project that contributes to fighting against miscommunication. As you can see, we have a communication team and this team is really following at different levels to address miscommunication and support any project in that area, as they are already supporting some of them at the country level and also at the regional level.

Lafiya360: What lessons and experiences are you bringing to your work here in Nigeria and how significantly different is this from your past experiences?

Dr Zoungrana: Great! I think it is linked to my past experience. I have to say that as I mentioned, my background, I worked in public health most of the time. I have been with one university for more than 20 years, working in different positions and implementing different programmes in West Africa, Southern Africa and East Africa.

I have been working with government, private sector as well as civil society and media. What I usually do is, take a programme, assess the need and then go to the field for implementation and that way, I get results and then come back. So, what is different here is I am playing a similar role of director but in the donor side, making decisions to fund someone else to implement the activity or co-fund or collaborate with other partners, is the difference.

So, I think wearing this lens of experience through different health sector areas including agriculture and financial services for poor, is a unique opportunity for me to apply in Nigeria. I am not saying necessarily it will work here, but we can always share.

So, this long-term experience implementing can also be applied, providing support, remember that one of our assets is our own staff expertise, sharing experience in building the capacity of other partners is something that I do believe I am bringing here. Also, working with a good team here based on my past experience managing big teams, I think it is something that I am looking forward to sharing with all of them, including the vision too in terms of development, especially in the public health area.

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