Grand Challenges Canada

Reflections from Suhas Monga , Portfolio Manager, Global Health Innovation at Grand Challenges Canada

During a recent visit to the Lamu Archipelago, Suhas Monga, Global Health Innovation Portfolio Manager at Grand Challenges Canada, witnessed firsthand the transformative work of Safari Doctors, an organization dedicated to providing essential healthcare services to some of Kenya’s most remote and underserved communities. County seeking medical treatment often means making a journey, by boat, that lasts an entire workday. Safari Doctors bring healthcare to the people who live on the area’s 65 islands.

Lamu County, which includes the Lamu Archipelago, on Kenya’s northern coast , is renowned for its natural beauty. Yet, its remoteness presents formidable challenges in accessing healthcare due to geographic isolation and security concerns.

Safari Doctors is a homegrown non-profit organization that provides essential healthcare services to remote and marginalized communities in Lamu County. The organization was founded in 2015 by Umra Omar, whose family is originally from Tchundwa, a village in the Lamu Archipelago.

These clinics provide critical medical care, health education, and support to areas with limited access to healthcare facilities. Safari Doctors’ services include maternal and child health, immunizations, treatment of common illnesses, and health education. The organization relies on a team of medical professionals and volunteers, travelling by boat, car, and motorbike to reach isolated villages. Safari Doctors aims to bridge the healthcare gap in underserved regions, improving the overall health and well-being of the communities they serve. Learn more in this reflection by Monga, as he shares his recent experience on a visit to remote communities with the Safari Doctors team.

The Challenge: Navigating Healthcare Barriers in Kenya’s Remote Archipelago

The final leg of our trip took us to the Lamu Archipelago, a stunning yet remote region of Kenya close to the northern Somali border. Lamu is known for its pristine beaches, beautiful mangroves, and serene boat rides. This archipelago is home to indigenous Muslim communities who have relied on fishing and the rich biodiversity of the area for generations. However, the beauty of Lamu masks severe accessibility and security issues, and very limited healthcare services, with maternal and child health being particularly neglected.

The difficulties in accessing these services are exacerbated by the region’s security situation. The only viable route to some villages is by boat, as the land routes are perilous, laden with thick forests and landmines. This isolation has left many communities without proper healthcare, clean water, sanitation, and functional schools. One such village we visited had temporary houses with incomplete roofs, a non-functional school, and a single health post shared by 3 neighboring villages—a testament to the stark realities faced by these communities.

The Solution: Safari Doctors’ Journey to Healthcare Access and Empowerment

Enter Safari Doctors, an organization dedicated to overcoming these barriers by providing essential healthcare services to isolated villages in northern Kenya. To date, 434 individuals have been reached via health education in schools and debate clubs and an additional 6,608 individuals have been engaged in outreach and awareness activities. My journey with them began immediately upon landing, as the Safari Doctors team, accompanied by armed personnel from the Kenya Border Force for security reasons, picked me up straight from the airport for an outreach mission.

The Safari Doctors team comprises clinicians, nurses, nurse assistants, Youth Health Ambassador (YHA) trainers, and other dedicated members, including their founder and program lead. T ogether, they navigate the choppy waters to reach villages. The health post we visited, recently constructed due to Safari Doctors’ persistent advocacy, is the only permanent infrastructure for miles. It serves three villages and was established after five years of outreach and data-sharing efforts with the county government.

During our visit, the challenges became starkly clear.  The Community health worker (CHW) assigned to the health post was unavailable at the site due to security concerns. Instead, Safari Doctors had trained a 17-year-old youth from the community as a Youth Health Ambassador to maintain the continuum of care for the community. This young ambassador was critical in identifying patient needs, triaging, keeping records of births, deaths, immunizations, and educating peers on family planning and health practices.

I spoke with a Community Health Extension Worker (CHEW) who supervises community health workers in Kenya. He highlighted the indispensable role of the Youth Health Ambassadors that Safari Doctors trains, recommending that they be officially recognized as a community health worker once he turns 18. This interaction underscored how Safari Doctors are not only filling immediate healthcare gaps but also preparing local youth to become future accredited healthcare providers.

Transforming Lives in Isolated Villages

The impact of Safari Doctors’ work was evident throughout the day. The team provides much-needed medical care and education, ensuring that even the most isolated communities have access to health services. Towards the end of our outreach, we encountered a critical situation: an 18-month-old child, semi-conscious with a high fever, and his mother, under the influence of substances, unable to articulate his health history. The Safari Doctors team swiftly intervened, transporting them to a mainland health facility, with a female Youth Health Advisor accompanying them to navigate the healthcare system—a testament to the comprehensive care they provide.

The boat ride back was a sobering experience. As we navigated the choppy waters, Umra Omar, humanitarian and founder of Safari Doctors, said “Imagine you are 8 months pregnant on this ride to the hospital.” It was a stark reminder of the hardships these communities face daily.

Through tireless efforts, Safari Doctors not only deliver healthcare but also foster resilience and hope in communities that have been long overlooked. Their work exemplifies the critical role of community health ambassadors in bridging healthcare gaps, training a new generation of health leaders, and ensuring that even the most remote villages have access to lifesaving services.

My experience with Safari Doctors was incredibly energizing.  It highlighted the tangible impact of Grand Challenges Canada’s support for local innovations, and the ingenuity of organizations like Safari Doctors that are saving and improving lives through their unwavering dedication and innovative solutions. By addressing the unique challenges of remote communities, Safari Doctors are making a profound difference, one boat ride at a time.