In June 2017, Dr Rasha Kelej was appointed CEO of Merck Foundation, whose work focuses on developing countries and underserved communities to improve health and wellbeing through science and technology. Dr Kelej spoke about ongoing endeavours to improve health sectors across the African continent.
How did you rise to CEO of Merck Foundation?
After graduating from Faculty of Pharmacy, Alexandria University, I worked as a marketing manager at a multinational pharmaceutical companie in Dubai until 2012. Then I obtained my Masters degree in corporate social responsibility. At that time I met with the chairman of Merck Pharmaceuticals to discuss focusing on providing solutions to countries in Africa. I presented a comprehensive study on developing the health sectors in many African countries through training for medical staff in those societies. He immediately adopted the idea and after the success of its pilot projects, a foundation was established in 2015 with a dedicated fund and I was appointed its CEO.
What are the main goals of the foundation?
It aims at developing health sectors in underserved African communities, by training staff in certain fields, mainly non-contagious diseases such as cancer, hypertension, diabetes and reproductive health. We take a special interest as well in research to find new treatments for such diseases. The foundation aims also to empower women and youth by providing grants and scholarships, and we try to eradicate stigma associated with infertility – which is associated with 25 percent of women in Africa. We already started training African doctors in more than 35 countries and employing them in Egypt and India since 2017.
What kind of assistance does the foundation provide to African countries?
No financial assistance is provided, but rather training of medical staff to reach maximum efficiency in their profession. We focus on human development, which is unfortunately underserved in many countries in the continent.
On what grounds are these doctors selected?
We coordinate with ministries of health in each country in the selection process. Each doctor has to be above 40 years old, passionate about learning and willing to sign a contract with a commitment to serve his community after accomplishing his training.
How countries are a priority, and what about Egypt in that regard?
Priorities are countries that have no doctors in certain specialties, like cancer and infertility, such as Gambia and Liberia. As for Egypt, we made an agreement with the ministry of health for Egypt to partner as a training centre for doctors. At the National Cancer Institute, doctors from Ghana, Rwanda, Liberia and Namibia received training. And we provided training in India for 60 African doctors as well.
And why not conduct such training in developed countries, like the US and Canada?
Developed countries have equipment that other countries could lack, so it is better that trainees train in similar circumstances they will find in their homelands. Also, African doctors are registered as staff in Egypt and thus can practice, but in other countries in Europe, for instance, they can only observe.
What about projects related to reproductive health?
To eradicate the stigma associated with infertilities in some societies, we launched the campaign "More than a mother" in 2015, which was backed by many first ladies in Africa. The campaign gained more momentum and support after the amputation of limbs of a woman from Kenya named Jackeline Mwende because of infertility.
We work on finding treatment and training doctors in that field, as well as collaborating with governments to set regulations – that are usually absent – regarding adoption. Through art and media we try as well to change misconceptions about the issue and eradicate stigma.
How did you manage to get 15 African first ladies on board in that campaign?
The beginning was the Republic of Central Africa, where the first lady cooperated in that regard. After this initial success, other countries picked up the momentum and now 15 first ladies are ambassadors representing their countries in the endeavour.
Tell us about the first lady of Sierra Leone taking a role in the movie the foundation is making about the tragedy of Jackeline Mwende?
First Lady of Sierra Leone Fatima Bio is an outstanding award receiving actress, and she also held the title of Miss Africa in the past. When we presented last November the idea of producing a short movie telling the story of Mwende, she volunteered to play her role on the screen.