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People in rural Uganda and Kenya, who don’t have easy access to health clinics, get extra help from community health worke...

Health workers selling simple cures door-to-door are saving lives

To tackle childhood diseases in rural Africa, Living Goods founder Chuck Slaughter borrowed a page from the cosmetics giant Avon’s playbook, now with a tech twist.

Community health volunteers in rural Uganda and Kenya teach their neighbors about good health and sell them low-cost products to help achieve it, thanks to medical training and a kit they’ve received from the group.

Simple things such as bed nets, water filters and pregnancy check-ups can help communities greatly reduce mortality rates, health experts say. Globally, the leading causes of death for children under 5 are pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria, according to the World Health Organization. About 5.6 million children under age 5 died in 2016.

That’s where the community health volunteers come in with their proactive approach. Wearing a Living Goods T-shirt and cap, each person covers about 100 households, offering basic health care and referring any serious cases or illnesses outside their expertise to local health facilities. They carry a kit with a thermometer to check for fevers, measuring tape to track a newborn’s growth, and a smartphone with diagnosis and pregnancy guideline apps.

A parent can text the local community health worker about a sick child, and once diagnosed, can purchase medicine from the worker that is cheaper than from the local pharmacy, according to Jennifer Hyman, Living Goods’ director of communications. The accessibility of being able to contact a health volunteer on demand through technology is “more like an Uber model at this point” than the traditional Avon model, she said.

Community health workers go door-to-door providing services in communities such as in Busia, Western Kenya. Photo courtesy of Living Goods

Community health workers go door-to-door providing services in communities such as in Busia, Western Kenya. Photo courtesy of Living Goods

In Uganda, where Living Goods got its start, there are about 3,000 health promoters with plans to double the number in the next four years. In Kenya, the group manages about 1,500 community health volunteers with a goal of recruiting about 1,000 more by the end of the year. The group works with health ministries in both countries, along with local governments, to coordinate its services.

Those services focus on maternal and child health, because the health of any country’s population depends on the health of its mothers and children, said Ruth Ngechu, Kenya deputy country director of Community Health Partnerships at Living Goods. “If we are able to handle the issues of child and maternal mortality, then we have settled most of the health problems.”

The volunteers, who are referred by other members of their communities, go through a screening process, including background checks and literacy tests. Those selected receive medical training and monthly refresher courses.

Rather than earning flat salaries, the volunteers are paid when they visit a pregnant woman and provide prenatal services. The visits for the patient are free. The volunteers also earn money from selling clean cook stoves, water filters and solar lights.

The rural communities benefit by having the tools of healthier living come directly to their door, and the volunteers, who often are women, can earn a little extra income. In some Muslim communities, men are not allowed to talk to women about family planning, so the female health workers are particularly important, Ngechu said.

Ngechu said she found that even more than the pay, the volunteers are driven by the respect they receive for the services they provide. “They are recognized within their communities as small doctors in the village. It really motivates them.”