Get to Know our Kirby Impact Prize Winner: Healthy Learners

Healthy Learners Co-Founders Ignicious Bulongo and Lonnie Hackett

At the 16th Annual Sustainable Business and Social Impact Conference on February 24, 2021 the CASE at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business was thrilled to announce the inaugural winner of the Fred Morgan Kirby Prize for Scaling Impact: Healthy Learners.

Based in Zambia, Healthy Learners works to improve the health of school-based children through partnering with government agencies to train teachers as community health workers.  Learn more about this inspiring impact enterprise in this Q&A with co-founders Ignicious Bulongo and Lonnie Hackett.

What inspired you to launch Healthy Learners?

Our journey has unfolded organically, as neither of us began with plans or aspirations of launching an organization. It all started with identifying a problem: that healthcare in low and middle-income countries far too often misses school-aged children. While countries have made enormous gains in improving early childhood health and reducing under-5 mortality, the health needs of children above 5 years have been critically overlooked. Illness in school-age children has a devastating impact on their health, learning, development and future. In Zambia, where we work, while 90% of children are enrolled in school, far too many suffer from repeated illness that disrupts their learning and futures.

Because we realized much of the problem comes down to the failure of children over 5 to access the healthcare system, we came up with a deceptively simple idea: If children aren’t accessing healthcare, then let’s move the healthcare entry point to where most children already are – their schools – by training the people children already trust and are with nearly every day – their teachers. By leveraging existing human capital, integrating our model into the structures of the Ministries of Health and Education, and harnessing technology and data, we believed that we could rapidly improve the reality of access to health and education for children in Zambia. This idea eventually evolved into Healthy Learners.

What about Healthy Leaders is unique? 

From the beginning, we have worked with the Zambian government to co-create our novel school-based community health model. By working hand-in-hand with the government and rooting our work in policy, we are able to effectively map-out existing programs to avoid duplication, identify potential synergies and strengthen sustainability.

While most school health interventions focus on specific diseases or interventions, our model goes far beyond this to establish schools as an integral part of the primary healthcare system. We build on established best practices and World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations for traditional community health worker (CHW) programs, adapting them for the school setting. Using the CHW model, we recruit, train, equip and support teachers to become School Health Workers (SHWs) to provide health education, coordinate preventative medical care and support, monitor and respond to the health concerns of students.

This approach creates a profound sense of ownership and commitment that improves implementation and sustainability. Additionally, it builds strong partnerships between schools and clinics, which break down previous trust barriers, engenders mutual respect, and further improves health seeking behaviors.  We are not aware of another organization in the region supporting schools in this capacity.

What vision of the world are you working for?  How will you know when Healthy Learners’ work is complete?

We are building a model to help education systems better look after the well-being of children. By substantially improving both their access to healthcare and their knowledge of how to care for themselves, we can support the current generation of children as well as those who come after them to stay healthy so that they can learn effectively and pursue their dreams. With nearly 50% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa under the age of 15, the future depends on securing their rights to health and education.

From its inception, Healthy Learners has worked in collaboration with the Zambian Government to integrate programs into existing structures of the Ministries of Health and Education, empower local communities and leverage data and technology to have the greatest possible impact on those we serve. While our immediate goal is national adoption in Zambia, our ultimate vision is for it to serve as a model throughout the region and beyond.

What about Healthy Learners are you most proud of?

It’s hard not to talk about pandemic here, as we are incredibly proud of what our team and partners have been able to achieve over the past year.  The importance of our model was highlighted in the spring of 2020 when Zambia was forced to manage the emerging pandemic. As we had the institutional relationships, technology and a proven model that could form the framework for a swift and effective response, the Government asked us to help lead the re-opening of schools. Following a short period of closure, Zambia soon became one of the first countries on the continent to re-open schools. Our team worked tirelessly to expand our model to all public primary schools in the capital of Lusaka, nearly tripling the number of children we serve to 250,000. With healthcare integrated into these children’s daily lives, they now access services in substantially greater numbers, improving health outcomes and school attendance. We are humbled and encouraged by the fact that global and regional experts from UNICEF, WHO, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the World Bank have increasingly recognized our work as an effective approach for improving school children’s health during the pandemic.

 What keeps you up at night or worries you about your work?

Our partners are eager for us to accelerate our growth, and we are determined to meet their expectations. Nevertheless, we understand that this opportunity poses new challenges to strengthen our internal capacity and raise the resources required to expand our program to reach more schools. To support this growth, we will need to strengthen our administrative systems, invest in professional development for our existing staff, and hire additional personnel in program management, evaluation and administration.

What keeps you going when the work is very hard?

We are driven by a fundamental belief that every child has a right to health and education. Together with our partners, we are demonstrating the important role schools have in supporting the health and well-being of their students. We are inspired daily by the passion and dedication of the teachers, health workers and parents with whom we work, and we are energized by the stories they share about the transformational impact the program has had on their schools, students and communities.

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