Twenty years ago, a powerful speech inspired a small group of Western faculty and staff to find a way to help communities facing a staggering HIV/AIDS crisis on the other side of the globe.
Building on the work of Western researchers, the group connected with African partners to create Western Heads East, a community development project centered on probiotic yogurt social enterprises.
Since then, the grassroots program which combines global partnerships with local leadership, experiential learning, research, teaching and service has made lasting impact on the lives of people in Africa and here at home, while addressing each of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
This year, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, the program continues to evolve and expand to respond to the needs of the communities it serves.
“When we heard Stephen Lewis (then UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa) speak on campus in 2002 about what was happening with the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa, and his struggle to get the world’s attention about how many were dying, you could hear a pin drop in the room,” said Bob Gough, director of international internships and development and Western Heads East.
“Universities have a critical role to play in addressing the Sustainable Development Goals and we have resources and incredible researchers. That speech inspired us to ask, ‘What can we bring to bear on this important global problem?’ And today, we continue to ask those questions about other global issues as well.”
A small committee formed and was looking for meaningful ways to contribute. Around that time a Western News article appeared featuring research led by Gregor Reid, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor and Lawson Health Research Institute scientist, and Sharareh Hekmat, food and nutrition professor at Brescia University College. Reid proposed that the group teach vulnerable populations in Africa how to make probiotic yogurt.
Probiotics are living microorganisms that confer health benefits when consumed or applied to the body. Reid and Chr. Hansen, a bioscience company based in Denmark, donated a particular probiotic strain, Lacticaseibacillus rhamnosus GR-1 to Western Heads East. Today, it is one of the world’s most documented probiotic organisms.
With its properties of enhancing immune responses and combatting organisms that cause diarrhea leading to mortality and morbidity, the GR-1 strain was used by Western Heads East to make Africa’s first probiotic yogurt named ‘Fiti’ (meaning fit and healthy in Swahili).
Since its first community kitchen was established in Tanzania in 2004 in collaboration with the Kivulini Women’s Rights Organization, Western Heads East has collaborated with African partners including hospitals, universities, research institutes and grassroots organizations. Interns, staff and faculty from Western continue to travel to Africa to work with local partners who are establishing probiotic yogurt production kitchens.
At the heart of the program are the African women who operate the probiotic yogurt kitchens in their communities. Called ‘Yogurt Mamas’, a local term of respect and affection, these women have inspired many with their dedication and perseverance.
To date, more than 150 student interns have travelled to the region and worked with partners in five countries to establish 310 community kitchens and production units – providing nutritious, affordable food to more than 280,000 people in East Africa. The production units have evolved into community hubs for lay counselling, social support, disease awareness and entrepreneurship. Over the years, Western Heads East has expanded to collaborate on projects related to other diseases, mental health and community initiatives.
Equally as important as the health implications of the probiotic yogurt has been the empowerment of women and economic development in communities.
“The plan from the start was that the program would grow, so Maimuna Kanyamala, then director of the Kivulini Women’s Rights Organization, arranged for women leaders from different groups to learn how to make the Fiti probiotic yogurt and subsequently teach others. Essentially, they have built a social enterprise and shown others how to gain economically from running the production units (‘kitchens’),” said Gough.
Kanyamala has been an activist, entrepreneur and feminist who has pioneered women’s rights in Tanzania for the last two decades. After her work at the Kivulini Women’s Rights Organization, she founded Mikono Yetu, a women-led non-profit organization based in Mwanza but active in other parts of the country Their mission is to economically empower women and girls using a gender equality approach to ownership of productive resources, such as land, livestock, capital and technology.
“Mikono Yetu was built to enrich women’s lives, primarily through the probiotic yogurt social enterprises. When women and girls are economically empowered, they have more options and power to step out of violence and improve their livelihood and that of their children,” she said. “My 20 years’ experience working at the community level has taught me the social enterprise model is one of the easiest ways to put money in the hands of women while they contribute to improving community health.”
The impact of the program on the lives of women in Tanzania has been dramatic.
“One woman owns 10 houses now and she was selling vegetables on the side of the road before she learned how to produce Fiti. She never imagined she’d be a community leader, running her own business and sending her kids to university. And there are many, many stories like that with the 400 or so women just in Tanzania who are running their own Fiti production,” said Gough.
An integral piece of the success of Western Heads East has been the commitment of the student interns who travel to Africa for three or more months to assist with health sustainability initiatives and growing social enterprises in Africa. In return, the students gain experience applying classroom lessons to real-world situations, while learning effective collaboration and cross-cultural communication skills.
One past intern, Ellena Andoniou, BHSc‘03, MSc’07, PhD‘16, has been working in the global health field for the past 15 years. She says her experience with Western Heads East first planted the seed that grew into a lifelong passion for global health equity and motivated her to dedicate herself to research and collaborations focused on improving the lives of women and children in Africa.
“I learned a lot about myself when I went to Africa for the first time. It’s a life-changing experience. My research has been primarily related to the work I did with Western Heads East while I was a graduate student. I’ve basically been working with the program since 2005,” she said.
“There is so much knowledge that has been lost over the years, especially due to generational gaps caused by disease – primarily HIV. The younger generations have lost a lot of that traditional knowledge that would allow them to have a different quality of life, so they’re stuck in this cycle of poverty, because they just don’t have the knowledge, the skills and the tools, that are typically passed down through generations. The hope is to empower community members to improve their lives.”
Being able to witness the impact of the internships on students’ perspectives has been one of the biggest motivators for Hekmat’s continued work with the program, and for her teaching and research at Brescia’s School of Food and Nutritional Sciences.
“The more we do, the more it seems to be limitless, in some ways. Every year I’m thinking about new projects for my students. We can do so many different things and there is so much potential, not only in the field of food and nutrition, but also in in terms of medicine, public health, marketing and business.”
Anisah Hooda, BHSc’20, MMASc’21, another past participant in the internship program, says she is struck by how forward-thinking Western Heads East and the programs it supports have been over the years.
“If you think about how innovative it was upon its inception and where it is now, it is incredible. The program continues to support cutting-edge ideas and ways to address our world’s complex problems,” she said.
“When I took part in 2018, they were already looking at ways to reduce carbon imprint, which was pretty groundbreaking at the time in that context. I can only imagine what will happen if we can continue supporting programs like Western Heads East.”
Recently, Western Heads East formed a partnership with organizations in London, Ont., to bring its 20 years of experience back to where the project began.
A collaborative project between Western Heads East, Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU), Misty Glen Creamery and Fanshawe College will focus on producing, marketing and distributing a locally manufactured whole fat, probiotic yogurt that will offer significant nutritional benefits for vulnerable populations in Middlesex-London.
Working initially with YOU and through direct, on-farm sales, the group will develop a distribution network with targeted partners in the region (such as retirement homes) to get the product directly in the hands of the groups who would most benefit from an affordable, nutritious, high-calorie, probiotic product, such as the elderly or at-risk youth.
One of the long-term goals is to develop educational materials that can be used to guide additional small farms in production of these products, along with materials on how to develop effective multi-institutional partnerships and distribution networks for the product.
“We are excited to bring the lessons we’ve learned in Africa related to social enterprise and serving communities back to London and to bring the Fiti probiotic food program to local vulnerable populations. In some ways, it feels like we’ve come full circle,” said Gough.
Looking ahead and lessons along the way
Over its 20 years, Western Heads East has continued to grow and evolve thanks to the support of Western staff, students, faculty and African partners, as well as Lawson Health Research Institute and Brescia University College .
“Developing and growing a program like Western Heads East hasn’t been without challenges – financial, resource-wise and more”, said Gough. “But we have learned so much along the way – from what it takes to build a kitchen in Africa to how we approach sustainable development in a critical and ethical manner and train our interns appropriately,” he said.
“Our learning from Western Heads East has affected how we do things related to international development, partnerships, and research at Western,” said Gough. “Our work around critical and ethical global engagement sprung from us reflecting on how we’re doing things and responding to criticism. Some people would say, ‘Why are you sending students? Why don’t you just send the money?’ But aside from the student learning and development, it’s also how we train our students prior to them going, so we’re not reproducing colonial partnerships. Our commitment to being mindful in terms of how we engage in relationships has influenced how global engagement is approached more broadly at Western.”
For Reid, known as a founding father of probiotics and now Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Western, there are many opportunities to continue to elevate and promote the program as it continues to grow and evolve.
“Western Heads East ticks all the boxes of what a university should be doing: international outreach, student engagement, women’s empowerment, research and development, health and community. And, it changes the lives of students and those in the communities it serves,” he said. “But we can’t rest on our laurels. We should continue to invest in the microbiology, food science, ethics, business and social aspects to develop more fermented food options and make this city a world leader.”
Western Heads East is celebrating its anniversary through a number of special events, including a community event at The Grand Theatre on Oct. 4; an on-campus anniversary celebration on Oct. 6, a research webinar series and more. Get the details, read profiles of past interns, share your memories and learn more at westernheadseast.ca/20th_anniversary.