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Spotlighting great work done by Kenyan youth toward achieving Sustainable Development Goal 3, target 4.

According to WHO’s 2019 Global Health Estimates, Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) now make up 7 of the world’s top 10 causes of death, having been 4 out top 10 causes of death in 2000. This not only shows how the NCDs contribute to the global burden of disease but importantly highlight how urgent it is to advocate for and fight the rise of NCDs, also called silent killers.  Our own NCD advocate and researcher Aimable Uwimana had a conversation with an NCD Champion from Kenya, Ogweno Stephen, Founder and CEO of Stowelink - a youth health innovation and youth-led organization that is contributing to the global NCD movement, from Kenya to the world.

What was the inspiration behind the launch of Stowelink? How did you decide on this focus area amongst various health challenges in Kenya?

The inspiration behind the launch of Stowelink was a drive to see that no one in the community had to die or suffer from non-communicable diseases because of lack of the right information on these diseases and lack of early diagnostic services for NCDs, having seen this happen to some of my closest family and friends. Stowelink was born out of a deep sense of mission to improve NCDs literacy and enhance access to diagnostic services to Kenya and Africa.

We appreciate and commend you on your use of a comprehensive view in addressing non-communicable diseases, and by leveraging social behaviour change focused on mental health, drug and substance abuse and nutrition. Could you tell us more about your approach, how it was decided, and if/how it has evolved over time?

Our approach to improving access to NCDs literacy and diagnostic services has innovation at the core of its design. Traditional methods of doing independent initiatives and health education and medical camps are not bringing in optimal results, and so as Stowelink, we wanted to do things a little bit different. And so, our programmes are designed with various sustainability measures at the core of various initiatives. For instance, our programmes always leverage on wide partnerships because with partnerships you are able to have a massive impact and consolidate the little resources from the various partners and join them up to make meaningful work. We work with governments and the local communities as fundamental entities in all our projects. This allows the acceptability and sustainability of the project. Also, we have research as a key component of our projects which enables us to measure the results and impact of the work we do. On top of that, we have innovative approaches of reaching our models including using art to communicate about health to the youth and developing visually appealing training toolkits, which are in simple language to enable the elderly to enjoy learning from the modules. We leverage mobile health care technology where we have the NCDs 365 app and the social media to amplify messaging on NCDs, just to mention a few.

How have your multiple areas of focus helped you contribute to the movement to address preventable non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Kenya and around the globe?

With our focus on the major NCDs and tackling the challenge from various angles, it has allowed us to have more partners to work with on various fronts and has allowed us then to actively gain knowledge and experience from working in diverse areas focusing on the prevention and control aspects of non-communicable diseases. With the broad understanding of NCDs prevention and control, we have been able to develop innovative products and programmes to enhance the NCDs messaging. As a result, it has allowed us to work with 21 partners across 10 countries reaching over 4.4 million people with relevant messages on non-communicable diseases.

How has technology helped Stowelink’s mission? Could you share more about the NCD 365 app and how you have come across this idea? Was it a cost-effective method and would you recommend replication in other countries, when solving/addressing NCD related problems?

Technology has played a key role in accelerating our success and impact across the region when it came to the NCDs space. The NCDs 365 mobile app took us 4 years, a cohort study, three versions and frequent conversations with users to develop the final version. The app is now available on Playstore for free. The NCDs 365 app allows you to learn about NCDs, get relevant updates on NCDs events happening around you, get a list and important contacts of organizations and advocacy groups working in the NCDs space around the country and get you access to products and toolkits that have been developed to improve the NCDs messaging. The application once downloaded can be majorly operated offline allowing community health workers and other users to use it as a tool for health education and for referral services. The NCDs 365 app has allowed us to get people across multiple countries to learn about NCDs. The app not only serves Kenya but has the potential and has begun to attract partners outside of Kenya. The app can be used globally as well. More importantly, is that as the world continues to develop technologies such as the NCDs 365app will be critical in advancing public health work in Kenya and in the world. Whilst the NCDs 365 app took us a lot of time, effort and money to develop, we have developed a cost-effective solution for Africa, and also for all other countries, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we have the wheel which is the NCDs 365 app, let’s all ride the wheel.

What about the digital literacy of the end-users of this app? Will everyone in need be able to use this app? What about digital coverage in remote areas – you can shine a light on its pros and cons?

As highlighted above, everyone is able to use the app and everyone has the ability to download the app so long as you can access the play store. The app was primarily designed to be available offline, making it possible for people in remote areas to be able to use the app once downloaded from Playstore. Currently, the app cannot reach everyone, especially those in very rural areas with less or no connectivity. However, we have, in the app, links to our toolkits that can be downloaded and used entirely offline which could reach these populations. Also, by using the community health workers as part of the primary audience for the app, they are able to reach everyone else, even in the last mile communities.

“With rare exceptions, all of your most important achievements on this planet will come from working with others—or, in a word, partnership.” Paul Farmer said. Could you talk about how working with various stakeholders from the government, NGOs and the international community has supported your movement? What kinds of support at the policy level do you need to fulfil your goals? How is Stowelink aligning its goals with the global NCD movement goals or say the UN NCD goals?

Over the 5 years since we started, we have worked with over 30 partners from universities, community-based organizations, multinational organizations to governments. The partnership is a key component of our strategy and we continue to encourage and work with partners. Amongst the biggest partners, we have had Plan International, the NCD Alliance and Population Services International. Our work is very focused on achieving SDG 3.4 and we are very aligned to the global NCDs targets. This way, we are able to make meaningful contribution aimed at achieving global goals.

Could you share with us some of your success stories? 

We have received local and global recognition. Stowelink has won a few awards including winning a Hideyo Noguchi Young African Research Scholarship by The World Health  Organization. We also won Kenyan Quality Health Care Award,  Student Innovation Project of the year 2021, 254 Youth Entrepreneurship Award – Health Category 2019, Game Changers Award - Young Company of The Year Award 2019, just to mention a few. We have received recognition of our work from organizations such as the One Young World, Dalai Lama Fellowship, and Young Africa Leadership Initiative. However, our biggest success stories is in the lives changed as presented by all these awards and recognitions.

What lessons have you learnt in your work so far? Unexpected insights are particularly welcome

The biggest lesson I have leant in my work as the founder and CEO of Stowelink is that you just have to start and be consistent. The goal needs to be bigger than the challenges and the discipline to keep going has to be bigger than the hard times. People and teams are important. People working with you, on a project, need the freedom to be creative and innovative. In healthcare and, probably, all other fields, innovation will be key to achieving the next level of impact. Therefore, keep learning, manage people well, keep innovating and stay consistent, because people’s lives depend on it.

What have you learnt from the communities and representational groups you work within promoting healthier lifestyles? 

What I have learnt is that people are important and working with them needs you to really understand their needs and developing programmes that solve their needs is key. When creating a solution that is meant for people, you need to listen to them and work with them to develop solutions that will work for them.

Which suggestions/advice would you give to individual initiatives or programs that aim to focus on the preventive part of fighting NCDs such as physical activity promotion or healthier diet programs, among others?

Learn as much as you can about the topic. Identify a problem or a challenge, the people affected, and work with them as you develop innovative solutions and leverage on partnerships and being consistent.

Where can the EAF community stay abreast of your work?

You can follow our work at www.Stowelink.com 

Download the NCDs 365 app here https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?Id=com.NCDchampions.NCDs365 

and follow me on my personal website on www.ogwenostephen.com 

Thank you, Stephen, for sharing Stowelink's experiences with us.

Aimable Uwimana, BA, MSc is a non - communicable diseases advocate and researcher, passionate about addressing the social determinants of health through capacity building, especially among vulnerable and underserved communities. Have a wonderful read of Aimable & his team's recently published study on knowledge, perception and mental health impact of COVID-19 amongst students in Rwanda. 

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