Epidemiologist Chikwe Ihekweazu was in the inaugural TED Fellows class of TEDGlobal 2007 in Tanzania. Living in the UK at the time, writing articles on public health issues in his native Nigeria, Chikwe was profoundly affected by his TED experience. Now running an influential Nigerian public health blog, an alumni program for his alma mater, and TEDxEuston, Chikwe and his family are moving back to Africa, bringing a new sense of possibility with them.
What has the TED Fellowship meant to you?
My wife says my life is divided into pre-TED and post-TED. The biggest thing I got from my engagement with TED was how it opened me up to the wider world, the potential to be able, and the confidence in being able, to change that world. I think prior to attending TED in 2007, I was very much focused on my career and what I could do through my career directly. I think what has happened since then, is realizing the amazing amount of influence we can all have beyond our narrow professional fields. The conference changed our mindset completely and opened our minds up to the possibility that we could all have great potential in us.
The press on Africa is heavily weighted in favor of negative stories. The effect that has on us is that we grow up with very few positive role models in our context to relate to. And our children grow up without that context, too. So suddenly TED is in Tanzania, and brings together this amazing bunch of Africans, that are doing all these great things that many people have never heard about. And you suddenly realize, “Wow! These people have been around here all this time!” They just don’t get shown on the TV stations you have access to.
In Europe, there’s lots of opportunity for creative expression. I think in Africa we’re still struggling to solve the basics. Our political discourse is still very much about how we can provide electricity, good roads, water, and stuff like that. So the opportunity to discuss big ideas doesn’t come as often. I think TED Global 2007 was a watershed conference, and had a significant impact on a large number of people.
Which talks were most inspiring to you at TEDAfrica?
One was by Patrick Awuah, who later became a TED Fellow in 2009. This is a guy like any of us in the so called “Diaspora,” and that’s what it is great, I think. We could relate to his story as similar to many of our stories. He had lived in the States for years, he was working at Microsoft, had risen very high in the company, and was earning a comfortable salary.
At some point he got to the stage I am at now, and thought, “OK, how can I put this to use beyond myself?” He’s Ghanaian, so he went back to visit Ghana. He looked around, and felt there was a big problem in leadership, ethics and good governance. He came back to the US, resigned from his job, raised funds from his friends and his network, and went back to Ghana to set up the first liberal arts university in Ghana.
Everyone thought he was crazy. The idea wouldn’t fly, they said, Africans don’t care about the liberal arts, they said. The university he founded, called Ashesi University, is currently one of the most well-respected universities in Western Africa.
His talk was in the last session of TED that year. Looking around the room, you literally saw people with tears rolling down their cheeks. That was how powerful the talk was that day. And he wasn’t a well-known guy, he wasn’t a celebrity, he wasn’t a politician, he was just an ordinary guy. Like any of us, looking for fulfillment in life. So I think that was really how that experience changed our lives. It exposed us to the possibilities that existed, and enabled us to have the confidence to explore those opportunities further than I think we ever would have, without attending TED.
What are some of the concrete changes that have happened in your life because of the conference?
Ory Okolloh’s talk really brought a lot to life. She spoke about a blog she’d started in Kenya. Ory and other bloggers would go to parliament every day in Nairobi, literally listen and take notes on what their Parliament said, and would put all that online on her blog called Mzalendo. That was the first time the Kenyan population actually began to understand what the parliamentarians were doing. Prior to that, it was not reported in that detail. So by doing that, they were better able to hold their parliament to account for the first time. Ory also made a call for all of us Africans attending TED to return home. She said the continent needs us.
With Ike Anya, my friend and colleague with whom I discovered TED, we finished our first post TED-day and thought, “OK, we’re both Africans, but we both live in Europe at the moment. What can we do right now?” So we started this blog on health issues in Nigeria. Surprisingly, that blog has grown to be almost the most significant source of both information and critical review of health policy in Nigeria. Nigeria Health Watch is thriving, growing and very well respected. A lot of things have come out of it.
What’s the most surprising thing that’s come of Nigeria Health Watch?
I mean, I could quote you the subscription numbers and hits per day, but probably that’s not too interesting. Perhaps the most interesting thing was one day, we’d written a particularly critical piece on the former Minister of Health in Nigeria. We wrote a critique of the country’s response to an emerging swine flu epidemic, and stated why we thought it wasn’t adequate to control both the spread of the infection and the management of related public anxiety.
The next day we got an email from the Nigerian Minister of Health’s personal secretary, saying the minister had read our blog, and was interested in meeting with us, as he was passing through London the next week on his way to a meeting in Geneva.
We met with him in a central London restaurant, and were able to put our points of view across to him. From then on, we started a dialogue with him, and he said he appreciated the constructive criticism. He also asked that we, when possible, direct critiques to him personally. I think the point he made to us was that even in societies that appear a bit closed from the outside, politicians care what you write about them. They will listen if they think that there’s an opportunity to engage positively. So that’s one example of the effect the blog has had.
The other bit that I think is also important, and I think maybe just as interesting, is that people write us very passionate emails back. Saying, “We love what you are doing. We wish we could say it as eloquently as you have,” and statements like that. We quickly realized that in Nigeria, this country of 140 million people, there’s no professional media outlet on health issues. It was a space in the market that we stumbled on by chance. And now we’re trying to see what we can make of it.
And what about Ory Okolloh’s call to move back to Africa?
My wife, our children, and I visit very often. We are actually moving back really soon. We are not yet moving back to Nigeria: we will be moving to South Africa in the next month. My wife and children are even more excited than I am about the move. We went for one week to look around, are thrilled about the opportunities this move will offer us.
It’s funny, we weren’t actually looking at South Africa, but I was made an offer in Johannesburg that I couldn’t say no to. We hope that there will still be an opportunity to move back to Nigeria at some point in the future. But the world is a much smaller place than it was a few years ago and geography does not matter as much as it once did.
I’ll be working for the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, a government agency doing similar work to what I’m doing here, working across Southern Africa.
I think it’s a very exciting time for Nigerians. I know there are a lot of negative reports in the press. But I think the one thing happening in Nigeria, and all over the continent, is the emerging power of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and mobile phones. A lot more of the population is engaging with the country and feeling connected in ways we never felt connected before.
Most of your time now in the UK is spent as an epidemiologist.
Yes, that’s my day job. I work for the Health Protection Agency in the UK, which in the States would be the equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control. My job involves managing the surveillance of infectious diseases as well as investigating and managing outbreaks. Many of them are local and while important, do not really make the headlines. . But once in a while, we have big ones like H1N1 last year that kept us all very busy and reduced the need to continuously explain what I did for a living.
In addition to that, I’ve worked for WHO all over the continent supporting the management of a range of diseases from an Ebola outbreak in south Sudan, to measles in Nigeria, and polio in Lesotho, Swaziland … so quite a bit of work.
How do your investigations in the UK compare to those in Africa?
The principle of the work we do is the same – to limit the spread of infectious diseases in populations. The different prevalence of diseases in the UK vs in Africa makes the priority diseases different. Here in the UK a lot of our work involves food-bourne diseases. Our role is to quickly identify the cases, estimate who else may be potentially affected, and then control spread. Our goals are always to limit the size of the outbreak as best as we can, prevent further spread, and then try to understand what caused the outbreak in the first place.
Now, the difference in working in the West and working in Africa, is firstly the different priority diseases. Measles, HIV, Tuberculosis and Malaria are of much more importance on the continent, The other major difference is the accessibility of electronic records. If people got infected from anything after going to a farm, or hospital, or restaurant, you have some of the information on the people that might have attended that specific facility.
When there’s an outbreak in many parts of Africa, electronic information is a lot more difficult to get (if any). Sometimes you have to go door to door, family to family, to ask if there’s anyone ill in this family. If they are ill, you ask what are the symptoms, and then you have to investigate the circumstances. So that’s a big difference: access to information management systems.
Tell us about your background.
I was born into two different cultures. My father is from Southeast Nigeria, my mother was German. They met during protests of the Biafra war. I grew up loving both cultures. I was born in Germany and moved back to Nigeria when I was 5, and I received a very good education there. We came on holidays to Germany every year. So we had very strong family ties in Germany, very strong ties in Nigeria.
But these are hugely different cultures. Living in Nigeria, for instance, we always had an open home with family members; cousins, uncles, aunts, come whenever they like to the house, sleep over … you know, it was normal!. While we were at home in Nigeria, we would have dinner and sit and eat without many rules or any fuss over most things.
In Germany things are different. You love your family just as much, but things are slightly different. I had a very loving but strict grandma. In Germany you’d eat with your grandmom and had to use your fork and knife, with very strict table manners.
So, as a child I was extremely conscious of being “different”, which can be quite tough. But with time, I came to realise the huge benefit of having access to these two societies and draw influences from both.
I had a beautiful childhood in a small lovely University town called Nsukka. We had a real community that shared its responsibility of bringing up its children. I owe the strength of my values largely to this community.
You’ve mentioned your education in Nigeria. Was it gratitude for this that inspired the alumni project at your high school?
Yes, I feel indebted for the relatively good public school education I received there. The alumni project is called Federal Government College Enugu (FGCE) Project Hope. I went back to the school with a former classmate. And we were really ashamed of the circumstances of the school. What really drove us to start helping was that we did not feel we could even bring our kids to show them the school. At that point, none of us felt comfortable even to bring our children to the school and say, “Look, this is the school your dad went to.” This was not a situation we could live with; our children are huge drivers of what we do.
Unfortunately, the FGCE had degraded significantly since we attended in the 1980s. Many of us wanted to help, but we never really had a good structure. So we came together and said, “Listen, we all feel indebted to this school. We can do a lot individually, but we should organize ourselves proactively.” To really build those structures around ourselves, we decided to committ an amount annually, allocating the funds to three areas of endeavor: supporting teachers, motivating students, and renovating classrooms.
There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.
That’s an interesting question because I’m just at the point of trying to realize our dreams. The Nigeria Health Watch blog, FGCE Project Hope, TEDxEuston … we do it alongside what we do to earn a living. We’re just at the point of thinking now, “How can we actually earn a living by doing what we really want to do?” That’s a huge, huge challenge, especially if you’re in a field or profession that you like and pays relatively well, and you’re comfortable. I don’t think I’m in a position to give very good advice, because I’m in the process of finding that myself..
However, to offer a small piece of advice I give myself all the time. I think you’ve got a small window in a life time , when you have the most energy, exposure, experience and competence. So there’s not really that much time. The earlier you do start with something you really like doing, the better.
You mentioned that one of the things you love to do is organize the TEDxEuston event. Tell us about that.
TEDAfrica 2007 got me so excited that I actually found some money and managed to attend TEDGlobal 2009 in Oxford. We asked Chris Anderson and Emeka Okafor if we could do another TEDGlobal in Africa. They explained that TED can’t keep expanding too much, but the TEDx community was really beginning to grow at that point. They kind of challenged me: “Why don’t you do a TEDxLagos?”
At that time we were in the UK, and Emeka suggested, “What about doing something focused on Africa but in London, because of the big African community?” And I said, “Wow, good idea.”
So the idea basically came together at TED Global. Ike Anya and I put the first TEDxEuston together three years ago. Then, together with a great enlarged team of 10 incredibly driven and multi talented Africans we put the second one together last year, and they have all been incredibly successful, with remarkable speakers. There is a presidential election going on now in Nigeria, and there are seven candidates for the seven parties. Two of the present presidential candidates in Nigeria spoke at the two previous TEDxEuston events (one of them, Nuhu Ribadu who is also a TED Fellow). And that’s just one example.
We realized again the power of the old TED idea. We realized the amount of influence we could potentially have, and we do have now. The events highlight the drivers for going back home: it’s not just for the traditional, emotional connection to the country. It’s feeling confident with the stage we are at in our lives, our ability to use what we now have, to influence society in a much bigger way than I ever thought would have been possible three or four years ago.
One of your other passions is soccer. The big question is, will you stay an Arsenal fan when you move back to Nigeria?
[Laughs] That’s a good question. I’m laughing because while we’re talking on the phone here, I’m actually sitting in front of a big screen with an Arsenal game going on right now. Arsenal has a huge following in Nigeria already. All over Africa, really. So I think it’s too late to change your love for a particular team. I have a season ticket, I go to every game I possibly can. I’ll miss going for live games, but I’ll catch it on TV whenever I can.