Leaders, Makers and Risk-Takers: Celebrating the Shapers of Everyday History

By Etiti Akhame-Ayeni, Digital Marketing Consultant, PSI

Black History Month is often compacted into a handful of memorable moments and events highlighting African Americans in the U.S. But the importance of recognizing black history goes beyond a month. It’s about people who have paved the way, taken risks and used their creativity to impact people’s lives for good every day. Looking beyond the individuals who are typically highlighted during black history month, we’ve made an effort to honor these people – African, African American and beyond – and their contributions to this expansive and growing global history.

Although this is just the tip of the iceberg, take a look at an eclectic set of current leaders, makers and risk-takers whose innovation, ingenuity and courage are creating greater opportunities for people worldwide to lead better, healthier and more equitable lives. 


An Archbishop to Lead an AIDS Free Generation

Desmond Tutu

As the very first black archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Mpilo Tutu was a leading spokesperson for the rights of black South Africans and played a heavy role in helping begin heal the wounds of apartheid. In 2007, he joined The Elders which is a commission of statesmen from around the world that aim to promote human rights and solve pressing global issues. A strong advocate in the fight against HIV/AIDS, Tutu has impressed upon the leadership of a wide variety of nations and institutions to harness better resources and greater funding to realize an AIDS-free generation. Tutu has supported the U.S. government’s “Blueprint for an AIDS-Free Generation” and has underscored the significance of early HIV testing, the scale-up of HIV treatment and care for people at risk for and living with HIV. Tutu is a tireless campaigner and is reputed worldwide for garnering attention to help end the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Revolutionizer of Funding for AIDS, TB and Malaria

kofi annan

Kofi Annan was the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, preceding current Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon, and serves on The Elders alongside Desmond Tutu and other respected world influencers. During his tenure as Secretary-General, he established the Global Fund, a principal mechanism to raise, manage and invest government funding to combat three of the deadliest diseases plaguing the world today – AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. “When I first mooted the idea of the Global Fund, people said I was dreaming….I love dreams. It always starts with a dream.” Fourteen years after its inception, the Global Fund has nearly 475 active grants in over 100 countries.

A Champion of Girls’ Education

Michelle Obama

To address gender-based inequality and violence, First Lady Michelle Obama is working with the Peace Corps and USAID on a new effort to open the doors of education and development for girls and young women around the world. Kicked-off on March 3, 2015, Let Girls Learn aims to help adolescent girls make it through secondary school and beyond. By increasing funding for community-based projects like building adequate school bathrooms so a girl doesn’t have to skip school during her period, this initiative will reduce barriers that prevent adolescent girls from completing their education. But beyond investments, the First Lady seeks to address the underlying roots of the girls’ education crisis. She says “we cannot address our girls’ education crisis until we address the broader cultural beliefs and practices that can help cause and perpetuate this crisis.” To that end, she has visited schools in countries like Jordan and Qatar to learn what is needed to bring about cultural shifts that will not only increase countries’ investments in girls’ education but ensure greater cultural and political progress for women and girls worldwide.


Three Maternal Mobile App Inventors


Uganda has been hailed as the most entrepreneurial nation in the world, having landed the top spot on Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s 2015 analysis of the world’s most entrepreneurial countries. Thanks to technology, Uganda’s young social entrepreneurs are finding ways to curb the country’s high rate of infant and maternal mortality. Before even graduating college, three inventers, Joshua Okello, Aaron Tushabe and Josiah Kavuma, created WinSenga, a hand-held device and ultra-sound app for smartphones. Birth attendants can use the app to detect how old the fetus is, whether it is underweight, its position and breathing pattern, information which is vital for the health of the mother and baby. The technology of the device is based on the pinard, a traditional device midwives use to monitor the fetus. The creators aim to provide an alternative ultra-sound option to low income maternal health clinics that are unable to afford standard ultrasound machines. According to Aaron Tushabe, “When you go to our hospitals, you find the midwife using the traditional pinard to listen to the baby’s heartbeat. But they might not always hear anything or get enough details about the baby. We thought we could aid doctors to give the best services”.

A Crowdfunding Toilet Designer

Jasmine Burton

Each day, youth are finding innovative ways to combat injustice. One youth, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, a product designer and PSI Global Health Corps Fellow, is unlocking the door to rural sanitation with an inexpensive mobile sit-squat toilet called the Safichoo. Jasmine Burton is working with SFH Zambia, PSI’s network member, to improve water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure in the country and beyond with the creation of her social startup, Wish for WASH. When she learned that nearly half of the world lacks access to a toilet, the majority being women and girls, Jasmine was spurred to create a sustainable product “that is intended to bring innovation to sanitation through culturally-specific research, design and education”. The product has undergone piloting in a Kenyan refugee camp and is currently being manufactured as a production prototype in Atlanta, GA. To date, Jasmine and her Wish for Wash team have spent grueling hours to crowdsource funding for the further testing of the product. They triumphed in 2016 when successfully hitting their $25,000 fundraising goal. With the crowd-funding, Jasmine hopes to begin selling the toilet to U.S. based customers and to NGOs in 2017.


An Unsung Ebola Hero

Mohamed Soumah

In July 2015, results from an interim analysis of the Guinea Phase III efficacy vaccine trial showed that the experimental vaccine VSV-EBOV was highly effective against the Ebola virus. Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization applauded the Guinean Government and “the people living in the communities and our partners in this project. An effective vaccine will be another very important tool for both current and future Ebola outbreaks.” Since the start of the trial, communication efforts led by community facilitators were crucial to recruiting consenting, fully informed volunteers to undergo the initial trial vaccinations.  At the time, the potential harm the vaccine might cause was uncertain. Like with many vaccinations, the human immune system requires a few days to mount protection against the disease after an individual becomes vaccinated.

Despite the uncertainties, 27 year-old Mohamed Soumah stepped up to become the first person to receive the Ebola vaccine and, without a doubt, contributed to the success of the vaccine trial in Guinea. “It wasn’t easy. People in the village said that the injection was to kill me. I was afraid. I was the first one to be injected, the very first, here in my village on 23 March 2015. I’ve been monitored for 3 months and I’ve had no problems. The last follow-up, 84 days after the vaccination, was all clear.”

A Women’s Rights Campaigner


jaha dukereh

The topic of female genital mutilation in America may be shrouded in fear and silence but a Gambia-born, U.S. citizen is helping bring the issue into the light and in front of policy makers. Twenty-five year old Jaha Durkereh is facing the issue head on to help end the practice that, in many cases, causes life-long pain for victims. Having undergone FGM as a week old baby and being sent to New York for an arranged marriage at the age of 15, Dukereh’s experiences underscore the immediate need to put the rights of women and girls at the center-stage.  Durkereh has spoken before the U.S. Congress, the United Nations and communities throughout the U.S. as well as her home country The Gambia, where according to UNICEF, 76% of women and girls have undergone FGM and 82% of that number think the practice should continue. However, her campaign has not been easy. After speaking publicly for the first time, she received harassing calls claiming that she wanted to “get people locked up, break up families”. But she is not afraid. “They are not going to make me stop,” she says. “The safety of our daughters is more important than that.” She has started a foundation called Safe Hands for Girls and is rallying for better data on FGM in the United States , a first step in showcasing the real threat FGM poses for American girls.

A Local Turned Global Girls’ Health Advocate

Sarah Hillware

A program initially created for low- and middle-income girls in the United States is being adapted to meet the needs of diverse girls and young women throughout the US and internationally. Sarah Hillware, a social entrepreneur, launcher and growth strategist, is the founder of Girls Health Ed, a program finding culturally contextualized ways to empower adolescent girls and address issues related to their  nutrition, body image and self-esteem, hygiene, and reproductive health. Originated in early 2012, the program has roots in the DC metro area, New York City and Los Angeles. However, getting the project off the ground was no easy feat. Sarah says, “The greatest risk was launching a pilot without funding. However, we knew that in order to have an effective and scalable program, we needed to test our concept first.” So Sarah and the founding board members invested their own money to conduct workshops locally until they had the data to prove that their program was effective. Taking this risk has allowed Sarah and her team to serve 1000 girls and expand the program to Kenya.

Inspired by the individuals we highlighted? Here’s a list of 10 global health leaders that prove #28DaysAreNotEnough.