How a Public Health Professional made her way to The Athena Advisors’ Racing Upwards fellowship


APRIL 2022

Emma Orefuwa, 2022 Racing Upwards Fellow, talks us through what brought her to the fellowship and what she hopes to gain from her time with The Athena Advisors.

My career journey has taken me on many meandering paths over the years, with the majority of my roles being tangential. Looking back, what I have been grateful for is the confluence of serendipitous events and encounters with inspirational people: these have steered me onto a course of giving back and reconnected me to my continent of heritage.

Science and doing something good

Contrary to my teachers’ predictions, I performed well in school and ended up in the top 10% of students in my year, with a nice haul of A*s and A’s at GCSE level. I picked a science subject for my undergraduate degree, and, immediately after that, pursued a Master’s in the Biology & Control of Disease Vectors at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). This course appealed to me because it utilised science within a public health context, building the evidence base to prevent the transmission of infectious diseases in developing countries, where the burden is highest. Before I was accepted at LSHTM, I had a vivid dream of being accepted onto the course, so when the acceptance letter landed on my doormat, I was elated yet expectant and felt that the premonition was a sign of where I was meant to be. In the final year of my Master’s, my supervisor, Professor Chris Curtis, conceptualised a project about the mosquito carriers of the disfiguring, neglected tropical disease, lymphatic filariasis, in Nigeria, my paternal country of heritage. Like many second-generation African diaspora who have grown up in the west, I had absorbed the negative narrative about the continent, and had little interest experiencing Nigeria outside of the typical diaspora sojourn to visit relatives. Despite my requests to experience ‘the field’ in Brazil, I ended up in Nigeria. I worked with the Nigerian Ministry of Health, The Carter Center (a US based international NGO), local implementers and the community, in a region of the country that tantalised me with its beauty and cultural diversity.

A series of turnkey events

During my time performing field collections and breeding mosquitoes in a lab in Jos, Nigeria, I had the enriching experience of working with many talented, dedicated local researchers and was embraced by welcoming villagers. I also witnessed unnecessary suffering due to poverty and lack of access to healthcare and treatment. This grounding experience was compounded by the outbreak of civil unrest. My travels introduced me to scores of displaced people, all with disturbing tales to tell. I had witnessed the life changing impact that low tech solutions could have on peoples’ lives, but also grew to understand that there were many factors affecting access and uptake of these interventions. What was the point of having knowledge if it couldn’t be translated into policy and practice? What use were life-saving commodities without adequate distribution pathways? The quest to answer these questions has influenced the roles I have had since that first independent, immersive experience in Nigeria back in 2002.

The simplest ideas can be transformational

Some time later, in 2009, whilst doing a placement in Italy, I had an encounter with my first bonafide African Professor of medical entomology – Charles Mbogo. Charles attended the 5th European Mosquito Control Workshop as a keynote speaker. He had the lofty task of presenting a situational analysis of malaria control practices across Africa. Pleased to see an African expert, I gravitated towards Charles and we immediately connected. The creation of the Pan-African Mosquito Control Association (PAMCA) was our effort to create a platform for Africans to spearhead the development of solutions to their own vector-borne disease challenges. After all, it’s those closest to the problem who are best equipped to determine the most appropriate solutions, both for themselves and their communities. Subsequently, I was fortunate to receive a scholarship to pursue a Master’s degree in Public Health at Kings’ College, London which gave me a grounding in the determinants of health. The missing pieces of the jigsaw were beginning to appear. In subsequent years, I took on various roles in the NHS before I made the switch to the nonprofit sector, a place I could connect with Africa again, professionally.

Talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not

For great ideas to materialise, all that is needed is to bring committed, like-minded and passionate people together in a shared space and apply focus. I have been privileged to be part of some catalytic interactions which have gone on to be transformative in the realm of global health and education in Africa. There is no shortage of bright minds in Africa and among her people scattered around the globe. There is, however, insufficient access to the resources we have in the Northern Hemisphere. This inequity creates an asymmetry, where those least qualified to address African issues take the lead in decision making. The ability to mobilise resources and self-organise is critical to the success of any development initiative.

Through the Racing Upwards fellowship, I look forward to expanding my nonprofit network, increasing my fundraising skills and cascading the knowledge I gain to others, so that they too can seize opportunities that aid in the betterment of Africa.