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We Will Be Part Of Africa’s History; This Is Our Legacy-Senator Rasha Kelej on the Merck Foundation Africa Nexus.

May 20, 2021

By Ajong Mbapndah L

Relentless efforts from Senator Dr Kelej and the Merck Foundation to network with African First Ladies to address diverse health issues are yielding dividends

We envision working closely with our partners that are African First Ladies, Ministries of Health, Education, Information & Communication, Gender, Academia, Research Institutions, Media and Art in building and transforming healthcare capacity, and addressing health, social & economic challenges in our beautiful continent, says Senator Dr Rasha Kelej, CEO of Merck Foundation.

Buoyed by the robust nature of the partnership and the success of the recent Africa -Asia Luminary which held virtually for the first time, Senator Dr Kelej says, the Merck foundation is committed to making history with the transformation of the public healthcare sector in Africa. In sight are training of an army of thousands of well-trained specialized Doctors who will save millions of lives in the continent.

This is my commitment as long as I live, and this is our Merck Foundation vision, says Senator Dr Kelej in an exclusive interview with PAV to review the recent 8th edition of the Africa -Asia Luminary, the depth of Merck Foundation partnerships and operations across Africa and other major projects in the pipeline.

Senator Dr Rasha Kelej what are your impressions after the 8th edition of the Merck Foundation Africa Asia Luminary?

Senator Dr Kelej: Very very proud of our success. Our annual conference for the first time online due to coronavirus pandemic, however it was even more successful than actual conferences. Everyone was extremely engaged and committed. And of course, we had livestream with 100,000 attendees and more from 70 countries, we have more than 300, 000 viewers on our social media channels. The conference as you know was in partnership with the Government of Zambia. And was inaugurated by the President of the Republic of Zambia, H.E. Dr. EDGAR CHAGWA LUNGU and Prof. Dr. Frank Stangenberg-Haverkamp Chairman of both of Executive Board of E. Merck KG and Merck Foundation Board of Trustees; and co-chaired by H.E. Mrs. ESTHER LUNGU, The First Lady of the Republic of Zambia and myself. It is a great honor.

I am very proud to share that 13 African First Ladies participated as guests of honor. The First Ladies of Angola, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Guinea Conakry, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, and Namibia, who are also the Ambassadors of Merck Foundation More Than a Mother.

Over 26 African Ministers of different sectors also joined us on the second day, during the high-level ministry’s panel with African Union. Together, we discussed our strategy to define interventions to break infertility stigma and support girl education; and to build healthcare and research capacity and establish a strong platform of specialized trained medical experts in many critical and underserved fields to be the first in their countries. I am very proud that we have so far provided for more than 1100 Doctors from 42 countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America with one & two-, three-year specialty training in multiple fields such as Oncology, Diabetes, Preventative Cardiovascular Medicine, Endocrinology, Sexual and Reproductive Medicine, Acute Medicine, Respiratory Medicine, Human Assisted Reproduction and Embryology & Fertility specialty, to be the first in their countries. Moreover, we have now widened our horizons by introducing more scholarships for young doctors in many new underserved specialties across Africa and Asia.

The reach and impact of our 8th edition conference has been great. Even Better than previous editions.  

On Day 2 of the conference, MARS- Merck Foundation Africa Research Summit was held where a High-Level Panel Discussion with 26 African Ministers of Health, Science and Technology, Education, Information and Gender and MARS Researchers was held with the objective to empower African young researchers & women researchers, advancing their research capacity and empower them in STEM. Parallel to this we had other three scientific sessions of diabetes, cardiology, oncology.

The High-level Ministerial panel included:

1) Hon. Dr. Jonas Kamima CHANDA, Minister of Health, Zambia

2) Hon. Dr. Dennis WANCHINGA, Minister of General Education, Zambia

3) Hon. Dr. Brian MUSHIMBA, Minister of Higher Education, Zambia

4) Hon. Elizabeth PHIRI, Minister of Gender, Zambia

5) Hon. Dora SILIYA, Minister of Information & Broadcasting Service, Zambia

6) Hon. Silvia Paula Lutucuta, Minister of Health, Angola

7) Hon. Dr. NDIKUMANA Thadée, Minister of Public Health & Fighting against AIDS, Burundi

8) Hon. Dr. François HAVYARIMANA, Ministre de L’Education Nationale et de la Recherche Scientifique, Burundi

9) Hon. Imelde SABUSHIMIKE, Ministre de la Solidarité Nationale, des Affaires Sociales, des Droits de la Personne Humaine et du Genre, Burundi

10) Hon. Marie Chantal NIJIMBERE, Ministre de la Communication, des Technologies de L’Information et des Médias, Republic of Burundi

11) Hon. Jacquiline Lydia Mikolo, Minister of Health & Population, Republic of the Congo

12) Hon. Dr. Ahmadou Lamin Samateh, Minister of Health, The Gambia

13) Hon. Ebrima SILLAH, Minister of Information, The Gambia

14) Hon. Colonel Remy Lama, Minister of Health, Guinea Conakry

15) Hon. Pr. Amadou Bano Barry, Minister of Education, Guinea Conakry

16) Hon. Amara Sompare, Minister of Information & Communication, Guinea Conkary

17) Hon. Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda, Minister of Health & Population, Malawi

18) Hon. Dr. Patricia Kaliati, Minister Of Gender, Community Development & Social Welfare, Republic of Malawi

19) Hon. Agnes Nyalonje, Minister Of Education, Malawi

20) Hon. Ulemu Msungama, Minister Of Youth & Sports, Malawi

21) Hon. Timoth Pagonachi Mtambo, Minister Of Civic Education & National Unity, Malawi

22) Hon. Dr. Kalumbi Shangula, Minister of Health & Social Services, Namibia

23) Hon. Dr. Joyce Moriku Kaducu, State Minister for Health, Uganda

24) Hon. Monica Mutsvangwa, Minister of Information & Broadcasting Publicity, Zimbabwe

25) Hon. Sthembiso Nyoni, Minster of Women Affairs Small & Medium Enterprises, Zimbabwe

26) Hon. Amon Murwira, Minister of Higher & Tertiary Education, Zimbabwe

On the third day, Merck Foundation Health Media Training was organized for the African and Latin American Media fraternity to emphasize the important role that media plays to break the stigma around infertility, in raising awareness about infertility prevention, and empowering girls and women through education. Parallel to this we had Infertility and reproductive care scientific session and respiratory and acute medicines for Covid 19 response session.

From (Left to Right) H. E. Rebecca Naa Okaikor Akufo-Addo, First Lady of Ghana, H. E Brigitte Touadera, Frist Lady of the Central Africa Republic, H. E Neo Jane Masisi, First Lady of Botswana, H. E Aissata Issoufou Mahamadou, First Lady of Niger with Senetor Dr Rasha Kelej at the Merck Foundation Africa Asia Luminary in 2018, at Dakar, Senegal.

 How will you define the state of the partnership you have established with African first ladies over the years, what is working well, and what needs to be improved upon?

Senator Dr Kelej: I am proud to have partnered with 20 African First Ladies, who are now the Ambassadors of “Merck Foundation More than a Mother” Campaign. It is an extremely successful partnership; we have achieved a lot together at all levels. Through this partnership, we continue to build healthcare capacity in their countries and empower infertile women and break the stigma around infertility and support girls’ education. Together, we have introduced many initiatives in their respective countries. This certainly speaks volumes about the work we are doing.

With the unprecedented times of COVID-19, I cannot travel and meet the First Ladies of other countries we wish to partner with. I hope the world is free of Coronavirus and the lockdown is lifted soon. However, I have been able to meet the new First Ladies to invite them to be new members of Merck Foundation First Ladies Initiate - MFFLI. And they have gracefully accepted to be our Ambassadors such as New First Lady of Burundi, Malawi and DR Congo.

I have also established a new important partnership with Burkina Faso First Lady in 2020.

Here is the list of our partner African First Ladies, who are also the Ambassadors of Merck Foundation, More Than a Mother:

H.E. NEO JANE MASISI, The First Lady of Botswana

H.E. SIKA KABORE, The First Lady of Burkina Faso

H.E. ANGELINE NDAYISHIMIYE, The First Lady of Burundi         

H.E. BRIGITTE TOUADERA, The First Lady of Central African Republic

H.E. ANTOINETTE SASSOU-NGUESSO, The First Lady of Congo Brazzaville      

H.E. DENISE NYAKERU TSHISEKEDI, The First Lady of Democratic Republic of Congo

H.E. FATOUMATTA BAH-BARROW, The First Lady of The Gambia          

H.E. REBECCA AKUFO-ADDO, The First Lady of Ghana

H.E. CONDÉ DJENE, The First Lady of Guinea Conakry

H.E. CLAR WEAH, The First Lady of Liberia

H.E. MONICA CHAKWERA, The First Lady of Malawi

H.E. MONICA GEINGOS, The First Lady of Namibia

H.E. ISAURA FERRÃO NYUSI, The First Lady of Mozambique

H.E. AISHA BUHARI, The First Lady of Nigeria          

H.E FATIMA MAADA BIO, The First Lady of Sierra Leone

H.E. ESTHER LUNGU, The First Lady of Zambia

H.E. AUXILLIA MNANGAGWA, The First Lady of Zimbabwe

The Former First Lady of Burundi, H.E DENISE NKURUNZIZA, The Former First Lady of Chad, H.E. HINDA DÉBY ITNO, The Former First Lady of Malawi, H.E. PROFESSOR GERTRUDE MUTHARIKA and The Former First Lady of Niger, H.E AÏSSATA ISSOUFOU MAHAMADOU have worked successfully with Merck Foundation as Merck Foundation More Than a Mother Ambassadors to break the stigma of infertility and empower infertile women in their countries.

Dr. Rasha Kelej, CEO of Merck Foundation & President, Merck More Than a Mother with H:E President Hage Geingob and H.E. MONICA GEINGOS, The First Lady of Namibia & Ambassador of Merck More Than a Mother

About thirteen African first ladies answered present at the recent Africa-Asia luminary, what are you and the Merck Foundation doing to bring more first ladies to join your initiatives?

Senator Dr Kelej: Honest sincere long-term commitment to the social health and economic development of their country and their people, programs with concrete measurable impact and not only talk. Creativity, smart focused strategy and objectives and also flawless implementation.

Always exceed expectations, all the time we exceed their expectation actually we exceed our own expectation. Therefore, I consider Merck foundation to be the most successful Foundation because we achieve even more than our set goals and exceeds our and our partners expectation and this is how you evaluate success. I consider myself the happiest person in the world because I achieved more than my goals to be part of transforming some people’s lives, but now I am part of transforming millions of people every month. Not only this but together with our partners we transformed the healthcare sector across Africa, revolutionary transformation in few years and still more to come, it is history in the making, as long as I am alive, I will do more and more for Africa. We will create an army of specialized and trained doctors we will save lives together. I want to be one day part of Africa history this will make me proud as an African woman.

I look forward to expanding our footprints and work with more African First Ladies who will help us to realize our vision.

With the challenges from COVID 19, may we know what the Merck Foundation did to help its partner countries in Africa to fight the pandemic?

Senator Dr Kelej: We raced to respond to COVID 19 and came up with many initiatives. One of the most important initiatives which I personally believe in its importance even before Covid 19 times is to continue healthcare capacity building, which has been our strategy since 2012, in partnership with African First Ladies and Ministries of Health, much before the pandemic struck worldwide. Due to travel restrictions, we adopted the online medical speciality education strategy, through providing scholarships for speciality training to doctors in many medical specialties such as Oncology, Diabetes, Preventative Cardiovascular Medicine, Endocrinology, Sexual and Reproductive Medicine, Acute Medicine, Respiratory Medicine, Reproductive and sextual medicines. Moreover, we recently started to provide scholarships in many new underserved specialties including: Emergency and Resuscitation Medicine, Gastroenterology, Laparoscopic Surgical Skills, Mental Health: Psychological Therapies, Orthopedic Trauma Science, Paediatric, Emergency Medicine, Advanced Surgical Practice, Dermatology, Neonatal Medicine, Pain Management, Psychiatry, Clinical Microbiology and infectious diseases, Ophthalmology, Internal Medicine, Neuroimaging for research, Urology, Trauma, and orthopedics. We are very proud to invite applications from African and Asian English-speaking doctors from under-served communities for these scholarships on our mail:

We also understand the importance of creating community awareness about Coronavirus, so we launched “Mask up with Care” and “Stay at Home” Recognition Awards for Media across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And also, “Make you Own Mask” Fashion Awards for the Fashion fraternity across Africa: I strongly believe in the critical role that Media and Art play to be the voice of the voiceless and raise awareness about sensitive topics such as breaking Infertility stigma and Covid 19 health precautions.

Also, the lockdown and restricted movement to fight coronavirus had hit most casual and daily workers very hard. Therefore, we supported the African government's strategy to save the living and livelihood of 1000’s of families of casual workers and women who were affected the most by the lockdown or restricted movement. We invite applications from media personal and fashion designers to these two awards on email

Moreover, we launched an inspiring storybook ‘Make the Right Choice’ in partnership with African First Ladies to sensitize children and youth about Coronavirus. The story aimed to raise awareness about Coronavirus prevention amongst children and youth as it provided facts about the pandemic and how to stay safe and healthy during the outbreak. It also promoted honesty, hard work, and the ability to make the right choices even during the most challenging times. We released the story in three languages: English, French and Portuguese.

Also, as my personal contribution, I have produced and directed an inspiring Pan-African song called ‘My White Army’ to thank the doctors and nurses fighting on the front lines of the coronavirus battle, who are risking exposure to the virus so everyone else can stay home and stay healthy. The song, featuring singers from 11 African countries in three languages Arabic, English, and French, has been well appreciated across the continent.

Senetor Dr Rasha Kelej in a group photograph with some Frist ladies of Africa at the Merck Foundation First Lady Initiative (MFFLI) summit 2019

 With regards to the Doctors that you train for infertility specialty and reproductive & sexual health what criteria is used in selection and what feedback are you getting from their in respective countries?

Senator Dr Kelej: Merck Foundation, through its flagship program, 'Merck Foundation More Than a Mother' is providing training in Fertility specialty and Reproductive Health at our partner institutes.  The scientific committee reviews the applications based on the eligibility criteria, such as Medical graduate/Post Graduates, preferably working in the Government sector, who are recommended by our partners such as the First Ladies Office, or Ministry of Health for African countries, and from the President of respective societies. Through this program, Merck Foundation is making history in many African countries where they never had Fertility specialists or specialized Fertility clinics before ‘Merck Foundation More Than a Mother’ intervention, by training the first Fertility specialists and Embryologists such as; in Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Gambia, Niger, Chad, Guinea, Burundi and Malawi. Merck Foundation is proud to have supported the training of the staff of the first public IVF centers in Ethiopia, Myanmar and Rwanda.

Could you shed light on other initiatives that the Foundation will be working on this year, there is talk of the media awards, fashion awards and others, what is the Merck Foundation seeking to achieve with this?

Senator Dr Kelej:We announced two awards for media fraternity, Merck Foundation Africa Media Recognition Awards  “More Than a Mother” 2021 and Merck Foundation “Mask Up With Care” Media Recognition Awards 2021; two awards for fashion fraternity, Merck Foundation Fashion Awards “More Than a Mother” 2021 and Merck Foundation “Make Your Own Mask” Fashion Awards 2021; in addition to Merck Foundation Film Awards “More Than a Mother” 2021 and Merck Foundation Song Awards “More Than a Mother” 2021 during the Merck Foundation Health Media Training that was held as a part of the 8th edition of “MERCK FOUNDATION AFRICA ASIA LUMINARY”. We invite all to apply for these awards on

I strongly believe that media, art, and fashion play a significant role in raising awareness about sensitive topics like infertility, hence will contribute significantly to break the stigma around infertile women in Africa, if utilized properly. There are many infertile women out there; we witness their stories of suffering and humiliation every day, it is time to act and make a change. Through the awards under “More Than a Mother”, we would like to join hands with media, art and fashion fraternity to break the silence, be the voice of the voiceless and create a culture shift to Break Infertility Stigma, a message that must reach every door, every community, every mind, and every heart.

1. Merck Foundation More than a Mother Africa Media Recognition Awards 2021: The applications are invited by media professionals to showcase their work to raise awareness about infertility prevention and breaking infertility stigma and empower infertile women and infertile couples in our beautiful continent.

2. Merck Foundation Film Awards “More than a Mother” 2021: All African Film makers and students are invited to create and share a film drama, documentary of docudrama, short or long film to deliver strong and influential message to Break Infertility Stigma and Empowering girls and women through education at all levels. I want them to use their creativity to break the silence. Our soft power is very effective and will educate our community and make a change in short time thanks to social media and new technology of smart phones, everyone can create those own movies

3. Merck Foundation Fashion Awards “More Than a Mother” 2021: All Fashion students and designers are invited to create and share designs that deliver strong and influential messages to raise awareness about infertility prevention, Breaking Infertility Stigma and Empowering girls and women through education.

4. Merck Foundation More Than a Mother – Song Awards 2021- I welcome all African Singers and Musical Artists to create and share a song with the aim to empower Girls and Women through Education at all levels.

Given the unprecedented times and second wave of coronavirus, it is important to sensitize communities and raise awareness about following best practices like wearing a mask, following social distancing, and the importance of Vaccination. With this intention we have launched two awards:

5. "Mask Up With Care" Media Recognition Award: I’d like to encourage all media representatives across Africa, Asia and Latin America to apply for "Mask up with care" Media Recognition Award. This media recognition award will encourage media to sensitize our communities. Raising awareness about coronavirus in our communities will also contribute to supporting health workers who are at the forefront of COVID-19 response - providing high quality, respectful treatment, and care.

6. The “Make Your Own Mask” Fashion Awards invites African Fashion Designers and students to create and share designs of masks and other clothing items that carry messages to encourage people to wear masks to show they care and at the same time make it creative and fun. This is our way of encouraging people to wear masks during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Be creative vibrant and create new ideas and masks to encourage people to wear those masks and protect themselves and others in style. I personally ally, and have more than 50 different masks to match my outfits, so I do not get boredom’s have sone fun.

 Having experimented with virtual events this year, is there hope that when COVID subsides, the 9th edition of Merck Foundation Africa Asia Luminary will be in person?

Senator Dr Kelej: I hope so. However, I feel the 9th edition will still be online, the 10th edition hopefully will be in person although I might apply hybrid method. Online and in person to benefit more and more participants since now we have a great platform, and it will be very difficult to fit all of them on one place specially post Covid.

8.Dr Kelej is now Senator Kelej, what does the new job add to your leadership of the Merck Foundation and how are you able to balance your work and personal life?

I was appointed by The President of The Arab Republic of Egypt in October 2020 as a Senator at The Egyptian Senate. I am currently a member of the Egyptian Senate (2020 - 2025) and serving an important role to advise with regards to African Health, Economic and Social Sustainable Development and collaboration opportunities. Because of the nature of the senate appointment and the rye of experience required, it will add more value if most of my time is spent as the CEO of Merck Foundation and running the programs in Africa. This will create better opportunity to explore new collaboration opportunities to realize better development objectives across Africa which Egypt is part of.

I believe in this concept of Work-Life fusion. I have fused my work life with my personal life to achieve balance. This is very easy to achieve; when you have passion for your work and when you work in healthy environment like Merck Foundation.

Senator Kelej and the Merck Foundation also engage artists to send across poignant messages

 Going forward, how do you envisage the future of the partnership between Merck Foundation and Africa?

Senator Dr Kelej: We envision working closely with our partners that are African First Ladies, Ministries of Health, Education, Information & Communication, Gender, Academia, Research Institutions, Media and Art in building and transforming healthcare capacity, and addressing health, social & economic challenges in our beautiful continent. We will together make history and transform public Healthcare sector like never happened before.  We will be building a strong army of 1000’s of well-trained specialized doctors who will save millions of lives every month.

This is my commitment as long as I live, and this is our Merck Foundation vision.

We will be part of Africa’s history; this is our legacy.

*Courtesy of May Issue of PAV Magazine

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