Meet Amref Health Africa’s new CEO: Dr. Githinji Gitahi

(Photo: Amref Health Africa)


What keeps me going is touching and changing people’s lives.” 


July 2, 2015  Dr. Githinji Gitahi officially joined Amref Health Africa on June 1 of this year. Until his appointment as CEO, Dr. Gitahi was the Vice President and Regional Director for Africa, Smile Train International, where he successfully established partnerships for long-term sustainability with various African governments. Prior to that, Dr. Gitahi was General Manager, Marketing and Sales at Nation Media Group, the largest media group in East and Central Africa. He has also worked with GlaxoSmithKline in progressively senior positions and began his career as a medical doctor practicing in Obstetrics and Gynaecology. Dr. Gitahi also holds a Masters in Business Administration with a Major in Marketing. He is married with six children.


Why Amref Health Africa?

Because I am African and passionate about Africa. I was born here, educated here, worked all over the world but for Africa.


Amref Health Africa is a very attractive organization, especially its vision of lasting health change. Everyone is looking at sustainability and social change. We cannot achieve lasting health change by only administering donor funds but by working with our donors and partners to create skills and livelihoods; we need innovative programmes that cause social change in healthcare. How then do we go about innovating new products in healthcare that change people’s lives? For instance, it has been said that almost 80% of the world’s health problems can be solved through the mobile phone. How can we reduce the numbers of hospital visits by creating a mobile phone solution? Amref Health Africa is deeply rooted in communities and working with governments across 35 countries and is the only organization that is in a position to catalyse this change. This is a key target for me and the reason for taking up this challenge.


What is your management style?

I am keen on innovation, and this can only happen in an open environment, not the traditional setting. Innovation must be given space to thrive. Innovation is like throwing seeds in the wild and letting them germinate and grow; people should be allowed to think and express themselves. I will give people space for innovation, engagement and dialogue. That is the only way that we can encourage and tap the minds of everyone, no matter who they are, and allow them to create ideas that will revolutionise health in Africa.


What is your priority for the first three months?

Amref Health Africa has been in existence for close to 60 years and is a very successful and complex organization. My immediate priority is to learn as much as I can: what is working, what makes the organization tick and what gives it value so that we can enhance those aspects, and what is not bringing value so that we can improve or change that. Most importantly start to define what we really need as driven by our communities. Then we can start to define our next 60 years.


What do you perceive to be Amref Health Africa’s greatest strength and biggest weakness? 

Amref Health Africa has developed very strong capacity in health training and capacity building, a strength for which we are well known. We also have highly skilled people in many areas including research, health programming, emergency medicine, and clinical outreach services. We have very good networks and contacts with governments in Africa. What is more, in many of the countries where we work, Amref Health Africa has a very strong brand and strongly compliments government services. This is a valuable asset; it is not something that one builds overnight.


On the other hand, Amref Health Africa is still heavily dependent on external funding. We want to galvanise Africans for Africa so we start to be responsible for our own communities. We want to engage everyone in creating lasting health change. We want financial stability that protects our programs from the shocks of global economic turbulence.


And what is the biggest strength that you bring to this organization?

The major strength that I bring to Amref Health Africa is a focus on innovation, and execution. If we look at things differently, we can make something out of anything.  Take for example a blind man sitting at the roadside begging for alms with a sign saying “Help me; I’m blind”, then changing to use a sign that reads “This is a beautiful day and I can't see the sun”. The effect on passers-by will be very different. It is basically looking at exactly the same resources and innovating around them, moving away from the traditional view.


Innovation goes hand-in-hand with speed of execution. An idea that sits on the shelf is dead, but speedy execution gives it life. Speed of execution is the air that ideas breathe. So I will focus on innovations, and the speed of taking those innovations to the market.


So you like to think outside the box?

Actually, I Iike to think there is no box at all.


How did a medical doctor find himself in marketing?

It was a gradual transition. I began working as a medical doctor and moved slowly into management within the hospital environment. Even as I treated patients, I spent increasingly more time supporting management, and I also realised that I had a passion for marketing. This is what led me to move first to GlaxoSmithKline, and then to Madison Insurance where I set up the medical division to create packages for insurance.  To add to my passion, I took an MBA in Marketing and then moved fully into marketing. I joined the Nation Media Group as General Manager for Marketing and Distribution, later Managing Director and then Smile Train as Vice President and Regional Director for Africa.  


Can Africans raise money for the continent’s health development?

In an ideal world, an organization like Amref Health Africa should develop self-funding programs that create social change and social enterprise. The person at the bottom of the marketing pyramid whom we all think needs charity to survive, can actually afford products if they are properly modelled. We should therefore be modelling products and programs so that the people we are trying to help can afford them.


For instance, what if we developed a health insurance product to which everybody with a mobile phone can contribute a quarter of a dollar daily? When they fall ill, all the hospital needs to  do is check the status of payments and if in order, provide treatment.  There would be no need to offer that person free medicine, because they could actually afford health insurance through pooling.  Take mobile banking and money transfer in Kenya.  It is a sector that has grown very fast because it gives people an affordable option to traditional banking, to the extent that it is now contributing close to 50% of Kenya’s GDP. Where was all that money before? It was in the hands of ordinary Kenyans.


So, instead of looking at where to get the next million dollar donation for giving people free medicine, I would rather work with our donors to have that donation go into developing a product that will revolutionise healthcare and improve quality of life. In that way, Amref Health Africa can make a real change on the African landscape by improving skills, health and livelihoods.


How is Amref Health Africa positioned in the global health arena?

Global health is changing, and Amref Health Africa is well positioned for the shift. It is a credible brand with a proven capacity to be trusted to get things done. I see Amref Health Africa as the implementer of choice for global organizations looking to cause real change in healthcare.


Many aspects of healthcare are shifting. The pharmaceutical industry where I worked for many years first launches products in markets where they can charge premium prices to recover the costs of the research, before launching in poor countries. But by the time they get into poor markets, many people have suffered and died.


Now, some pharmaceutical companies are looking to flip this model, developing medicines that are first delivered to Africa and Asia and making sure that there is a critical mass of people who can afford the medicine, enabling them to recover their research costs. Thus the model is shifting focus to pricing for the bottom billion and distributing for the bottom billion. And Amref Health Africa is right there, working with the critical mass in Africa’s communities.


Where do you see us in four years’ time?

I see us as a stronger organization, not because I am here but because the people here will innovate. The people here know what is to be done; all they need is the space to develop those ideas. I see us being a better brand and a happier people because we will have sustainable projects that we can look back at with satisfaction because of the impact we will have made. We will be world famous as the organization that revolutionised the way people look at healthcare. We will be recipients of the Nobel Prize for creating models that deliver a happier, healthier Africa!


What inspires you and keeps you going?

What keeps me going is touching and changing people’s lives. It is when somebody writes and tells me: “You may not remember me but we met ten years ago and you changed my life.’ It is that person that I interview and even if they do not get the job, the feedback I give them changes their lives and helps them get the next job. My inspiration comes not from changing people’s lives overnight, not by making their day better today, but by making their lives better for the future. This could be staff with whom I work, stakeholders, patients or beneficiaries of our programs. Most importantly, it is the people that I can’t remember.


Your personal elevator speech?

I am self-made, passionate about people and believe in productivity. I believe you should do the job and everything else will fall in place.