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How one leader’s response to COVID-19 was shaped by insights from the inaugural Amujae Leadership Forum

Blen A. Sahilu’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in her country, Ethiopia, began while she was attending the inaugural Amujae Leadership Forum—the first gathering of the 2020 cohort of Amujae Leaders—in early March. While the pandemic had yet to take hold in Africa at the time, conversations at the Forum—both formal and informal—were the inspiration she needed to help her community respond to the crisis in a meaningful way.

“The lessons from my fellow Amujae Leaders were so thoughtful and rooted in experience, that I was able to begin drafting my first response while still in Liberia. I learned from them that engaging local communities would help them to protect themselves and build the resilience needed to respond to the pandemic directly—help doesn’t always have to come from the outside in.”

Her first steps were to start communicating about the importance of hygiene measures such as handwashing, and making sure that these messages were all available in local languages to help them reach a wider audience. Leveraging her large following of over 36,000 people on Twitter was the ideal place to start, particularly as many of Ethiopia’s officials are active on the platform and could engage in the conversation about the action needed. At the outset of her campaign, Blen didn’t know whether she would be able to have any impact, but felt compelled to act: “I knew that I had to do something, even if I couldn’t act in an official capacity. I didn’t know if it would have any effect, but I knew I had to do what I could.”

Within the space of just a week, multiple groups were sharing information across several platforms, and an army of designers and editors were translating content into local languages, such as posters and leaflets that could easily explain the virus to children. She also urged her followers and those working against the virus to get behind the hashtag #covid19ethiopia, ensuring that information and guidance could be found easily and consistently.

While Blen’s efforts and those of the informal communications team that had sprung up were making an impact on social media, she was acutely aware that only a small proportion of Ethiopia’s population had access to Twitter, or to the internet at all. And so, it was important that communications could also be delivered through mainstream media. Before many cases had arrived in the country, some TV and radio hosts were framing COVID-19 as an issue for Europe and the United States—something that could be treated lightly and even with some humor. Blen communicated directly with producers to encourage them to set the tone about the potential impact of the virus: “It was important for them not to laugh or belittle it, and instead to use their platform to share information about the disease and its potential effects on our country. We followed up by connecting these producers and presenters with public health officials and doctors, allowing us to reach a wider audience.”

Blen also realized that her country had one advantage in its response to the pandemic: time. “We don’t have the same resources as the rest of the world. Despite the challenges COVID-19 poses, the US or most countries in Europe have the institutional and economic strength to bounce back quickly — but we don’t have the healthcare systems or economic resilience yet to support us in the same way. But we as a continent had one big advantage – we had time. We had a chance to learn from others and prepare before the pandemic took hold — as the WHO told us, ‘it was better to be fast than perfect.’”

Ethiopia has an additional connection with the WHO, since the appointment of Ethiopian Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in 2017 as the first African head of the organization: “All eyes have been on him for different reasons. It’s important that our young people see an Ethiopian and an African in that position of leadership. His comments, based on what he has seen unfold around the world, that he feared for our continent were particularly powerful. It helped galvanize support around the need for action.”

“As an informal but dedicated group on social media, we made so much noise that we became difficult to ignore, and the combination of our communications and government actions have helped us to minimize the effects of the virus so far in Ethiopia. Learning so much from my African sisters—leaders and neighbors to Ethiopia—has helped us to shape our response and make an impact.”

The last few months since the Amujae Leadership Forum have been an intense period of action, experimenting with new approaches and finding home-grown solutions for addressing the crisis. While there is still a long road ahead, Blen has tried to find time to reflect on what has been achieved so far:

“After a couple of weeks of engagement, it was so powerful to step back and see so many independent research, tech, and community outreach efforts start right there on social media in response to the pandemic. And the work is just beginning. The numbers are still rising. Our homework is not done. But the most sustainable solutions, as my Amujae sisters taught me, will always be to inform our communities in their own languages, to empower them to take responsibility for one another and strengthen positive social structures.”

Read more about Blen here.

The Amujae Initiative is the flagship program of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development. Learn more about the center here.

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