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Five minutes with...Frances Longley, CEO of Amref Health Africa UK

Amref Health Africa UK has a new Chief Executive. Meet Frances Longley.

Frances has been with Amref since August 2015 on an interim basis, but now we're delighted to report that she will be with us permanently. Frances started her career in arts and culture, making the switch into international development in 2009. Before joining the Amref Health Africa team, she was Director of Communications and Brand at Unicef UK. 


Hi Frances! You have worked in international development before. What is it that attracted you to the role at Amref Health Africa UK?

My career in international development has been focussed on three areas of passion for me: sub-Saharan Africa, work which is shaped, owned and valued by the communities where it takes place and finally the importance of health as a basic and fundamental human right. Different jobs in my past have at various times and to varying degrees managed to meet one or two of those passions but Amref has all three woven permanently into its DNA. I feel very lucky to be part of the Amref Health Africa team.


You must have a lot of plans for the UK office. Can you share any with us?

One of our challenges in the UK is that we are a small team here, representing a large and diverse organisation in Africa which is the biggest health NGO on the continent. If you go to Kenya, everyone you meet has heard of Amref; in the UK we are far from being a household name and we haven’t done a good enough job yet of telling the Amref story. All our plans in the end rely on being able to catch people’s attention long enough to share stories and information about the remarkable work Amref Health Africa does: once we do that, we find people want to support us in bringing lasting health change to Africa. So, one of the cornerstones of our plans for the UK office is to get better at telling those stories and spreading the word here in the UK.


We are very lucky in this job, because we get to hear inspiring stories from people on a daily basis. Have any particularly stood out for you since you started? Why?

My first Amref trip to Africa was to Uganda. While I was there I visited a Water, Sanitation and Hygiene project. Yes, I’m going to talk about toilets… Trust me, they’re life-changing!

Amref Health Africa has worked with the local community in the poorest slum area of the capital, Kampala to tackle one of the major causes of illness and death: unsafe drinking water and no access to safe toilets. Without them, children and adults were getting sick over and over again and often dying, because dirty water leads to severe diarrhoea and without treatment this is a killer. I visited a primary school where students proudly showed me the water pump in the school yard and the new latrines, all of which Amref had helped to design and install and trained the school to maintain. They also performed a song and dance routine which they had devised to teach their families about the importance of washing your hands properly to prevent disease, because many adults have grown up without access to clean water and proper toilets and don’t know the basics of hand and toilet hygiene as a result, so their kids have now become hygiene ambassadors and teachers.

We then went to visit the community toilets, drinking water and shower facilities which Amref helped the community to build, negotiating on their behalf for a parcel of land and providing funds for the first phase; a small subscription fee from local families covers the cost of maintenance and the construction of further facilities, all of which is now fully owned and run by the local community. This project encapsulates the Amref Health Africa approach: the local community wanted a solution to their water and toilet shortages and we helped them negotiate one which they could own and run into the future. Amref Health Africa’s sustainable, focussed and community–owned approach makes that possible in hard-to-reach areas and seeing it for myself on my first trip to Kampala has stayed with me.


Amref Health Africa’s sustainable, focussed and community–owned approach makes that possible in hard-to-reach areas and seeing it for myself on my first trip to Kampala has stayed with me.

Next year Amref Health Africa will be celebrating its 60th birthday and the organisation is going from strength to strength. Why do you think this is?

Amref has always responded to the needs and priorities of the communities and countries where it works. We’ve changed and adapted to new realities, good and bad: we were on the ground from the outset when HIV and Aids emerged, finding ways for communities to care for sick family members and educating people about prevention and treatment; we are also pioneers of distance learning for health workers, creating some of the first online modules for remote training of nurses and more recently creating a breakthrough in mobile phone applications to train and support Community Health Volunteers in remote rural areas through their phones. We like to talk about using the Tools of Our Time and I think that’s the secret, really: we listen, we learn and we adapt and in doing that we often lead.


There are A LOT of charities out there all supporting very worthy causes. Why should people support us? 

Sub-Saharan Africa has a quarter of the world’s disease burden but just 3% of the world’s health workers. Amref Health Africa has been working alongside individuals, communities and governments for over 50 years to help to bring lasting change for people who really need it by closing that gap. Progress has been made but there’s still a long way to go. 


Imagine you have a crystal ball. Where do you see yourself – and the charity – in 20 years?

Tough question! I have strong links, personally and professionally, with sub-Saharan Africa so I’m sure the continent will still be playing an important part in my life in 20 years. I’m also confident that Amref Health Africa will still be a key part of the health landscape in Africa, having responded, as it always has, to changing needs and new opportunities. Our expertise in training healthworkers will always be relevant so I’m sure that will still be a core part of our role. In the UK, I hope by then that many more people will be aware of Amref’s amazing work and that we will have managed to grow our fundraising so that we can provide even more support for the crucial role Amref plays in Africa.