Robin Witt, founder of Community Health and Sustainable Environments (CHASE) Africa, was interviewed by SPA Communications Manager Michael Bayliss for the SPA Newsletter Nov 2022 edition. The full interview is reproduced below. Acknowledgements to Harriet Gordon-Brown, the new CEO for CHASE Africa, who also contributed content for the interview. Please support CHASE Africa, more information at their website.
(Robin Witt, founder, CHASE Africa)
SPA: Tell us a little about yourself, your passions and what drives you, your role at CHASE Africa and how long you have been with CHASE.
Robin: I have been lucky enough to have visited Kenya many times over the last 45 years. My father-in-law was in the safari world and we had some wonderful trips into wild places. It was thrilling to see Africa’s extraordinary range of wildlife, many related to species we in the ‘developed’ world had hunted to extinction many years ago.
But each trip was tinged with a sense of sadness as a rapidly increasing number of people were living in poverty, and what had been wild land, was now cleared for settlement and agriculture. My wife’s family lived close to a shrinking forest, and determined to try and make a difference I founded a charity called the Rift Valley Tree Trust in 2000. We began to plant trees in schools, woodlots on small farms, and along watercourses. It was through the course of this work that I had some fascinating conversations with women about the challenges they faced. What became very clear was that most of them these women would like to have had fewer children and to have been able to look after them better, but that this wasn’t an option as there was no access to family planning.
It became very obvious that there was a link between poverty, the disappearing forest and the lack of family planning.
And so, twelve years after we started tree planting projects, we embarked on a new area of work I could never have envisaged when I first started the charity. We aimed to give women the opportunity to have their children by choice and not chance. We had a lot to learn!
The Rift Valley Tree Trust changed its name to Community Health and Sustainable Environments (CHASE) Africa in 2012 and revised its charitable objectives.
(The tent provides privacy for providing healthcare and family planning)
SPA: Tell us a little bit more about CHASE, when and how it started, how it has evolved over the years and what are some of the core objectives and campaigns?
Robin: Since its formation in 2012, CHASE Africa has supported organisations in East Africa to provide access to sexual and reproductive health and rights information and services, such as family planning whilst protecting the environment and building resilience to climate change. It has supported these local partners with funding and assistance to implement their programmes. In addition, CHASE Africa provides focused capacity building support to each partner organisation to ensure long-term growth and sustainability. These interventions include individual mentorship and guidance from a CHASE programme manager, trainings, exchange visits, webinars, and a partner conference.
We focus on reaching marginalised, rural communities who have an unmet need for family planning, poor access to health services generally and whose lives and livelihoods are heavily depending on natural resources, so there are strong connections between environmental and human health. In recent years, CHASE Africa has established an effective approach of working with conservation organisations, to support them to engage in community health projects, including addressing issues around lack of access to family planning – using their unique position to provide information to community members and to facilitate improved access to services by the local Ministry of Health.
Over the past 10 years, CHASE Africa has grown steadily, as it has successfully managed to develop and strengthen more partnerships across East Africa. It has evolved from being a team led by a founder and supported by volunteers to becoming an established, small international NGO with a professional staff. This transformation is essential as CHASE Africa continues to grow and improve its support to more local organisations. Over the last three years, it has invested in a team of experienced staff and developed more rigorous and comprehensive policies and procedures across the spectrum of organisational and grant management. Support to our implementing partners in Kenya and Uganda has also been significantly enhanced taking CHASE Africa from being a conduit of funding to an organisation that proactively seeks to strengthen the technical and organisational capacity of partners with a strong focus on facilitating shared learning across its partner network.
(Mobile clinic on the move in Northern Kenya)
SPA: Why is population sustainability important for you? What are the unique challenges in Kenya in regard to overpopulation?
Robin: I think everyone can agree that Planet Earth cannot cope with an ever-increasing human population. How many people the world can support, where we all have a reasonable standard of living, and where we can start to repair the damage we have done to the natural world, depends on many things. What we eat, and how our food is produced is a very important factor.
Africa’s population is predicted to double by 2050. Umpteen millions of people already live in dire poverty and a rapidly increasing population will only increase the pressure on what is, in many places, an increasingly depleted environment. Coupled with the fact that Africa is facing the added burden of climate change, giving women the chance to choose how many children they would like to have can only point to a brighter future for those that live there.
We realise that the issue of reproductive health is a sensitive topic, but when a woman can plan the number, timing and spacing of her children, there are multiple benefits for her & her entire family. Her health and her children’s health will improve, she will have more time to look after her children, their life chances will improve and she will have more time and energy for productive work, making her family better off.
There are other health benefits that family planning can bring. A reduction in teenage pregnancies & longer gaps between children reduces low birth weights and stillbirth. Having fewer pregnancies can reduce complications & subsequent health problems caused by multiple births.
Wider benefits include better educational opportunities for children, as the chance of completing secondary school is much higher for children from smaller families. It’s a very illuminating statistic that on average, across Africa, a woman who can read has 2.5 children, if she can’t she has 5.5. The best way to bring down the fertility rate and reduce poverty is to enable girls to finish their education, and that is much more likely to happen when mums can choose how many kids they would like to have.
Being able to choose when to have children empowers women & enables them to build resilience which is deemed critical in coping with other challenges such as economic hardship and adaption to climate change.
Women living in poverty in Africa often find themselves unintentionally pregnant & face the agonising choice of bringing another child into the world while already struggling to provide for existing children, or choosing to have an unsafe, illegal abortion, which often has devastating consequences. Of the 450,000 abortions carried out every year in Kenya, approximately 120,000 lead to serious medical complications and sometimes death. Access to family planning can prevent much of this misery.
Over the last 10 years our projects have delivered more than 1,050,000 health services & more than 440,000 family planning services.
We have deliberately chosen to work in fragile rural areas where human-wildlife conflict is most acute & where very few women have the opportunity to choose to use family planning. We presently work in Kenya and Uganda and funds allowing, we would like to start working in Tanzania.
We realise that as a small organisation we are not going to change the big picture unless we can encourage other organisations to see the benefits of helping to meet the unmet need for family planning in the areas they work in. Health, water, housing, building new schools and all the issues Governments and development organisations are working on to give people a better standard of living, are easier to achieve when populations stabilise.
SPA: CHASE Africa involves collaboration between the UK and rural communities in Kenya. Why are some key things to consider when collaborating with communities in the global south around sensitive issues such as family planning and reproductive health care?
Robin: We only work through local partner organisations. These organisations are all already engaging with their local communities around a range of activities. They have a deep understanding of the issues that local communities are facing, as well as knowledge of their cultural practices, beliefs and language. We believe such organisations are best placed to engage with communities on these sensitive issues, and they also have long term commitments to those communities.
When we partner with them, we help them expand their work into the community health and family planning area. There is a consistency of approach across our partners – they all take a rights-based approach to family planning, giving men and women choices about their reproductive health.
When we start a new project in an area, the partner organisation raise awareness and provide information about sexual and reproductive health and family planning, explaining what is it, what benefits it can bring and what different methods are available. This is always done in collaboration with community groups, local leaders and the local Ministry of Health. Our partners all undertake community engagement and behavioural change communication as a precursor to service delivery.
The model of delivery varies somewhat depending on the particular barriers that exist in that area. In some communities, we start with general health outreaches, that address the needs of the wider community and build trust. In other areas, services are more focussed on provision of family planning and other sexual and reproductive health services.
SPA: I have noticed CHASE Africa’s social media presence coming from strength to strength over the years, it appears to me very vibrant and engaging. What campaigns or projects have been highlights for the organization in recent years? Any new projects on the horizon?
Robin: We recruited a part-time Communications Co-ordinator, Poppy, last year. She works 2 days a week and has really increased our social media presence with production of regular articles and stories, as well as updating our website and writing a regular newsletter for all our supporters. During 2021 our regular donations increased by 176%, and we have seen a significant increase in individual one-off donations, many of which are new supporters, which we attribute in part to the increased level of regular communications with our supporters.
In addition, to producing stories, Poppy has also been working with the Programmes Team to strengthen the case-studies that we gather and to ensure that consent has correctly been gathered for all photos and stories. Now that images and stories are posted on social media, which is available everywhere, including the communities where are programmes take place, we have to be very careful not to cause any harm, due to the sensitivity of the work we are doing.
We are running our major annual fundraising campaign in late November, as part of The Big Give Christmas Challenge. We aim to raise £30,000, which will be matched funded as part of the campaign. Watch-out for lots of posts about this campaign on our social media!
In 2023, we are planning on launching a new website in 2023. So that is our next major communication project.
SPA: Why do you think it is important for like minded organisations to collaborate and support each other? Further to this, how can SPA members find out more and support CHASE Africa?
Robin: Anything to do with demographics is seen by many to be in the ‘too difficult’ box to acknowledge or talk about. Historic campaigns to control population growth through terrible measures, such as China’s one child policy, or forced-sterilisation in other countries – have made family planning a controversial topic.
Organisations who understand the problems arising as a result of unsustainable population pressure, and can see the benefits of addressing the unmet need for family planning, can learn from each other and help to make sexual and reproductive health and rights, including access to family planning, a subject that can be openly talked about.
As with all charitable organisations funding is always a limiting factor. We would be extremely grateful for any help SPA supporters could give us.
To find out more about CHASE Africa or to donate, visit their website https://www.chaseafrica.org.uk