What is One Health? What are One Health Units? What are the goals of the One Health for Humans, Environment, Animals and Livelihoods (HEAL) project? How will communities in the Horn of Africa benefit from HEAL’s interventions? A lot of questions about a new project that aims to transform service delivery in pastoral areas in the Horn of Africa. Diana Onyango is the regional manager of the HEAL project and thus best placed to provide answers. She holds a master’s degree in veterinary epidemiology and public health from the University of London – Royal Veterinary College and a bachelor’s degree in veterinary medicine and surgery from the University of Nairobi. Diana sat down with ILRI communications officer Saba Ermyas to talk about the HEAL project.

Saba: Thanks for agreeing to sit with me for this interview. Let’s start by introducing Diana to our readers. Who is Diana Onyango?

Diana: I am a Luo lady from the western part of Kenya who became a vet doctor for the love of animals. I am the mother of a 10-year-old girl. I struggle with the work-life balance being a working mom at the same time making sure I have enough time for my daughter and my own personal interests. I love the job I do and this makes the pressures that come with it more bearable.

Saba: What are your professional experiences?

Diana: I have worked in private veterinary practice, in veterinary pharmaceuticals and with NGOs over the 16 years of my working life. Most of this has been in Kenya but I have also worked in Somalia, South Sudan and now Ethiopia. My experience includes working in animal health, agriculture, food security and livelihood sectors.

HEAL regional manager Diana Onyango in the field (photo credit: HEAL).

Saba: How have your experiences shaped your interest in One Health?

Diana: I think this has come naturally with the kind of work and projects I am involved in. Having worked closely with pastoralist communities it becomes necessary to include human health issues in the projects we are involved in, through zoonosis and nutrition angles. I realized that I have been involved in many projects taking the One Health approach, but we just did not label it as such. Thus, it is just a natural progression to move into the field with an official tag to it.

Saba: Why did you take on the role of regional project manager, why HEAL?

Diana: I took on the role as I was glad to have the opportunity to work with VSF-Suisse again (I worked with VSF-Suisse in Kenya in 2008 to 2015) and to get the regional experience of working in a project being implemented in the 3 countries in the Horn of Africa. The project itself is also exciting and has an interesting take in addressing the challenges faced by pastoralist communities. I am glad to be a part of this wave of change being brought about through the One Health approach.

Saba: As a Kenyan, how do you see livestock systems in Ethiopia and Somalia – any differences or more similarities?

Diana: The livestock systems, particularly in the pastoralists communities, are very similar in the 3 countries. There are several communities along the borders who share the same culture and customs thus there is a lot cross-border movement. That is why this regional approach in addressing their challenges will be effective rather than focusing on only one country yet problems such as transboundary diseases are borderless.

Saba: What are the main areas of works of the HEAL project?

Diana: HEAL aims at improving human and animal health service delivery as well as natural resource management in the pastoralist communities through an integrated approach called the One Health Units. This service delivery model can either be static or mobile taking into consideration the different contexts existing in the areas we are working in. Communities will also be more empowered to manage their natural resources better in the face of climate change challenges and impacts.

Saba: What makes the HEAL unique?

Diana: HEAL is unique form other One Health projects in the sense that it encompasses the environment sector in the project approach. Healthy livestock need a healthy environment thus the project includes activities aimed at empowering communities to take the frontline in managing their rangelands better.

Saba: Can you explain what the project is doing to improving the livelihoods and resilience of vulnerable pastoralist communities?

Diana: The project will contribute to improving the livelihoods and resilience of the pastoralist communities by improving the quality and access of health service delivery in these rural areas. This will, in turn, improve the well-being of the pastoralist communities

Saba: Is there a reason behind choosing Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia?

Diana: The 3 countries were selected based on the areas of operations of the implementing partners (VSF-Suisse, ILRI and CCM), their regional expertise and longstanding experience of working in the areas well as their in-depth knowledge of the challenges facing the pastoralists communities in the 3 countries. The fact that the targeted communities also move across the borders in the 3 countries was also a reason to work on the regional coverage rather than only in one country.

Saba: What do you expect the project to achieve/change?

Diana: Healthy people deriving their livelihoods from healthy livestock reared in a healthy and sustainably managed environment.

Saba: How many people are expected to benefit from the HEAL project?

Diana: We cannot quantify the exact numbers as the project will benefit not only the pastoralist communities in the targeted areas but all communities country through its component to support the national governments on establishing policies, systems and structures aimed at improving health service delivery at the grassroots level.