Discovering the necessity for ‘meaningful community engagement’ in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya

By: Rose Mahira, community liaison officer, KAVI-ICR, Co-authors: Jane Ng’ang’a, community liaison officer, KAVI-ICR; Fredrick Oyugi, community advisory board member, Kangemi; Stephen Anguva, community advisory board member, Kangemi 

Rose Mahira from KAVI-ICR demonstrates handwashing techniques to community members in Nairobi, Kenya
Rose Mahira from KAVI-ICR demonstrates handwashing techniques to community members in Nairobi, Kenya

Since the opening of a clinical research site in Kangemi in 2003, the Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative – Institute of Clinical Research (KAVI-ICR) team has built a strong relationship of trust with the communities in the surrounding low-income settlements. The nearly two decades long partnership has seen the establishment of a robust Community Advisory Board (CAB), a critical link between researchers and the community, which has enhanced HIV prevention research literacy and the willingness of community members to participate in HIV vaccine clinical trials.

Located on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kangemi, is home to nearly 100,000 people reliant on subsistent wages often earned by travelling long distances across the city to jobs that provide a daily wage. As the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed in Kenya, it is increasingly clear that the already vulnerable communities in Kangemi and other informal settlements are being hard hit by the measures that have been put in place to try to curb the spread of the disease. The countrywide restriction on movement and social gatherings has resulted in loss of income for many households. Many have also had their access to treatment for existing conditions interrupted. The requirement for regular handwashing with soap and usage of face masks in public presents a challenge, as many of the settlements have limited access to running water at home and for them the purchase of extra soap, water, and masks is too expensive.

In keeping with the principle of leaving communities where studies are conducted better off as a result of its research activities, the KAVI-ICR community liaison team was inspired to find innovative ways of helping the community find home-grown solutions to address the new challenges. In partnership with community-based organizations, KAVI-ICR established the Kangemi Family Support (KFS), which identifies and rallies support for the most vulnerable families. Bringing together the Ngao Society, Strings For Life Kenya, Betty Adera Foundation, and several individual well-wishers, KFS has mobilized food support for 45 households, 129 children, and 200 beneficiaries across Kangemi within the first two weeks of its existence.

In addition to supporting the identification of deserving beneficiaries, CAB members have used the food distribution rounds as an opportunity to educate the community on the importance of social distancing and maintaining high standards of hygiene to avoid COVID-19 infection. They have also conducted HIV vaccine research literacy and distributed relevant information, education, and communication (IEC) materials.

While the initiative has proved to be successful and continues to receive in-kind and moral support from friends and well-wishers, the KFS is not without challenges. Owing to the low income of most of the households, the community has largely looked to the team to provide face masks. Another major shortcoming has been the inadequate supply of IEC materials to educate the community on COVID-19. However, on the more hopeful side, the community has indicated a willingness to participate in COVID-19 vaccine trials if and when they do happen. This can only be attributed to the significant investment in time and resources that has been made over the years to develop a truly meaningful engagement with the community.

Editors Note: This story was originally published in IAVI Voices Newsletter, Issue 6. This story was reprinted with permission from IAVI