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The Bingwa Initiative – how young people have boosted Africa’s COVID-19 vaccination campaigns

© Trace Foundation, Bingwas during an activation event at Cooperative University of Kenya

Across the African continent young volunteers have volunteered to accelerate the uptake of COVID-19 vaccinations. This Africa CDC initiative is a deliberate effort to ensure that Africa’s greatest asset – young people – are fully involved in, and own, their countries’ COVID-19 responses and recovery strategies.

At the Ikeja City Mall in Lagos, Nigeria on Saturday 11th February 2023, the buzz of unusual activities is hard to miss. Top Nigerian celebrities and artists can be seen alighting from their cars in one section of the parking lot from where the sound of Afrobeat music can be heard from afar. On the same spot, a team of medical personnel and Nigeria’s ministry of health officials have pitched tent and can be seen busy offloading cold boxes and other medical items. A growing crowd of bubbly and excited youngsters are gathering chanting ‘we are here to shoot our shot’. The tents and flyers are marked ‘AU Bingwa COVID-19 vaccination campaign’. Curious onlookers can be seen keen to catch a glimpse of the happenings. But what is this AU Bingwa COVID-19 vaccination campaign?

What is the Bingwa campaign all about?

The African Union Bingwa COVID-19 vaccination campaign is an initiative launched in April 2022 by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), a public health agency of the African Union. The initiative deploys young volunteers across the African continent to accelerate the uptake of COVID-19 vaccinations. It is a deliberate effort to ensure that Africa’s greatest asset – young people – are fully involved in, and own, the post-COVID-19 recovery strategies in their home countries.

The Bingwa COVID-19 vaccination drives have become popular with young people who appreciate the carefully designed intersection of health matters, entertainment and edutainment. The events, such as the event set up at the Ikeja City Mall, use mobile vaccination centres – tents and equipment that can be quickly set up where needed – to take vaccines to where the people are. The events offer an opportunity for the community to access COVID-19 vaccinations, information on the vaccines and interaction with their favorite celebrities, who in turn, use the opportunity to share information and experiences on the impact and benefits of getting vaccinated as an individual and collective good.

Roadshow event in Uthiru, Kenya
Roadshow event in Uthiru, Kenya

Similar mobilisation events have been held in Uganda, Kenya, Zambia and Ethiopia. And the strategy of letting young people, health officials and celebrities jointly speak up for vaccinations seems to work: the number of vaccinations across the African continent have been gradually rising, partly influenced by an increase in advocacy and vaccination campaigns.

Who are the young people in the Bingwa initiative?

Bingwa is a Swahili word that means champion. The Bingwa volunteers are aged between 18-35 years and selected through a competitive application process managed by the Africa CDC. The volunteers must have verifiable community and youth engagement experience, or professional work experience in Public Health and must have attained post-secondary education. Once selected, the Bingwa volunteers undergo intensive training that equips them with the technical skills to reach, mobilise and engage their communities and peers to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The training focuses on understanding the New Public Health Order for Africa; COVID-19 and the vaccination protocols and mandates; risk communication; community engagement and influencing for COVID-19 vaccination; social media engagement and mobilisation for impact; social behavior change communication; and planning, monitoring, evaluation and reporting.

Newly trained Bingwas during the training in the East African Region in Tanzania
Newly trained Bingwas during the training in the East African Region in Tanzania

Having witnessed the sorrow and despair at the peak of the viral outbreak, many young people have been keen to ensure that their families and communities are protected against the virus by getting vaccinated. This is why Doreen Naiga, a Ugandan, decided to become a Bingwa volunteer.

‘Fighting COVID-19 requires a collective effort. By advocating for vaccination, l am confident that l can help build trust in the vaccines and encourage others to get vaccinated, ultimately contributing to the broader public health efforts to control the pandemic.’

The volunteers are deployed to campaign for a period of 12 months in their home countries. In November 2022, 100 Bingwa volunteers were recruited in the Eastern Africa region. Another 100 were recruited in the Southern Africa region in March 2023.

What do ‘the Bingwas’ report about their work?

The Bingwa initiative has enhanced young people’s meaningful inclusion and engagement where it matters the most – health. Zipporah Iregi, a Bingwa in Kenya, says the initiative is a gamechanger because it employs creative ways to pass reliable information to the community through social media, door-to-door education, community radio and TV shows, dramas and music, and video messaging.

‘My goal is to communicate context-specific messages, address misinformation, and promote vaccination awareness and uptake.’

Rajaonarivelo Faly Iharisoa, a Bingwa in Madagascar, used a family celebration with over fifty persons present to get his messages across:

‘At the beginning of the year Malagasy families gather and the children wish their grandparents and their parents the best for the whole year and their future. I used the opportunity to sensitise my grandparents, my parents, my uncles, my aunts and my cousins to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19.’

For him, every opportunity to motivate people to get the COVID-19 vaccination counts. In Uganda, Bingwa Dr. Muhumuza Umar reports that

‘being able to make a positive impact on someone’s health and well-being is incredibly rewarding, and it motivates me to continue learning, growing, and striving for excellence in my work.’

At the community level, volunteers work with chiefs, religious leaders, teachers and healthcare workers to ensure community buy-in and involvement. Zipporah from Kenya observes that

‘Where these leaders pave the way for vaccinations by getting vaccinated first and then talking about it, many others will follow suit.’

How Germany supports the Bingwa Initiative

Initiated and led by the Africa CDC, the Bingwa Initiative has forged partnerships with several public and private sector organisations interested in advancing public health in Africa. Partners include the MasterCard Foundation and the project Strengthening Crisis and Pandemic Response in Africa, implemented by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

Dr. Tobias Thiel, Director of the GIZ Office to the African Union, stated at the launch of the initiative that the deployment and the uptake of vaccinations still posed a hindrance in post-COVID-19 recovery efforts – not only in Africa, but globally.

‘While vaccines are becoming more accessible everywhere, turning vaccines into vaccination remains a hurdle. Through coordinated strategic partnerships, we want to focus on the last mile delivery of vaccines for the benefit of all African citizens as countries strive to meet their national vaccination targets.’

In 2022, the German-supported programme helped design the training in mobilisation and behavioral change methodologies for the Bingwa volunteers to enable them to train peers in their home countries. 25O youths have since been selected for the training and continue to work as Trainers-of-Trainers across the continent.

Vaccination against COVID-19 during an activation event in a mall in Ghana
Vaccination against COVID-19 during an activation event in a mall in Ghana

In addition, the project supported the development of a handbook of best practices on vaccination rollout in Africa, a reference guide for Bingwa volunteers on how best to lead and engage in vaccination drives. It supported trainings and vaccination events in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia, including the involvement of influencers and celebrities at these events and corresponding social media campaigns.

What next?

With youths constituting over 60% of Africa’s population, their meaningful engagement has the potential to be a game-changer for the continent’s health security architecture. As the Africa CDC implements the New Public Health Order, it has signaled the commitment to expand the engagement of young people. The inauguration of the Youth Advisory Team for Health in February 2023 ensures that the voices and contributions of the youth are integrated in Africa CDC’s strategies and initiatives.

Given the positive response to the Bingwa campaigns by the volunteers and their audiences, the mandate of the Bingwa volunteers has been expanded. In the future, Africa CDC wants to involve them in addressing a broader range of public health challenges facing the continent. On 6th April 2023, Dr. Ahmed Ogwell announced in a press briefing that Africa CDC was preparing to launch a Bingwa Call for Applications for the Western Africa region in May 2023, extending the reach of Bingwa volunteers across the continent. The other two regions- Northern and Central Africa will then follow.

Huong Lan Le and Dr. Yodit Kifle,
May 2023

© Trace Foundation
© Mirror Multimedia Communications
© Trace Foundation
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