Meet young leaders fighting the COVID-19 pandemic

Screenshot of an interface during online meet (Courtesy of Hackathon Thailand)
Sitta "Sindy" Marattanachai, right, and Radtasiri "Bes" Wachirapunyanont planned COVID-19 Hack the Crisis Thailand in 2020 to find community-based solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of Hackathon Thailand)

In April 2020, Alfred Kankuzi saw that most Malawians learned about COVID-19 from social media. Misinformation worsened fears of the emerging pandemic. So Kankuzi created a free app to deliver accurate information on the emerging pandemic to residents of Malawi.

The app, called COVID-19 NEBA, which means “Hey Neighbor” in Chichewa, brings fact-based information from trusted sources, such as the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in several languages to hundreds of thousands of Malawians, even those with limited internet access.

“In Malawi, internet is difficult to access and usually expensive, so I designed the app so that it only requires data when downloading and syncing to the local database,” Kankuzi said in 2020. “That way information can be easily accessed offline.”

Kankuzi, a 2017 alumnus of the U.S. Department of State’s Mandela Washington Fellowship (MWF) program, is one of numerous alumni of U.S. leadership exchange programs who are helping to fight COVID-19 in their home countries. Through MWF, part of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), young leaders hone their skills at U.S. universities and receive professional development training.

Collage of mobile screenshots and Alfred Kankuzi (Courtesy of Alfred Kankuzi)
Alfred Kankuzi, pictured beside an image of his app COVID-19 NEBA, brings fact-based COVID-19 information to Malawians. (Courtesy of Alfred Kankuzi)

The State Department’s Alumni Rapid Response Fund has provided more than 100 grants of up to $10,000 to alumni of department leadership programs for projects that deliver accurate information, advance economic recovery or address other pandemic priorities.

Here are several of the many other U.S. exchange program alumni who have helped their communities fight COVID-19:

Olakunle (Kunle) Adewale helped people in Nigeria cope with the COVID-19 pandemic though art, music and dance. The Art Responders Healing Project drew 400 participants from Lagos, supporting youth, young adults and front-line health care workers. Adewale, a 2015 MWF alumnus, is the founder of Tender Arts Nigeria, which provides therapy through art and has benefited more than 15,000 people through art programs in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and the United States.

Cherrie Atilano started the Move Food Initiative helping farmers in the Philippines deliver produce to consumers during the COVID-19 quarantine. By May 2020, the initiative had already delivered 130,000 kilograms of food. Atilano is an alumna of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) and founder of AGREA, an agribusiness aimed at eliminating food waste and hunger.

Alhasan Bah’s radio broadcasts brought fact-based information on the COVID-19 pandemic to border communities in West Africa. As of June 2021, Bah, a 2016 MWF alumnus, had reached nearly 200,000 listeners in 10 communities and engaged health experts and religious leaders to support messaging.

Roniel Guzman co-leads an initiative in the Dominican Republic that uses 3D printers to make plastic visors to protect medical workers treating COVID-19 patients. The project has donated and delivered hundreds of visors to hospitals in eight cities. Guzman is an alumnus of the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI) and in 2015 co-founded Hub MakerSpace, a small-product manufacturer.

Sitta “Sindy” Marattanachai and Radtasiri “Bes” Wachirapunyanont launched COVID-19 Hack the Crisis Thailand from April 16 to May 1, 2020, in partnership with the Royal Thai Government. The online event provided virtual workshops and networking events, as well as opportunities to pitch projects and compete for funding for community-based solutions to the pandemic. The hackathon developers are both alumni of the YSEALI Professional Fellows program.

Sherifah Tumusiime trained women entrepreneurs in Uganda to assess and plan for economic impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Zimba Women Master Class worked with 50 women-owned enterprises and sought to increase women’s roles in business leadership and the economy. Tumusiime, a 2015 MWF alumna, co-founded Zimba Women to assist women entrepreneurs in Africa.