David J. Olson | Palladium - Sep 30 2019
"The Femmes Leaders of Sikasso"

Two women from Femmes Leaders of Sikasso demonstrate oral rehydration salts at a market. Credit: David J. Olson

The two women had arrived at market day at the village of Kamelé Sirakoro, just outside Sikasso, capital of the Sikasso Region, in Mali, and were looking to draw a crowd. In this colourful and lively market, that would not be a problem. Within a few minutes, they had it.

The first woman took a deep breath and began her demonstration: Aquatabs, a water purification product marketed by Keneya Jemu Kan ("Communication Around Health" in the Bambara language) or KJK. KJK is a USAID-funded maternal, newborn, and child health project.

She put one Aquatabs effervescent tablet into a 20-liter container of water. The tablets prevent microorganisms that cause cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and other diseases. Thirty minutes later, the water was clean and ready to drink. She dispensed the water to children eager to get a refreshing drink in the stifling West African heat.

While waiting for the water treatment to take place, her colleague gave a talk about Orasel Zinc, an oral rehydration salt (ORS) product with zinc tablets, also marketed by KJK. One kit of Orasel Zinc contains two sachets of strawberry-flavoured ORS and 10 zinc tablets. Orasel Zinc prevents and treats dehydration caused by diarrhoea. Studies show that zinc in conjunction with ORS can reduce the duration and severity of diarrhoea for up to three months.

A member of the Femmes Leaders of Sikasso demonstrates Aquatabs at a market. Credit: David J. Olson
A member of the Femmes Leaders of Sikasso demonstrates Aquatabs at a market. Credit: David J. Olson

Working for Health and Empowering Women

This is one day in the work of the Association des Femmes Leaders de Sikasso (Association of Women Leaders of Sikasso, AFLS). Sikasso is the southernmost, most populous and fertile region of Mali, on the border with Côte d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso. The mission of the association is to support the empowerment of women.

AFLS has been collaborating with the social marketing program of KJK since 2016. The AFLS-KJK partnership was established with the goal of helping the population of Sikasso to access health products more easily and to adopt healthy behaviours, especially those in remote areas where people have limited access to such products.

In addition to Aquatabs and Orasel Zinc, AFLS also sells male and female condoms and CycleBeads (a natural family planning method) for KJK. The three most popular products are Protector Plus male condoms, Aquatabs, and Orasel Zinc.

AFLS does promotions, not only in markets, but also at weddings, schools, "tontines," and other public places. (A tontine is a women’s weekly meeting in the neighbourhood where they discuss topics such as family affairs, social and economic issues, and family planning.) They also go door-to-door. They even have a sales outlet at the soccer stadium.

Outside of annual dues, all the revenue of AFLS comes from the sales of KJK products. This revenue empowers the women and allows them to take better care of their families.

Seeing Improved Health

The Femmes Leaders say they have seen substantial health impact as a result of their work over the last three years. There is less diarrhoea, less dermatosis, and fewer gastrointestinal infections among women and children.

Dr. Dramane Traoré, who heads the Sikasso regional health directorate, provides evidence that the incidence of diarrhoea in the Region of Sikasso decreased from 2017 to 2018. Things are moving in the right direction.

"Together with the Femmes Leaders of Sikasso, we have direct access to between 30,000 and 60,000 people in poor families in the most remote districts of the region to promote the use of essential products like Aquatabs and Orasel Zinc," said Badara Konaté, Palladium's team leader for the KJK social marketing operation. "The Femmes Leaders, with the support of the Association of Midwives of Sikasso, contribute to extend the promotion of family planning, especially long-term methods like IUDs and implants through the community animations [interactive demonstrations] that we call baroni."

The Femmes Leaders sales agents reach villages that would otherwise not have access to these products. They exemplify KJK’s goal of "reaching the last mile" in community health.

The KJK project is implemented by the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, in collaboration with Palladium and Management Sciences for Health.