When Cyclone Idai caused widespread devastation across Mozambique in 2019, Dr. Rotafina Donco was on the ground in the coastal city of Beira, much of which had been washed away in the floods. She recalls her tears when she saw the destruction that had taken place, and her urgent task – to contain emergent waterborne diseases so that the people of Mozambique didn’t suffer a further tragedy. I met with Dr. Donco two years later, when she had joined VillageReach as Country Director for Mozambique, to discuss her important new role in transforming health care delivery.
Tom Foot: Welcome to Dr. Rotafina Donco, VillageReach’s Country Director for Mozambique! What has you excited to lead a team at VillageReach?
Rotafina Donco: I was excited to join VillageReach because it is an organization that starts with people – its mission being to deliver health care for everyone. I am a people-person and have seen the impact of VillageReach’s interventions first-hand, especially among those in hard-to-reach communities. So, when I saw the opportunity to join VillageReach, I took it with both hands!
Well, it is great to have you here. As a leader at VillageReach, how can you bring our core value of innovation to what your team does?
Yes, innovation is very important in an organization like VillageReach, which implements health solutions that can be scaled nationally and across countries in partnership with governments and the private sector. One way to bring that value out in our people is to give them the space to work freely and to be creative. The opposite – micromanagement – encourages people to work just for you, to please you, and it discourages such personal initiative. When the ideas flow, give people the platform to discuss their different approaches.
You have come to VillageReach from an impressive career in humanitarian service. Your last role was as Mozambique Director for Oxfam, where you coordinated responses to a number of devastating weather events. Do you have any thoughts on how extreme weather can impact health systems and our work at VillageReach?
I have a very recent experience of such an event, when many died during Cyclones Idai and Kenneth. This really gave us a wake-up call, as it became very difficult to transport anything by road for many weeks. When it’s not possible to transport life-saving medication by road, what can we do?
Solving these transportation puzzles is core to VillageReach – we must change our ways of working, diversifying supply chains to avoid situations when patients with dire needs can’t get the medications they require. VillageReach is delivering alternative solutions, such as Drones for Health, which uses the skies to transport essential medical products to hard-to-reach communities.
Are you able to share anything that you are proud of in the work that you’ve done thus far at VillageReach?
All that we do here, we do as a team, so I wouldn’t say something that I’ve done but rather all of our exciting achievements together. I’m very pleased with the progress of our work with Alô Vida to introduce a WhatsApp? health care messaging system for Mozambique – to dispel misinformation around COVID and, further, to address health concerns and put people in touch with local services.
VillageReach works across Sub Saharan Africa and other places around the world. You have experience at a number of non-profits and consultancies. What stands out about VillageReach’s organizational approach?
VillageReach does have a unique organizational approach, focusing very much on the building blocks of health care systems – implementing solutions to problems that can be scaled in partnership with governments, and can be applicable in other places across the world. There is a recognition that this is the only path to reach everyone.
The other important element about VillageReach is how we make decisions. These decisions are not just made by somebody over there, by a chief executive or president, but there is a strong process that involves all of us throughout. This is sadly not always the case – some organizations do not involve country-based managers in deliberations and one can feel discriminated against. Here, you feel involved in building the organization; you feel part-and-parcel of the organization.
I’m talking to you from Seattle in the United States, where VillageReach has an office. Where are you right now? Has COVID impacted how you work with your team?
I’m based in Maputo, Mozambique, and I’m talking to you from the VillageReach office in the city now. Talking via Zoom or Teams, like we are doing now, is something that has been commonplace for international organizations such as VillageReach for a few years, and yes, it is an efficient way of working – saving money on travel and such things. However, I am looking forward to a time when the COVID pandemic has abated so we can establish more of a human touch. I would have liked to be talking to you directly, and sometimes it’s good to get around a whiteboard to brainstorm and collaborate with colleagues.
Speaking of which, we have something in common, in that my dad went to the same university as you. So, I have to ask you: what did you think of my hometown?
Wow, you know, I really fell in love with Reading [United Kingdom] to be honest, I adored the university and the town. After I finished my degree, I felt ready to come back home to Mozambique to put into practice what I learned to help my country. Please keep in mind that I would love an invite back to visit your hometown again!