Rare is the medical research professional who would give up an established 23-year career to start a healthcare clinic in Africa. Fewer still are those who would fund it out of their own pocket, eating through their savings and foregoing retirement benefits. Meet Margaret Kilibwa, clinical nutritionist and social entrepreneur.
“I wasn’t prepared when I made the leap, but I suppose if I knew then exactly what it would take, I might not have jumped into it. Then again, when I’m at the clinic, many women come to tell me ‘you saved my life’ but even if it was one woman it would be enough for the amount of investment I’ve made.”
Kilibwa was born in Sabatia not far from Kisumu, on the banks of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya. Influenced by her American classmates at boarding school, the young graduate crossed the Atlantic to study chemistry at the University of Cincinnati, where she had won a scholarship. From Ohio, she was accepted to the prestigious Cornell University where she did a Masters, followed by a PhD in clinical nutrition. Although she was interested in going to medical school, Kilibwa decided to gain work experience instead, “not in the diet area but rather to understand in more practical terms how nutrition can be used to prevent disease,” she recalls.
The PhD graduate was soon nabbed by Pfizer Pharmaceuticals to work in their upstate Connecticut research center where she managed product development for six years. From there, she moved to Johnson & Johnson, conducting research for almost four years into products aimed at reducing calories and cholesterol and preventing diabetes. In the meantime, intrigued by the relationship between chronic disease and poor nutrition, Kilibwa picked up a certificate in clinical nutrition and public health from Columbia University.
From J&J, Kilibwa did a four-year research stint at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, where she carried out clinical trials in women’s health to learn how older women were using proper nutrition to stay healthy longer. She then spent one year in Paris at Dannon’s headquarters, followed by one year at its research center in White Plains, NY “doing interesting work but not what I was put on this planet to do.”
While working for J&J, Kilibwa would deliver donated medicine to an orphanage and hospital during trips home to Kenya. Although small donations, each time she saw the impact and increasingly felt this was to be her calling. “This was work I truly enjoyed and could easily do for the rest of my life.”
About 40 miles from where she was born is Kakamega, a very poor rural community, ravaged by HIV, youth malnourishment, infant mortality, and pregnancy-related deaths. “Kakamega is a heavily populated area where many people have no access to basic healthcare. There is a serious shortage of medicine, supplies, and equipment. Hardly any facilities have HIV-testing kits and only about 20% of infected women receive antiretroviral treatment compared to 60% of men,” she explains. “I believed if I was going to make a difference, this would be the place to do it.”
And so once per year, still while working at J&J, Kilibwa would load multiple suitcases with medical supplies – sold to her at wholesale prices by her employer – and disperse them in Kakamega at annual medical camps with the permission of the Kenyan Pharmacy Board. Over a period of three days, she and some recruited US colleagues, supported by some local healthcare providers, would treat 1600 people for all kinds of ailments in a local school requisitioned for the purpose. “Our short-term goal was to provide general health screening to understand what the main local health issues were in order to be better prepared when establishing our long-term goal: establishment of a medical health center in the area. These were essentially fact-finding missions that helped the locals. Without proof that we knew what we were getting ourselves into, there would be no way to raise the $1.5 million necessary to open the health center’s doors.”
These once-per-year trips went on for three years. While Kilibwa did raise money in the US to support her work and her colleagues paid their own way, she spent at least $10,000 from her own pocket, “Most of it came from my savings. At the time, I was so passionate about it, I did not mind spending my money. I knew in my heart, this is what I was called to do. The call was really loud during those three years. But I wouldn’t necessarily advise that approach to someone else.”
Over the three years, Kilibwa and her colleagues got great satisfaction in knowing they were helping people but there was a catch. “Every time we returned, we never saw the same people. We never knew if they got better or how much our efforts had really paid off. We realized we needed to measure the effect.” So in the fourth year, realizing it would take a long time to raise $1.5 million, Kilibwa decided to start small and build a clinic. Again investing much of her own money and supported by small foundations, funding and friends, she commissioned a 10,000 ft2 clinic for $60,000 in 2009. By the end of 2010, the doors of TropicalClinics Pharmacy and Treatment Center were open for business and, within one year, the then 52-year-old Kilibwa had quit her full-time position at Dannon to work full-time for the clinic.
Today she divides her time between her adopted homeland of the last 32 years and Kenya. She spends about six months in the US, based in Princeton, New Jersey, where she does fund raising and grant writing and teaches second year students at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. The rest of her time is spent at the clinic, which is staffed by 15 healthcare providers who see about 40–50 patients a day, mostly women and children.
Her next goal is to grow the organization’s operations in the US in order to raise enough funds to open a fully-fledged medical center in 2016. It is currently a 501(c) US-based non-profit but staffed only by Kilibwa and volunteers. But the future is looking bright as TropicalClinics collaborates with Princeton University, which gives stipends to four students each year to do an 8-week internship at the clinic. Kilibwa is also recruiting US physicians, such as cardiologists and Ob-Gyns, dentists and registered nurses to visit Kenya to learn about developing country health issues and share their expertise with her local staff.
When asked if she has any regrets, Kilibwa pauses briefly: “Over the last nine years, I have invested $168,000,” she states with precision. “It’s pinching me right now. For almost 15 years, I had a stable salary and the leap to TropicalClinics has created a great amount of uncertainty for me financially. It’s unnerving running a project that benefits so many people but for which I am not directly compensated. It’s not an easy thing to know I have no safety net. But it’s been worth every penny. When I spend time at the clinic, I remember what it is all for. It has brought me a tremendous amount of satisfaction, it is my purposeful work.”
If you would like to support Margaret Kilibwa and TropicalClinics, you can donate through her website or a campaign she has launched through Plum Alley crowdfunding. Plum Alley is a crowfunding community that support’s women-driven campaigns.
- Make sure this is more than just a passion. Plan well for the first, 3rd and 10th Look forward. Many time I overlooked what I needed to do. I jumped in with both feet. Look at what you can do on your own and what can be delegated
- Take care of yourself. Make sure to get enough sleep!!
- Fund-raising takes a long time. Be patient, but be persistent.