Umra Omar is an award-winning social entrepreneur, community leader, and the founder of Safari Doctors, a mobile medical clinic serving underprivileged communities in Kenya.
Omar and the Safari Doctors travel by boat, road and air to bring medical care to people living along a remote area of islands, the Lamu Archipelago, near the Kenyan-Somali border.
She spoke to CNN International’s African Voices Changemakers programme about how the organisation has grown from humble beginnings: “When we first started it was mainly about getting immunisations out to rural areas and making sure that a woman who wanted access to family planning could get it. So just providing that primary care of your cough syrups, your pain medication, and then advancing from going to about a hundred people a month to now up to like 2,500 people every month.”
Their work has been internationally recognised, with Omar winning the UN-Kenya Person of the Year Award in 2017, and also being named a Top 10 CNN Hero in 2016. She describes how the company went from serving one village to an award-winning mission covering twenty-four villages.
“It started as a 'by the way' and it ended up being a full-time and full-blown entity. We ended with a CNN Heroes Award which kind of put that strong stamp of accreditation on the work that we're doing. And kept us going financially, network wise, and really amplifying the voices of change coming from the ground going up,” she recalled.
Having started with the distribution of vaccines and other medical services using dhows and motorbikes, the Safari Doctors initiative has expanded to a network currently using its own speed boat and medical vehicle and offering improved facilities including veterinary services. Omar talks about their future expansion, “The idea now is expanding to preventative health. So, we train a cohort of community health workers, especially the youth, to address issues around population health, environmental awareness, and getting it into that model of mobile primary and preventative healthcare that comes to the last mile doorsteps of the communities in need.”
Omar is full of praise for the Safari Doctors team and she explains how young people form the centre of this group, “We cover the whole of Lamu County with a team that is out of this world, absolutely mind-blowing, young, energetic. Actually, out of a staff of 12, I'm the second oldest staff member. I look around and I'm like, Safari Doctors is run by people under 35 and a lot of them actually under 20.”
This network has also been instrumental in disseminating information on COVID-19 and tracking possible causes in the communities they serve. Omar details their work during the pandemic, “What the pandemic did, it really solidified our outreaches. It was us really putting a face to the pandemic when we went out to the community, from issues around social distancing, handwashing and getting the communities to see that, okay, this is not something that's just happening in the city. These are the precautions that we need to take on the ground as well.”
Omar and her team remain passionate about helping their communities. She sums up the Safari Doctors’ goal, “It's a peaceful change opportunity and tapping into I would say an underrated resource which is human power. It's a beautiful feeling to work at home with my people especially the younger people and play our part in transforming our own communities and actually feeling like you're making a difference.”