Interview with Julie Gichuru: Building Community Resilience and Leveraging Storytelling to Tackle COVID-19

COVID-19 Africa Watch talks to Julie Gichuru about the Mastercard Foundation’s response to COVID-19 in Africa.


Key Takeaways

The following are a few of the main takeaways from COVID-19 Africa Watch’s conversation with Julie Gichuru, Head of Public Affairs and Communications for the Mastercard Foundation:

  • In 2020, the Mastercard Foundation launched the COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience Program, which is targeted both at addressing the immediate needs of healthcare systems and building resilience in institutions and communities.
  • In collaboration with Africa CDC, the Foundation mobilized one million test kits to be delivered across the continent and trained 10,000 community healthcare workers to assist with their distribution.
  • The Foundation recently launched COVIDHQAfrica, a platform where people on the continent can find accurate information about COVID-19, as well as share their pandemic experiences – both the difficulties and the unexpected opportunities that have emerged from the crisis.
  • Other notable response initiatives include Girl Effect in Rwanda, which is working to educate young women about how to stay safe and how to protect themselves from gender-based violence, which has sharply increased since lockdowns were established in March. In Kenya, the Foundation has partnered with a group called the Billian Music Family, which seeks to empower young people to educate their communities about the importance of wearing masks, sanitizing, and staying safe from the coronavirus.
  • Girchuru urges young people to remain hopeful, and to look for sustainable opportunities for work where there are gaps of unmet need. Unexpected opportunities, she says, often arise in moments of crisis.

The interview was conducted by Veronica Moraa Nyamweya, an IFC-Milken Institute Capital Market Scholar from the Kenya Capital Markets Authority. A transcript is available below.



Hello, my name is Veronica Nyamweya. I work at the Capital Markets Authority, Kenya, and I’m an alumna of the IFC Milken Institute Capital Markets Program. Today, I am delighted to welcome Mrs. Julie Gichuru, who is working with the Mastercard Foundation and she is the Head of Public Affairs and Communications.

Welcome, Julie. To start us off, the Mastercard foundation has been involved in several key initiatives, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, since it was launched in 2006. Could you please tell us about your priorities and objectives as an organization, particularly as it relates to youth and entrepreneurship in Africa?

Julie Gichuru

Thank you for that question. Let me just start at the beginning. You referenced 2006, and indeed that is when the foundation was started through a gift from Mastercard and really a gift to the world because the foundation was set up as a fully independent organization with its own president and CEO and board of directors. Very quickly, our first body of work in Africa was 2008, and that was in Uganda. And really when we started our work, we were centered on ensuring there was access and enabling access to education and also access to affordable financial services was a big space for us.

The foundation has to date invested a good US$3.9 billion. And in terms of our tracking of impact, we’ve transformed the lives of over 45 million people. And now with Young Africa Works, our new strategy we put together in 2018, we are really looking to ensure that young Africans find dignified work. Our target is 30 million young Africans in dignified work by 2030.


Julie, this is quite impressive. I’m blown away by the numbers and looking at how things are going right now, we can see that the pandemic has really affected how business is done in the globe. And we can see that the Mastercard Foundation and its funding activities have probably been affected as well.

We have experienced massive job cuts and witnessed several companies shutting down or making severe losses. What aspects of the pandemic have been most concerning to you, to your organization, when it comes to Africa? And what has been the foundation’s response to the pandemic?

Julie Gichuru

Thank you for that question, Veronica, you know, it’s not just about business, it’s life.

“In 2020, life for everybody was upended, at every level, in all communities. This has affected us all.”

In 2020, life for everybody was upended, at every level, in all communities. This has affected us all. So we came together as a foundation recognizing this and asked ourselves, “In moments of crisis, what do you do?” We recognize that now more than ever, we have work to do. And so, we launched the Mastercard Foundation COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience Program, which was really targeted at addressing immediate needs around healthcare systems. And as well as that, looking at building resilience in institutions and in communities as well. For instance, with Africa CDC, we established a partnership to ensure that we were able to very quickly mobilize and have 1 million test kits deployed across the continent. We also were looking to train 10,000 community healthcare workers and equip them to work in the fields because we recognize the needs. This is just an example of one of the things that we ramped up and did. But even in countries, with our partners on the ground, a lot of work is going on. So, unlike many other partners who were forced to cut down activities, this actually has been a year for us of growth in terms of our work on the ground.


This is great. And talking about the partnership with Africa CDC, we noticed that you committed about $40 million to the impact initiative, which was partnering to accelerate COVID-19 testing. The foundation has also launched a new platform for sharing local information on the pandemic, which I recently read about – Maybe you can tell us more about this initiative. 

Julie Gichuru

Thank you so much. COVIDHQAfrica is a platform for Africa to tell her COVID-19 stories. The first thing is to inform populations, inform individuals of what’s going on in Africa. What do we know? What do we know about COVID-19? It’s a place where you can come and get information. If you think about a young African, are they likely to access WHO or Africa CDC platforms to look for accurate information? Maybe not. How many of them are really avidly reading news platforms? Not as many as we would like to, or maybe we don’t even need them to or want them to. But they’re getting information from various sources and you want them to have a place where they can go and find accurate information on Africa that is an African platform.

And the second level of that now is telling the stories. And so we’re saying to Africans, “Don’t let your story be owned by anybody else. Come here and tell your COVID-19 story. How are you surviving? What are the challenges you’re facing? Tell us about it all.” What are the opportunities for some people? In a challenging time, unlikely opportunities emerge, or unexpected opportunities. So maybe there’s a story there, maybe we can learn from that and really ensure that there’s a home for African storytelling. Very often you’ll find maybe platforms externally do this. How do we learn? How do we collaborate? How do we partner? How do we find that African home for African stories?

We want to tell stories through art as well. We’re excited about that developing and we look forward to seeing what’s happening across the continent from the experiences of Africans. And I would just love everybody to visit and have a look.


Thank you, Julie, for that. It is interesting to note that Mastercard Foundation is leading the way in terms of adapting and finding opportunities in such difficult times. And it is also great that you are taking this opportunity to show people how they can share their stories and not lose hope through this website that you are telling us about, COVIDHQ. So above that, Julie, what other grantees and partner institutions have really stood out to you so far in terms of their action on the continent to tackle COVID-19? 

Julie Gichuru

Yes, it’s really remarkable. There are a lot of people doing very interesting things and let me just speak about a project that’s ongoing in Rwanda. With Girl Effect, they’re really trying to, via radio, say to young ladies: this is how to keep safe. There are many issues about gender-based violence, unplanned pregnancies and sexual harassment during this period, even in the home. And so just providing a safe space for girls to come and understand better how to protect themselves from COVID-19, protocols. If they have questions, whatever they may be, they’re able to ask them. And that’s been run by Girl Effect in Rwanda.

In Kenya, we’ve partnered with a group in Mathare called the Billian Music Family, which has for many years been doing quite a bit of work in Mathare, run by a young man called Billian Ojiwa who was born and brought up in Mathare. So doing the work of ensuring that young people in the community are the ones carrying the COVID-19 message, they are the ambassadors of hope. They are letting the elderly, shop owners, children know you need to wear a mask. They actually have women working on making masks for those who could use the masks in the community. They’re making soaps, amazing things going on there and distributing water.

Similarly, and actually even on a much bigger scale, is SHOFCO, Kennedy Odede, who is based out of Kibera and various other locations in Kenya – doing amazing work and reaching really remarkable numbers of people in the same way, water, the messaging, and allowing communities to take charge of their own safety, not waiting for someone to come in and do it, but saying to them: you are the custodians of the message, you are the custodians of your safety. And I think there’s a power and a dignity in doing that that’s remarkable. We’re partnering with a group in Ghana that is doing the exact same thing. And we hope to find more partners on the ground that are doing the same thing. We have a partner in Nigeria, and we are going to soon tell the story on COVIDHQAfrica, a young lady who has written a fantastic illustrated children’s book on COVID-19.

It is projects like this that really start to show us that we ourselves have the answers in many different ways.

Maybe I’ll just finish by saying we’ve had a fantastic journey into the transportation sector with the truckers. The issues that we had with truckers on the Kenyan border to Uganda and on the border to Rwanda and to Tanzania – trying to de-stigmatize, but also really unsure truckers and communities understand the protocols and are keeping themselves safe. And we’ve been doing the same with boda boda riders, or what you call motos in Rwanda. We’re doing this in Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, to ensure that they are the custodians of the message. And they are ensuring rather than becoming superspreaders, they are actually our superheroes, as they remind people, “Wear that mask, sanitize, be safe,” even as they continue to do their work in this COVID-19 environment.


This is quite interesting given that it is such a difficult time, but we are taking advantage of this situation to empower people.

Julie, just coming back to you, you have been in the journalism and communication industry for more than 20 years, and you also conceptualized and launched numerous shows, including the Pan-African television show ‘African Leadership Dialogues.’ You’re also known to advocate for positive change, and this is evidenced by what you’ve already mentioned. You are definitely a source of inspiration to many young people. So I just wanted to ask what parting shots would you like to share with them today, especially the young women out there who look up to you, what would you like to say to them today as we finish? 

Julie Gichuru

Yes, my parting shot is never, never lose hope. You are enough. And the world can be an incredible tough place.

Right now, we are going through unprecedented challenges for our generation. We have never seen this kind of thing before, and maybe it was a hundred years ago when the world last faced a crisis of this magnitude. But in every crisis, there is an opportunity. So look for the needs. What does your community need? Where are the gaps and how can you, in some way, assist to plug those gaps? Within those gaps exists your biggest opportunity for dignified work and for livelihood. In those gaps exists sustainable jobs or work. So look for them and never, never, never give up.

“In Africa, we have a resilience that I have rarely seen anywhere else.”

You think about Eliud Kipchoge, our very own Kenyan marathon runner. And you can imagine how it feels in the final 10-minute stretch where your body is exhausted and you have to find something within your spirit to move you forward, to propel you to the end. And so, I would say that spirit, keep it alive, keep it strong. My final words. In Africa, we have a resilience that I have rarely seen anywhere else.


Julie, the Milken Institute, and I want to thank you again for these insights. Please keep up the great work that you’ve been doing, and it will be good to see you again. So goodbye and stay safe.

Julie Gichuru

Thank you so much, Veronica and a big thank you to the Milken Institute. They also are doing great work. We watch, we follow, and we appreciate it. Thank you so much.

via COVID-19 Africa Watch
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