With a rather disarming smile, Adelaide Bih welcomes me to the premises of the African Initiative for Health and Research Promotion (AIHRP), an organization that offers philanthropic healthcare services to victims of conflicts and very low-income persons living in deplorable conditions.
Perched on the hills of the Mbangkolo neighborhood in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, the AIHRP is gradually transforming life in the poor, dusty neighborhood.
“When I came here, 80% of the cases we received had typhoid fever,” Bih, 29 recalls.
And she didn’t have to go far to understand why: wells were dug near toilets and the little stream that supplied water to some of the community members was a receptacle for household refuse.
In partnership with other structures, Bih built a borehole that has become a saving grace to the Mbangkolo community.
“The incidence of typhoid and other water-borne diseases has significantly dropped,” Bih tells Timescape Magazine.
The young woman is a clinical biologist whose story of helping people with little means is also personal.
Her mother was sickling with little possibility of getting the healthcare she needed. When she eventually passed away, Bih knew it was time she began helping people like her mother.
The native of Wum in the North West region eventually studied medicine, specializing in clinical biology. But a pro-independence war in the former UN Trust Territory of British Southern Cameroons that erupted in 2016 and which snuffed the life out of her classmate, would eventually force her to flee.
“It was chaotic. There were gunshots everywhere. Every now and then you have to go under the bed and in the process, I even lost one of my colleagues. It was really frightening and staying there was becoming dangerous. A lot of people were moving to the bushes, houses were burnt, and I could not stay there when I knew that my life was not secure.”
Bih initially fled to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. There, she found a job as the Medical Representative at Bioimmun Diagnostic Laboratory, a vendor of highly specialized medical equipment.
“I was also responsible for the onboarding and training of laboratory scientists of client organizations,” she recalls.
But the thought of people like her mother dying for lack of medical care, or her childhood friend losing her life to Malaria, as well as the thousands of people like her who fled the military brutality with virtually nothing to call theirs, would eventually constrain her to return home.
And Yaounde is where she chose to settle.
And she would come face-to-face with the harsh realities of those who fled the raging war that has been on for six years and counting.
“In October 2019, I volunteered at the Afrogiveness Movement (a centre that provides educational, psychosocial, and legal support to victims of conflicts). There, we did the identification of IDPs, and during this period, I came across a lady with five little kids no older than seven years. I was curious about how she survived here in Yaounde, so I inquired to know more about her situation. Of the five kids, three were hers and two belonged to her late sister, who passed away due to a lack of finance to see a doctor. She died of malaria, a death that could have been prevented with as little as 2,500 CFA F, had it been tackled in time. I was touched by her story, and felt the need to establish a platform to meet the health needs of these internally displaced people from the North West and South West Regions,” Bih explains.
That is how, together with her partner, Dr. Ingrid, they came up with the African Initiative for Health and Research Promotion. They have since been offering subsidized healthcare to IDPs and to low-income families.
“Most of them come here with severe malaria. Most of them come with genital tract infections. Most of them live like 10-14 in a single room and they use a single toilet where they can easily get genital tract infections, they come with vaginitis, they come with unwanted pregnancies these are all things that can easily be managed,” Bih says.
She says through AIHRP, she has not only contributed to offering subsidized and free healthcare to more than 1,000 people but also provided portable water to 5,000 people in the Yaounde slums.
Akum Canisia Fule cannot be more thankful to the health entrepreneur for giving her a new life when she was at the brink of giving up.
“I was very ill. I could not even walk. So, when I came here, Madam Bih did everything without even asking me to pay. It was after that I looked for the money and came and paid her.”
That service sparked in Canisia the urge to give back, and she has since joined the health facility as an intern, bent on learning how to offer others the healthcare she didn’t have until Bih came around.
Her works which have stretched beyond practice to policy are gaining not just significant impact but also recognition.
In July 2022, Adelaide Bih was announced the winner of the Women in Africa (WIA) Young Leaders program.
She has also been listed as one of 50 African Women in Development by a Nigerian-based organization, Donors for Africa.
But it’s never been an easy journey. She says getting the project off the ground was hard because the capital wasn’t there, and so she had to partner with Dr. Ingrid “who shares the same vision.”
Together, they mobilized the seed capital to start. But getting the human capital in a country where money drives almost everything was difficult as well.
“I have always been keen on both competence and character. I wanted to work with people who did not only care about payroll but demonstrated a connection to the vision of the organization. To overcome this, we opened a call for volunteers and then choose the best we could find. We can now boast of an impressive human resource pool, made up of Medical Doctors, Dentists, Clinical Biologist, Nurses, Cleaners, and Mentees,” Bih says.
She says her organization still faces significant challenges, both in terms of funding and equipment.
“To handle this problem, we created partnerships with laboratories that are ready to provide subsidies to people. As we continue to grow, I believe that opportunities like the WIA Fellowship will further arm me with the right networks to learn useful skills in resource mobilization. We continue to apply for funding because we know all organizations need more funding to grow and achieve greater impact,” she says.
Despite the challenges, Bih plans to extend her services to all ten regions of Cameroon, and then reach out across Africa to “launch a Health Vlog and establish a health research Centre for medical students.”