March 7, 2022
Get to know one of PSI-Europe's newest board members, Ekua Yankah.
1. What should we know about Ekua Yankah?
My name is Ekua Yankah. I’m a German-Ghanian social epidemiologist born and raised in Germany. Outside of the public health field I’m known as a social entrepreneur. My work has gone beyond academia and policy to explore hybrid territories. I’m currently living with my family in Lisbon, Portugal.
I feel privileged to have studied in Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom. When I was 15 years old, we moved to Washington, D.C. in the United States as a family. It was an important milestone for me personally and the beginning of an international life. Adjusting to life in the United States as a 15 year old girl (with a German accent) was difficult. My siblings and I were used to enjoying enormous freedom living in and exploring Berlin. We had busy lives attending school, going to parties, the cinema, roller skate discos and concerts. We could access almost everything the city had to offer by foot, bikes, or public transport. The minority of our friends had cars. Living in the suburbs of Washington D.C., we faced a new reality of wide-open spaces and the importance of cars. We adjusted quickly. The best part of living in Washington D.C. was our exposure to an international community and, via our friends’ parents’, exposure to international organisations such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. I know that my decision to learn French, Spanish and Portuguese came from being exposed to my Swiss, French, Lebanese, Brazilian, Chilean and Argentinian friends. I went on to study biomedical sciences at New York University and then completed a Masters of Public Health with a focus on Adolescent Health at George Washington University in 1999. After graduation from my Masters programme, I joined the Department of Adolescent Medicine and the Centre for Reproductive Health Policy at the University of California San Francisco for one year.
The big turning point in my career came when I decided to forgo a career in medicine and pursue a doctorate in social epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) with a focus on HIV prevention in adolescents in Brazil instead. I moved to Salvador da Bahia to learn Portuguese, travelled along the coast of Bahia and met Gary Barker and his team at Instituto Promundo in Rio. The rest is history. My PhD was a need assessment of HIV prevention in the youth detention centre system of Sao Paulo, then known as FEBEM. It was a life changing experience. Shortly before completing my PhD, I was offered a short-term consultancy in the education sector at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. The consultancy turned into a job and to the commissioning and publication of one of my career highlights, the landmark first edition of the UN Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education.That was back in 2009. Since then, I have worked for UNFPA, UNICEF, WHO, the German Federal Centre for Health Education and others in Southeast Asia, Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2020 I joined the period tracking app Clue for one year, leading work on a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded research study on contraceptive use and preferences. I’m particularly interested in the intersection of international development and technology. I now work for Brands on a Mission, a B-corp that designs, implements, and evaluates sustainable business models that improve health and well-being through behaviour change at scale. In the last quarter of 2021, I led a fascinating project on developing a webinar and how-to-guide on private sector engagement for UNFPA East and Southern Africa Regional Office.
2. How did you come to know PSI-Europe and what resonates with you about PSI-Europe’s work and mission?
I was introduced to PSI and the work it does globally through my colleague Andrew Karlyn, whom I met at the beginning of my doctoral studies at LSHTM. Andrew was the former research director of PSI in Mozambique. His work focused on HIV prevention and behaviour change—similar to my area of interest. Throughout my time at LSHTM, I came across other colleagues who had worked for PSI in Sub-Saharan Africa doing very interesting work. I particularly remember a colleague who had done a fascinating study on social marketing of the female condom in Zimbabwe. I was introduced to PSI-Europe by my colleague Danielle Keiser, co-founder of the Menstrual Health Hub. What resonates with me about PSI-Europe’s work and mission is its approach of applying private sector models, i.e. consumer insights, to addressing important challenges in global public health.
3. What does PSI-Europe’s focus on consumer-powered healthcare mean to you?
The most important lesson I picked up when joining Brands on a Mission, founded by my colleague Myriam Sidibe, was that a consumer has power. A consumer makes choices. A beneficiary, on the other hand, is powerless. He or she is a passive recipient of aid. There is little room for transformation if we use the beneficiary paradigm in international development. I therefore believe that PSI’s focus on consumer-powered healthcare is one step to solving important challenges we are facing in designing effective and good-quality health services in low and middle income countries.
4. We at PSI-Europe are bold and are not afraid to take risks to move the needle on some of the world’s most persistent health problems. How will you help us be bold and make change?
I believe we are a perfect match! I started my career working in HIV in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The tragic loss of lives, stigma, discrimination, racism, gender inequality and violence associated with HIV and AIDS helped us widen our horizons. Working in HIV prevention has taught me to think outside of the box. It also led me to work in one of the world’s most notorious detention centre systems in the world. The young detainees I met in FEBEM taught me many life lessons.
I have joined the board of PSI-Europe to support its growing area of work on menstrual health and hygiene. Research and investment into girls’ and women’s health, particularly femtech, is an exciting area full of opportunities. I look forward to working with PSI-Europe to establish linkages with important players in the public and private sector around innovation, menstrual health and hygiene.
5. We are excited to have a menstrual health advocate like yourself on board – as advancing the menstrual health agenda is one of PSI-Europe’s priorities right now. Why do you think menstrual health is important, and what do you think the community of practice needs to focus on?
I’m excited to be on board as well. I see myself as a comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) advocate most of all. Menstrual health and education around sexual maturation is an important part of CSE. It is an area that is receiving a lot of attention at the moment. I’m very happy about that, and I hope it will help us get life-saving information, supplies and support to girls, women and people who menstruate around the world who need it most. Interestingly, taboos around menstruation and menstrual health also exist in high-income countries.There is a lot of work to be done. Every person who menstruates has a right to be adequately prepared and equipped to navigate through the menstrual lifecycle.
6. What do you hope to see in 2022?
I hope to see more funding going to female founders and female founders of colour and the expansion of innovation and research directly benefiting girls and women worldwide. I also hope to see more girls and young women being given platforms to speak about the injustices they are experiencing in their lives. At Brand on a Mission, we just won a bid to design a small grants programme to directly fund girls and women working in grass-root movements to prevent female genital mutilation and cutting in Kenya. We need to support girls and women at the grassroots level. They are doing important work. I’m a big advocate of building up and strengthening local women’s rights movements in vulnerable communities.
7. What’s a fun or interesting fact about yourself you’d like to share?
A funfact about me is that I have a parallel career working as a patron in the visual arts. I sit on the boards of Savvy Contemporary Friends, Hangar and ANO Ghana, three internationally-recognised black-led art organisations in Berlin, Lisbon, and Accra. I’m excited to be joining ANO Ghana at the openings of theVenice biennale and Dakar biennale in spring 2022.
Spending time with contemporary artists teaches me to reflect on history. A lot of the thinking around decolonisation is amplified by black female contemporary artists like Rene Akitelek Mboya, Lerato Shadi, Monica de Miranda, Grada Kilomba and Tabita Rezaire to name a few.