It was in early 2005, with the support of global shipping giant TNT and the Moving The World Programme, Robin's team was quickly able to get people on the ground and enter the final phase of the process. It is not always easy to establish a new program in a country but luckily they had buy in from the Malawian Ministry of Health and the help of a skilled individual who had experience working in Malawi. Seconded to them was logistics specialist, Alastair Cook, who had previously helped establish a school feeding project for WFP. Upon his arrival he wasted no time putting the pieces together to get the project rolling.
Alastair soon moved in to a hotel just down the road from the Mwanza border crossing. He managed to locate a suitable spot for his shipping container clinic and set to work securing permission to use the small patch of ground. Located at the rear of the main rest area for the trucks, and out of the line of sight of the general population, the site was close enough the to the truckers and their rigs that it could be discretely accessed by the transporters and sex workers alike.
One of the keys to securing permission to use the site was to convince the Customs officials that managed the crossing that it was in their best interest to have a clinic on site. Once it was decided that the clinic would also care for the handful of local government employees that manned the station all barriers to implementing the project were removed. Alastair soon set about locating the raw materials for the new clinic and locating a team of fabricators.
Alastair had noticed that Mike Darby of GDC Transport, an outfit that had long supported Trucking Against AIDS in South Africa and who was now providing Alastair with support, had two used shipping containers sitting at the rear of his shop that were no longer suitable for road transport. Alastair quickly negotiated a deal to obtain the containers and then moved immediately to the next stage of his plan.
This was in April 2005 and in no time Alastair had the tender in place for labor and material on the two 20' containers and work started with a design based on the units he had seen earlier at the Harrismith clinic in South Africa. A short while later the freshly painted, cut and welded units were lifted onto the back of a flat bed truck and moved into position behind the Mwanza Customs Office. The location soon offered a full range of medical services and the flood of new clients was a strong indicator that the location was a perfect choice for the first WFP supported wellness center.
Today the Mwanza clinic is just one of 13 wellness centers located along the main transport corridors in east and southern Africa, specifically DRC, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.What was once a group of committed individuals and organizations has now formally become the North Star Alliance. Led by Luke Disney the organization is working closely with WFP and the other core partners to expand programs throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Their future ambition is to open clinics in India and throughout Asia.
Paul and Robin are still very much involved in North Star’s day-to-day operations with Robin serving as Program Director in Rome and Paul serving as Managing Director in Africa. Alastair still follows the project activities but is no longer involved in regular operations. He spends his time shuttling between Rome and Africa as a full time consultant with the Logistics Cluster.
In addition to expanding their operations, North Star is in the process of developing an elaborate health information management system. Known as the Corridor Medical Transfer System (COMETS) the system will unify patient information in a central database and make it available to all centers along the patients travel route. In order to receive treatment a patientwill simply need to present their ID card and their treatment regimen will be immediately accessible to wellness center staff.The system follows the World Health Organization's (WHO) guidelines for patient confidentiality and is being developed by North Star’s partner ORTEC.
What was once one of the loneliest roads in Africa has now become a corridor of hope for thousands of drivers each year. The distinct blue boxes that line the routes of Southern, Central and, in the future, West Africa provide life saving treatment and education to a group of individuals once ignored by primary health care programs. If it wasn’t for the ingenuity and perseverance of three individuals, and the organizations that support them, tens of thousands of workers would still be without access to essential health care.
Following the launch of its first Wellness Centre in Mombasa, WFP Kenya opened a second Wellness Centre in Mlolongo in March 2010 and will open a third one in Salgaa in the near future.
Special thanks to Paul Matthew, Robin Landis and Alastair Cook. Thanks also to Jonathan Thompson for telling their story.