Francine Irakoze: Explore your talents, master them, and find a way to shine on the continent

Francine Irakoze was born in Burundi and grew up in many countries including Japan, Germany, and Belgium. Francine held various positions including Team Leader, Program Coordination/Liaison, and Interim Program Manager at Mckesson Canada before starting her global health career.

In 2015, she was selected to join the 2015 – 2016 Global Health Corps Fellowship cohort as an Operations Officer in Rwanda She was later promoted to Operations Manager/Program Specialist.

Francine now works in Toronto for Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief (CPAR) as a Program Coordinator/Proposal Writer.

In this article, she talks about returning to Africa, her work with CPAR, the projects she worked on as a GHC fellow and her humanitarian work across Africa.

What does a typical day look like for you and what projects are you currently focusing on with CPAR?

CPAR is a sustainable development NGO in Ethiopia, Malawi, and Tanzania. My daily tasks include providing operational and programmatic support to the headquarters and the field offices in Africa.

My workload ranges from closely monitoring programmatic activities reviewing narrative and financial reports, working on multi-annual funding applications to recruiting Emergency Canadian Physicians for our Medical Placement Program among other tasks.

I sometimes travel to meet field teams. Last month I visited Malawi to conduct research on the country’s Sexual Reproductive Health landscape and secure partnerships with local organizations.

Overall, the varieties of my tasks make it hard to predict my day, but my one constant regardless of country or time zone – is my light cup of coffee every morning.

You once interviewed civil war health workers in Burundi, what did you learn from the experience?

In 2015, Burundi faced a social-political crisis that sparked deadly protests and violence between state forces and suspected opposition. In the same year, I moved from Toronto to Kigali, Rwanda as a GHC fellow with Health Builders.

I would wake up every morning worried about my family and friends living in Burundi. It was very hard for me to grasp how different life in Kigali was compared to my hometown of Bujumbura.

Writing became my coping mechanism.  “Letter to Burundi”, wasn’t meant to be published but the positive comments I gained reminded me of the incredible power of using one’s story and voice to raise awareness.

With  “White Coats, Dark Times.” I felt compelled to share this story of the conflict evolving in Bujumbura.  More importantly, I wrote this article to honor my friends who were fighting, as physicians to save lives.

Around the world, conflicts stretch everything thin: a person’s sense of safety and security, emotional stability, and resources. On the other hand, conflicts also create heroes whose courage and resilience become inspirational.

“White Coats, Dark Times” turned out to be, for me, a bridge between these two conflict-generated realities.

Why do you think many other young Africans decide not to return home?

As I grew older, I started having a strong desire to return to the continent to contribute to change from there.

I would encourage Africans in the diaspora to continue exploring their true identity locally and globally - Francine Irakoze Click To Tweet

Everyone needs to develop various skill sets, explore their talents, master them, and then find a way to shine on the continent – not just in the international development sector but in finance, fashion, technology, the arts, and more.  

My hope is that one main factor will drive our common homecoming journey, to play our part (however small) and to lift our continent up with hard work and positive contributions so it can thrive both politically and economically.

Why prompted you to return to Africa?

When I went back to Burundi as a teenager I was exposed to the harsh reality of life in an impoverished environment. Sadly, I saw family members struggling to afford prescriptions drugs and others dying of preventable disease.

After a few years, I gained more perspective on the dangerous combination of poverty, infectious disease, and inaccessibility to primary health care.

This was such a systemic problem in my country that, I felt compelled to get involved in the field of global health.

What advice would you share with other young leaders interested in the global health sector?

Global health is hard work because it’s about fighting for health as a human right and any fight against injustice is not easy.  My advice would be for young leaders to be vigilant and always analyze power dynamics at play.

As you prepare to enter the fight for health equity, equip yourself with the knowledge of where disparities stem from in the first place. Stay engaged.

We need more people to join this sector to drive concrete change to eliminate health disparities. We should use the fullness of our diverse personalities, professional experiences, backgrounds, and talents, to fight health inequality.

I call this D against D: diversity against disparity. We should not tolerate such big gaps in the way people receive medical care or are able to access health insurance, and/or even live or die based on their financial status.


What’s your leadership mantra? 

“Become the kind of leader that people would follow voluntarily, even if you had no title or position.” —Brian Tracy, motivational speaker

Working in such a challenging sector, how do you stay inspired and hopeful? 

I stay connected to other changemakers. I read and stay in tune with other organizations, global health professionals, GHC friends, present and past co-workers. Their vision, drive, approach, and impact are a source of motivation for me.

When I was in Malawi, I attended the Segal Family Foundation (SFF), Social Impact Incubator (SII) event. During a small group exercise, I had the opportunity to sit with young leaders tackling issues ranging from improving cervical cancer services to advocating for climate change prevention in Malawi.

Listening to them explaining their source of motivations, and describing their organizations’ respective approach to solve local challenges was very informative.

It’s during moments like these, when my passion for transformative change aligns with others, that my sense of purpose is always reignited. 

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About Global Health Corps

Global Health Corps (GHC) is a leadership development organization that works to mobilize the health equity movement. Since 2009, GHC has placed talented and innovative young professionals from a range of backgrounds and sectors in one year paid fellowships. Fellows work in high-impact positions on the front lines of global health with our partners in Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, the United States, and Zambia. United by the belief that health is a human right, GHC's global community of emerging leaders is nearly 750 strong and growing. To learn more, check out the GHC website and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Medium!

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