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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Meet the Young African Women Shaking Up the Global Health Sector

Around the world, women make 75 percent of the health workforce and continue to be the primary caretakers in communities and families. They also experience heightened health risks.

This is thanks to persistent gender-based violence and stigma that prevents access to preventive care and treatment. Despite these realities, women occupy fewer than 25 percent of leadership roles in the health sector.

Adanna Chukwuma, Karen Maniraho, and Favorite Iradukunda are slaying the game when it comes to demonstrating that young women of African descent can lead – and are leading – the global health equity movement.

As Global Health Corps (GHC) alumni, these ladies are committed to playing their part in realizing health as a human right for all. 

GHC’s Brittany Cesarini caught up with these ladies to learn about how they’re crafting their own unique leadership journeys. And how they are disrupting the status quo in global health leadership along the way.  


Adanna Chukwuma

Why do you think we need more women leaders in global health?

Adanna: There is overwhelming evidence that diversity of team membership and leadership promotes creativity and productivity in teams. Therefore, increasing the proportion of female leaders in global health will increase our effectiveness at addressing the pressing health problems we face.

One can also make an ethical argument. We know that bias partly shapes the gaps between male-female representation in leadership. This bias does not always reflect performance. It may be a matter of discomfort with the idea of women in leadership. This is a wrong that must be righted.

Karen: Health and who has access to it will always be a discussion of power. Without women in positions of power, we cannot tackle the systemic inequalities that affect women and our communities.

Favorite: I think this is a matter of logic and holding true to what we believe. If global health values equity, equality, and social justice, if we are advocating for these values for other people. Doesn’t it make sense to start at home?

Where is equality and justice, when women make up to 75% of the healthcare workforce but occupy less than 25% of the leadership positions?

We are all leaders and learners - @favourtieiradukunda Click To Tweet

What lessons did you learn from the Women Leaders in Global Health conference at Stanford University last October?

Adanna: In one session at the conference, Laurie Garrett and Agnes Binagwaho shared personal stories about the bias they encountered and overcame to excel in their careers. Their conversation stuck with me because of the understanding that excellence can be female, and it can be black African.

A paraphrased version of my favorite quote, uttered by Laurie Garrett, is: 

Women need to shove their modesty through the back door. There are billions of lives at stake - @Laurie_Garrett Click To Tweet

Karen: It was quite inspiring to hear Dr. Afaf Meleis talk about the ways “women are vulnerable and at risk in their productive and reproductive lives.” 

There was also a panel titled “How to Become a Change Agent in Global Health” moderated by Donna Shalala. It featuring Ambassador Deborah Birx, Patricia Garcia, and Vanessa Kerry, among others.

They all so candidly discussed successes and the importance of failures in their global health journeys in refreshingly honest ways.

Favorite: Dr. Afaf Meleis brought up the issue of missing nurses. Nurses are continuously under-represented in global health leadership. They have also missed out on discussions meaningful to the advancement of healthcare, yet we all know that nurses are the backbone of healthcare.

Karen Maniraho

What advice can you give young women aspiring to have leadership roles in global health and to those supporting them? 

Adanna: We can start where we are to influence the gender imbalance in global health in the right direction by challenging ourselves to take risks and more responsibility in our careers. 

Karen: 1. Mentoring at least one girl will help change the status of women in leadership today. Secondly, don’t be afraid to fail. In fact, failure is something we should celebrate. 3. Don’t “lean in” if it’s only to replicate male models.

Our work as women leaders can’t simply be about breaking the glass ceiling. Rather, it must be about rebuilding the whole building so that its doors are open to all. 

As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. — Marianne Williamson Click To Tweet

Favorite: We have a lot of female leaders in global health, yet they are not considered as leaders because we measure their leadership abilities against a biased definition of leadership.

We need to redefine leadership and not be intimidated by all the biased definitions out there. We need to realize that women are not just leaders but also innovators. 

Favorite Iradukunda

How are you committing to investing in your own professional development as a young leader in global health?

Adanna: I recently joined a Lean In Circle primarily so that I can be intentional about confronting my fears, taking career risks, and developing strategies for dealing with bias.

Karen: After my Global Health Corps fellowship in Burundi, that I realized elevating underrepresented voices through storytelling had a key role in amplifying health conversations. Also, reconnecting with my homeland and working with people taught me innovative ways of communicating health and social needs.  

Favorite: I have always considered professional growth as a result of receiving and giving. receiving 2. giving. My mentors’ help in achieving my goals is part of the receiving.  

With regards to giving, I have invested in younger women. However, I need to redefine my mentorship strategies to be more intentional with clear expectations and deliverables on both sides.

Have the courage to use your own reason - Karen Click To Tweet.

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