Celebrating five years of work in Ethiopia

: A group of community health workers wearing matching blue t-shirts meet with Yashwant Sinha and some program managers in the shade beneath a fence in a rural setting in Bahir Dar town, Ethiopia.
Written by Caroline Wagner, published on April 18, 2023 Sign up for eNews

Operation Eyesight Universal has been running programs in Ethiopia since 2018. Late last year, our Director of International Programs Yashwant Sinha travelled to the east African country to check in on our programming. We sat down with him for an update and to learn more about our partnership with Edmonton-based Partners in Education Ethiopia.

Where in Ethiopia are our programs?

They are scattered across one region called Amhara in northern Ethiopia, and the span of the project is about 200 kilometres.

What kinds of projects are we running there?

One is a community eye health program, and the other is a WASH-related project, which means water, sanitation and hygiene.

Tell me about the community eye health program.

With this particular project, we are working with an international NGO called Partners in Education Ethiopia, which works in the education sector by mobilizing the community and building a school with its support. The goal of the partnership is to improve quality of life of students and staff of the schools, their families and other members of nearby communities through addressing visual impairment.

Under the community eye health program, we train community health workers, who are government employees, in primary eye care and in the implementation of community eye health activities. They go door to door, identify people with eye conditions and refer them to one of our vision centres. At the vision centre they get a comprehensive eye exam by a well-trained optometrist. If they are found to have refractive error, they are prescribed eyeglasses, and if they need any surgical intervention or further diagnosis, they’re referred to the base hospital.

Further, these community health workers raise awareness about eye health with the help of behaviour change communication materials. All these interventions lead to the empowerment of the communities to take care of their eye health care needs, and once that is achieved, we declare the village or community as avoidable blindness-free.

Our hospital partners are the ophthalmic department of Tibebe Ghion Specialized Hospital, Injibara Secondary Hospital, Addis Alem Hospital, Durbetie Hospital and Debrework Hospital.

Do the schools offer eye screenings as well?

Yes, we are also training teachers to screen students and identify those who have refractive errors or any kind of eye conditions requiring treatment. Similar to our door-to-door screening program, students identified with eye conditions are referred on to the vision centre for a comprehensive screening, treatment and further referrals.

A woman and two men stand near a borehole in rural Ethiopia, engaged in a discussion.
Yashwant Sinha and Marnat Adugna, Senior Project Officer with Partners in Education Ethiopia, meet with Mamush Gebreselassie, WASH project manager in Wotet Abey, to get an update on the WASH project. Photo: Zenegnaw Adimtew / Partners in Education Ethiopia.

What kind of WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) projects are we implementing?

What we are trying to do is to help the schools and the communities access clean water. You may know that the Blue Nile River originates in Ethiopia from Lake Tana in Bahir Dar, in Amhara. But there is a shortage of clean water in the areas where we are intervening, so people have to struggle and go a long distance to fetch clean water. Sometimes it may be around 10-12 kilometres. They are dependent on seasonal wells and springs. And most of the time, the water is not very clean.

With the support of the Peter Gilgan Foundation, we received funding to provide clean water in three different communities and to support teenage girls by providing them a private place for their menstrual needs. We are also working with the school health clubs in all those schools, and we are educating them about face cleaning, personal hygiene and sanitation.

We work with water and sanitation to reduce the burden of trachoma, an eye infection that leads to vision loss and even blindness if left untreated. How high are trachoma rates in the area?

In the area where we work, the trachoma rate ranges from 5.5 to 20 per cent, so it’s not uniform across the region. The trachoma rate has been reduced a little bit, but it is still a public health issue.

What are some of the challenges of working in this area?

We have a committed team in our project areas that includes community health workers. They are part of the public health system and are responsible for implementing many government programs and projects on top of Operation Eyesight’s community eye health project activities, like door-to-door surveys, health education and awareness sessions. This creates heavy workload on the community health workers and often results in a delay of our projects.

The second is the high cost associated in provisioning clean water to the communities. The price of drilling a borehole in Ethiopia is nearly three times higher than in Zambia. One reason is that the ground water table has gone down, so you need to dig deeper. The second is that you don’t find as many private drilling companies, so it can be harder to find a competitive rate.

Last but not least, the country is currently facing high inflation. Fortunately, there has been little impact on recent projects as we are importing the equipment needed for establishing new vision centres. However, the cost of living for people in the project area has gone up.  

An old man with white beard, wearing skull cap and black glasses, grins at the camera.
This cataract surgery recipient in the Addis Alem area in Ethiopia had been unable to see for six years when a pair of community health workers, trained by Operation Eyesight in primary eye care, arrived on his doorstep. Photo: Yashwant Sinha

Were there any memorable moments from your recent trip you can tell us about?

I was in the Addis Alem project area where we are working with community health workers. We were in a village where they were doing a door-to-door survey, and they took us to a particular family that they were very attached to. They told us that this was the house of a very elderly gentleman who had not been able to see anything for the last six years.

When they first met him during their initial survey, he had lost all hope of getting his sight back. But they had counselled him and then they took that gentleman to the hospital at their own cost to make sure he got an operation.

You could see the smile on this gentleman’s face, and it was incredible! That family is highly grateful to all these health extension workers who are doing marvellous work.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can learn more about our work in Ethiopia here.