In 2015, three years after graduating from Swarthmore College, KenSAP alumna Lizah Masis was forced to take care of her mother who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As the main breadwinner of her family, Lizah faced some of the problems afflicting the Kenyan public health system. There are only a dozen or so oncologists in Kenya, and most of them are centered around Nairobi, not very close to the majority of the Kenyan population. It takes about forty days to secure an appointment with one of the oncologists and the waiting period for radiotherapy treatment is even longer, at least five months. Chemotherapy drugs are not on the government’s list of essential drugs which means that chemotherapy drugs are not frequently available. Even when they are available, most people don’t have health insurance to cover the costs of the treatment.
Even with all the difficulties, she still considered private care for her mother, but the cost was so astronomical that it was cheaper for her mother to be flown to India for even better treatment. While in India, they met hundreds of other Kenyans in similar situations, seeking treatment for serious conditions which they all deemed the Kenyan healthcare system either incapable of handling or too costly or both.
At the time, Lizah was working for Wells Fargo Bank in London, as a Relationship Manager for European Financial Institutions. She had previously graduated from Swarthmore College in 2012 where she double-majored in mathematics and economics. She always had an interest in public policy and opportunities with high social impact, as can be seen by her work with Project Tumaini, a microfinance project she founded in college to support women in Mt. Elgon, Kenya, as well as the Rural Women Peace Link, where she worked in partnership with USAID to lead peace dialogue meetings and civic education workshops in warring communities in Kenya.
But it was the personal experience with her mother’s cancer that truly sparked her interest in public policy relating to healthcare, specifically related to non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and cancer. Lizah realized that it was possible to devote her life to changing health policy in Kenya and Africa more generally, playing a role to ensure that health systems are capable of tackling the magnitude of health challenges. Once she saved up some money from her time working at Wells Fargo, Lizah decided to go back to graduate school to follow her passion and change her world.
She enrolled in a Master’s in health policy at the London School of Economics (LSE), focusing her studies on health systems in Africa. At LSE, Lizah served as the Business Development and Finance lead for the internationally renowned London School of Economics Africa Summit, a dynamic platform bringing together leading scholars, policymakers, business leaders, entrepreneurs, professionals, and students for a robust conversation on issues impacting the African continent. In this capacity, Lizah was responsible for fundraising through forging compelling partnerships with sponsors and collaborators and managing all finance matters for the Summit.
She completed her Master’s in Health Policy in 2018 and returned to Kenya as the Country Investment and Knowledge Director at Financing Alliance for Health, a multi-partner initiative incubated within the United Nations Special Envoy for Health. In this capacity, she engages with a spectrum of stakeholders including governments as primary clients, major NGOs, global funders, banks, and private investors to design, develop, and implement financial solutions to address health sector investment gaps in low and middle-income countries. She also leads knowledge management efforts for the organization.
Lizah firmly believes that closing the health sector investment gap is critical in ensuring access to health for everyone. Dealing with tremendous public policy and administration challenges in health in African countries requires creating a pool of seasoned policy designers and administrators with an intimate understanding of the local context, which, in turn, requires training more people like her.
She hopes to contribute her career to generating policy ideas, crafting policy, and implementing processes that support robust health systems which respond effectively and equitably to the needs of people with non-communicable diseases as well infectious diseases. With her passion for increasing access to care in low and middle-income countries through sustainable financial solutions for health systems and critically assessing where resources are invested to maximize population health, we have no doubt that health systems in Africa will be significantly improved in years to come.