In the early 1980s, I began my career as a tradesman with the goal of working my way up South Africa’s business sector. By the mid-1990s, I joined South Africa’s Road Transport Industry Education and Training Board as their Chief Executive Officer.
As my team worked to develop, educate and recruit new heavy vehicle drivers into the South Africa road freight industry a pressing issue was coming to light reaping havoc on individuals, communities, and employers across the country: HIV.
Unaware of the already severe HIV and AIDS epidemic in South Africa, I met with South Africa’s Minister of Transportation, Mac Maharaj, an early advocate for addressing the growing impact of HIV on Africa’s long-haul truck drivers, who were becoming disproportionately affected by HIV. The meeting played a fundamental role in turning my attention to the critical impact HIV was having on the transport sector, and the unique healthcare challenges faced by mobile workers in general.
With greater understanding of the impact that HIV was having across South Africa and beyond, I founded the Trucking Against AIDS programme as an industry response to the realities being faced by drivers. We pioneered the concept of establishing Roadside Wellness Centers in converted shipping containers and placing them at high-risk areas such as truck stops situated along national routes. These centers provided health services specific to the needs of mobile populations. Despite developing what we thought was an innovative concept, our focus remained on South African truck drivers, and progress was slow.
In 2004, after establishing 12 Roadside Wellness Centres in South Africa, I connected with the United Nations World Food Programme, who were interested in the concept and also noted the impact of HIV on the drivers they relied on to deliver food aid to communities in need. As a result of that meeting, WFP and their partner TNT founded a new organization called North Star Alliance to help scale the concept across Africa.
Formally established in 2006, North Star Alliance is now operating Roadside Wellness Centres in 13 countries providing testing, treatment, and health information to over 215,000 mobile workers, sex workers, and corridor community members this past year alone. We’ve also established an alliance of more than 60 public and private sector partners who ensure we continue to scale across the continent. It is work I am deeply proud of, and work that countless communities across Africa and beyond could still greatly benefit from.
I attended the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2013 in Davos, Switzerland, as one of the 2012 Social Entrepreneurs of the Year. I was able to share North Star’s story with fellow social entrepreneurs, and leaders from the public and private sector. I was also fortunate enough to run into Mac Maharaj and let him know of the impact our meeting had two decades prior.
Beyond reflecting on the networking opportunities that took place at World Economic Forum, I’ve also considered the conference’s theme of ‘resilient dynamism’ – a term that seemed rather loaded at the outset. While resilient dynamism, in the context it is often discussed, looks at the dynamic ability of organizations to possess ‘risk resilience’, I would suggest from my own experience, that collaboration, partnership, and the honest objective of improving the society in which we live, will move all organizations, and the market, closer to a position less prone to risk and vulnerability. These characteristics have been instrumental to creating change within South Africa, within North Star Alliance, and, perhaps by accident, in my own life and career.
North Star Alliance Roadside Wellness Clinics provide truckers and mobile workers with free access to primary health care services, and treatment for HIV, TB, Malaria, and other illnesses. North Star created a software programme that records patient information, diagnosis and treatments and which acts as a health passport in tracking usage and access over a wide geographical area.
Image: Trucks block a highway toll booth during a transport strike – REUTERS/Alberto Berti (ITALY)