Folake Olayinka


Immunization Team Leader, Maternal Child Survival Program/USAID grantee

How did you end up working in public health?

After medical school, I spent 5 years practicing medicine in a variety of hospitals; I worked in a government-run folake-olayinkafacility, a private boutique practice and eventually moved to one of the busiest hospitals in Lagos. The hospital was right next to a slum and served Lagos’ low-income community. Shortly after I started, I noticed mothers would bring their children in repeatedly to receive care for the same diseases. It was always diarrhea and malaria, both easily preventable illnesses. My concern grew and I wondered why they were not following simple treatment measures. I learned quickly and painfully that it was because they couldn’t afford the prescribed medication and didn’t know the necessary preventive measures to take. This realization rattled and awoke in me a profound interest in public health.

I became determined to find diverse ways to address health issues that particularly challenged and affected vulnerable populations. My mission was to find ways to have a larger impact on health systems. The following year, I returned to the US and enrolled in an MPH program with a concentration in maternal and child health at Loma Linda University in California. I went back to Nigeria after my studies and have been working in public health ever since. This year actually marks my 21st anniversary in the health field!

When did your relationship with JSI begin?

My first encounter with JSI was in 2002; I was hired to lead the polio component of BASICS 2, a USAID-funded child survival project as the national training coordinator in Nigeria.  I reconnected with JSI from 2007 to 2009 to serve as Deputy Chief of Party/Technical Director on IMMUNIZATIONbasics, another global USAID project that JSI was leading. And finally last August, I moved back to the US—to Arlington, Virgina—to support the Immunization Center as Senior Technical Immunization Officer.  I am the Immunization team lead on the Maternal and Child Survival Program. I work with an incredible team and I love being a part of JSI!

Where do you call home?

Folake -- no wireI was born in Nigeria and spent my developmental years in the U.S. I lived in Texas, Kansas, and Louisiana. My family moved to Côte D’Ivoire when I was entering high school, so my high school years were split between there, and the neighboring Nigeria and Ghana. I have also spent time in France. I feel comfortable in all these places and like to consider myself a global citizen.

You’ve received some public recognition recently—Congratulations!

I have been fortunate enough to have had several humbling moments in my career. In 2012, I  was given the United States Mission’s Eagle award for my contributions to maternal and child health, malaria, and reproductive health in Nigeria. Earlier this year,  I was selected as one of 21 global New Voices Fellows  by the Aspen Institute. The fellowship facilitates and fosters global discourse in development issues so it has opened up a lot of doors. The fellowship has helped my work appear in Huffington Post, World Economic Forum, World Policy Journal, and Project Syndicate with additional translations in seven languages!

And now?  

I wish to bring my frontline public health experience to the global stage to inform, influence, and introduce new paradigms through approaches that build capacity and hold national governments accountable for health outcomes. I would also like to play a role in molding the next generation of public health practitioners, incorporating lessons from the South.

How do you keep connected and keep a pulse on your areas of interest outside work?

Twitter! I used to think it was a waste of time, but I see it now as a valuable tool for expanding my network, for sharing knowledge and best practices, and for connecting with peers around the globe. Follow me @joflakes!

A Project to Remember

I was asked to design a training workshop on immunization for senior Ministry of Health Officials in Abuja. I incorporated adult learning and participatory methods and I also stressed the importance of experiential exchange/ small group interaction as part of my design. It was one of my first assignments in public health and I thought it fantastic but the participants found it all very strange—they had become accustomed to being “lectured” in workshops—but I carried on. I introduced myself by my nickname, FLAKY and asked the officials to do the same. The room was silent for a while… so in good facilitating style, I turned to the most likely government official and graced him with a unique nickname which set the ball rolling!  Fast forward ten years later, I ran into the same official. He reminded me of the workshop and told me the interactive methodology was new to them but built on their experiences, he said they learned a lot and appreciated the approach.

Any insights into whether the training changed their work approaches?

I am not sure how the training impacted their work after they left my sessions but I’ve learned capacity building is not just about materials, methods, and content but about having the courage to challenge and initiate new paradigms. I have learned capacity building, explored sustainability, equity, leadership, political will, accountability and partnerships to ensure improved health outcomes.