Health & Pharmaceuticals

Thriving in Africa’s Public Health Sector: The Necessity of Versatility and Cross-Disciplinary Expertise

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“Happy to have played a key role at the Zambia National Public Health Institute (ZNPHI) Launch of Strategic Plan and Strategic Partnership Plan. With Minister of Health Hon. Sylvia Masebo and Prof Emmanuel Makasa”

Dr. Moses Simuyemba


The landscape of public health in Africa is marked by an intricate web of challenges, ranging from traditional infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria to emerging non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes and hypertension. Amidst these complexities, the need for public health consultants who possess cross-disciplinary knowledge, versatility, and a high level of skill becomes paramount. These multidimensional professionals are instrumental in conceptualizing, strategizing, and implementing robust public health solutions that address the unique health landscape of Africa.

Having worked in various sectors, including government, the military, civil society, academia and diverse consulting opportunities in public health and monitoring and evaluation across Africa, I have come to appreciate the value of having a rich and diverse background when it comes to public health consulting in Africa. The knowledge, skills and cross-disciplinary expertise I have encountered allow me to approach the work with a deeper understanding of it from multiple angles, having understood the complexities of the public health challenges Africa faces. I would like to share some tips based on this experience spanning over two decades.

The Cross-Disciplinary Expertise Imperative

Africa’s public health challenges are multifaceted, deeply rooted in socio-economic structures, and have cultural implications. They are not merely biological or medical issues but involve complex socio-political and economic dynamics. Therefore, the task of public health consultants extends beyond the sphere of medical knowledge. They must possess expertise across various disciplines such as epidemiology, health economics, policy development, sociology, and anthropology.

In the fight against HIV/AIDS, for instance, public health consultants should not only focus on medical interventions but also appreciate and address the socio-economic and cultural factors influencing the disease’s prevalence and impact. The growing burden of NCDs, too, demands an approach that transcends biomedical understanding, requiring insights into lifestyle factors and emphasizing health promotion and prevention. Therefore, public health consultants must be able to integrate various disciplines into a comprehensive and effective strategy, underscoring the immense need for cross-disciplinary knowledge.

Q&A session on the Strategic Plan and Partnership Forum with ZNPHI Director General and Presidential Covid-19 Advisor Prof Roma Chilengi

The Versatility Factor

The heterogeneity of public health challenges in Africa mandates a high degree of versatility in public health consultants. These professionals must navigate different scenarios, each with its unique demands, adapt to diverse contexts, and develop tailored approaches. A versatile public health consultant can transition from strategizing for disease prevention, to planning for healthcare infrastructure improvement, to advocating for policy changes, all while considering the unique socio-cultural fabric of the region. This ability to adapt to and address the diverse health needs of the continent underscores the critical need for versatility.

The Skill Necessity

Alongside cross-disciplinary expertise and versatility, the effectiveness of public health consultants hinges on their skill set. They must exhibit proficiency in analyzing intricate health data, designing and evaluating health interventions, and influencing health policy and systems. They should possess leadership and communication skills to drive change and advocate for improved health outcomes effectively. The ability to translate their cross-disciplinary knowledge and versatile approach into actionable strategies signifies the importance of skill in their profession.

An Example

The pictures I share here, for example, are from the recent launch of the Zambia National Public Health Institute (ZNPHI) Strategic Plan and Strategic Partnership Plan. I was contracted by USAID (through the Global Health Technical Assistance and Mission Support Project, GH-TAMS) to work with ZNPHI over several months as Covid-19 M&E Data Specialist. However, when the opportunity to assist with conceptualizing the Partnership Forum came up I relished it. I had worked on partnerships in my evaluation work with Gavi, doing partnership mapping and tracking, and even published a paper on how well partnerships were working within the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) in Zambia. In my civil society work earlier I had coordinated several partners on some projects and been a partner on others. So it was not beyond my depth and I felt I could add value to what was happening. Flexibility and versatility can be a great asset.

Awaiting the arrival of the Minister of Health with Prof Roma Chilengi, Prof Peter Mwaba, Dr Lucy Mazyanaga and Dr Kal Kalangwa

In a nutshell

In the face of Africa’s complex and multifaceted public health challenges, the demand for public health consultants with cross-disciplinary expertise, versatility, and high-level skills is more pronounced than ever. Their unique capability to weave together different areas of knowledge, adapt to varying contexts, and apply their skills effectively is integral to addressing Africa’s health challenges. This investment in public health consultants is a vital step towards not only addressing the immediate health needs of the continent but also towards building resilient health systems that can weather future health crises.