By Sara Jerving // 20 February 2023
Dr. Jean Kaseya is the first director general of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. He is a Congolese medical doctor with over two decades of experience in public health, working at both international institutions and the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
His candidacy was approved by African heads of state in Addis Ababa during the African Union summit over the weekend.
Kaseya joins Africa CDC at a moment of transition. Nearly a year ago, African heads of state voted to allow the agency to transition from a specialized technical institute of the African Union into a public health agency. This gives it more authority, flexibility, and speed in responding to public health emergencies.
Because of this transition, Kaseya will take on the role of director general whereas the previous head of Africa CDC was a director. This will give him more power with the expectation of less internal AU bureaucracy to navigate. Kaseya will report to the AU’s chairperson and have the power to convene heads of state on issues of public health, which was not a power invested in a director.
His overarching task is to lead the agency in its quest to ensure global health security for populations across Africa. This includes strengthening disease surveillance, working with countries to strengthen health systems, and responding to health emergencies.
Kaseya’s prior roles include nine years with UNICEF, two years with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, as well as work with the World Health Organization, and DRC government, which included chief routine immunization officer and senior adviser to the president. He recently worked with the Clinton Health Access Initiative, where he served as senior country director for DRC and global team lead for work on the African Health Diagnostics Platform with the European Investment Bank.
Finding a leader
The role is under a four-year contract based in Addis Ababa — which includes a one year probationary period. The contract can be renewed once. The base salary is $143,306 per annum with a housing allowance up to $72,000, among other benefits.
Over the weekend Kaseya received congratulatory messages from global health leaders who said they look forward to working with him.
“His years of experience working in international development and health will support the continued growth of @AfricaCDC. I look forward to strengthening our partnership,” tweeted Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa. Kaseya tweeted that his first call after his confirmation was with Moeti, to discuss the partnership between Africa CDC and WHO’s regional office for Africa.
The recruitment process has been ongoing for about a year and included a call for applications, interviews with finalists, and a subcommittee making a recommendation of their chosen candidate to the AU assembly of heads of state who then ratified the subcommittee’s selection.
Devex reached out to Dr. Githinji Gitahi, who is group CEO of Amref Health Africa and an Africa CDC board member, to ask about the recruitment process, but he said he isn’t able to comment because the board was not involved in the process.
In May 2022, Jacques Mbungani Mbanda, who is the minister of public health, hygiene and prevention of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, asked the country’s President Félix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo to support the candidacy of Kaseya.
Sources told Devex the final decision was down to Kaseya and Dr. Magda Robalo from Guinea-Bissau.
Kaseya sent Devex a copy of the manifesto he submitted as part of his candidacy which outlines his vision. It includes what he dubbed “The New Deal” — that strives for a “new management culture” in the organization, while also continuing to implement Africa CDC’s New Public Health Order for Africa which was launched by its inaugural leader Dr. John Nkengasong. The New Public health Order is anchored in principles around continental ownership over health security.
“A technically strong Africa CDC that counts leading experts among its staff, is adequately funded and efficient at budgeting, has reliable rapid-response teams on the ground at times of crisis, and contributes to building a resilient Africa that is capable of effectively detecting, preventing, and controlling diseases for the achievement of [universal health coverage], the SDGs, and the realization of the AU’s 2063 agenda” will be core to his mandate, he wrote.
He noted Africa CDC has a large number of staff vacancies, “cumbersome” administrative processes, and weak financial and logistical management that include “a lack of internal controls, inadequate financial rules and accountability mechanisms, and a suboptimal procurement process.” He noted that in 2020, Africa CDC only used 39% of its operational budget from donors despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and other health emergencies.
He also wrote that Africa CDC suffers from a dearth of accountability — currently operating without a strategic plan nor publicly available annual reports for 2021 or 2022, which are necessary for the agency to learn lessons from mistakes and correct its course. This is leading to a loss of confidence in Africa CDC, he wrote.
He said he would like the continent to implement an “African Air Tax” — a tax on airline passengers to fund Africa CDC’s health support to countries as just one of the ways the agency can work to reach financial autonomy.
During his first 100 days in the role, he expects to have conversations with partners and staff to understand what’s needed, publish a strategic plan and old annual reports, aiming to “initiate decisions to quickly correct deficiencies and restore the organization’s credibility.” He plans to host a replenishment meeting to raise funds hoping to “develop a fresh resource-mobilization pathway.”
The manifesto also included a testimonial from Congolese professor Jean-Jacques Muyembe — the first virologist to encounter the Ebola virus, who has known Kaseya for 23 years. He wrote that Kaseya “is strategic, with a great sense of leadership, proven technical expertise and the political experience necessary for this role.”
Africa CDC’s ongoing transition
Africa CDC was launched in 2017 as an effort to better improve coordination in health emergencies across the continent — a need that was made painfully apparent during the West Africa Ebola crisis.
Nkengasong worked to breathe life into the technical institution and has been credited for raising the profile of Africa CDC with its effective, collaborative leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hoarding by high-income countries of vaccines, export restrictions, manufacturer delays, slow in-country rollouts, dose donations with short shelf lives, and a block of proposals to broaden manufacturing left countries across the continent scrambling to protect their populations without the necessary tools. But Africa CDC solidified a variety of partnerships during that time to work to turn these trends around.
In 2021, United States President Joe Biden announced his intent to nominate Nkengasong to serve as the leader of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, a role which he left Africa CDC for in May 2022.
In the interim, then-Deputy Director Dr. Ahmed Ogwell Ouma took over the helm of the organization as acting director. Under his leadership, Africa CDC hosted the second International Conference on Public Health in Africa — which is the first time this conference was held in person on African soil — and moved forward operationalizing the newfound autonomy. Ouma was also in the running for the role of director general.
Javier Guzman, director of global health policy and a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, told Devex that Kaseya needs to secure financial sustainability for Africa CDC, build efficient operations, reset balances between the continent and its regions, and secure Africa CDC’s place in a changing global health architecture.
“He will have the challenging job of maintaining the status of Africa CDC as the leading public health institution for the continent and delivering on the promise of an autonomous public health agency,” he said.
Dr. Ebere Okereke, honorary senior public health adviser to Africa CDC director, told Devex the overarching priority for Kaseya includes “investing in the public health and healthcare systems within countries.”
Sara Jerving is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers global health. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, VICE News, and Bloomberg News among others. Sara holds a master’s degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow. She was a finalist for One World Media’s Digital Media Award in 2021; a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2018; and she was part of a VICE News Tonight on HBO team that received an Emmy nomination in 2018. She received the Philip Greer Memorial Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. She is based in Nairobi and has reported from over a dozen countries.