“Don’t wait until a tragedy strikes in order to act and implement change.”
These are the words that Mary Yeboah and Koluchi Odiegwu—two second-year college students at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia—live by.
Although these two young women have spent the past five months at home in isolation, beginning in April 2020, they’ve raised over $32,000 for remote villages in Africa whose inhabitants are facing mass hunger caused by the coronavirus.
Through their fundraising effort called the COVID-19 Hunger Initiative, they have helped feed over 800 families spanning nine isolated villages in Ghana and Nigeria. In a time when a global pandemic is disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations, these two young women are focusing their efforts on combating hunger in a part of the world they feel deserves more attention: Africa.
There are currently over one million confirmed cases of the coronavirus in 47 African countries, and for the 1.2 billion people that live on the African continent, food security has increasingly become an issue. This scarcity of food or lack of access to it during the pandemic is especially prevalent in rural villages that are far from large cities, according to Yeboah and Odiegwu, including in Ghana and Nigeria where they are respectively from. These isolated villages depend on market centers for access to basic goods and services.
“Anything that is shipped in and out of the village goes through that market,” Odiegwu told Ms. “There is no other place for shopping unless you personally travel far outside of the village.”
However, as COVID-19 permeated through the African continent, many people lost their jobs and consequently, their ability to buy critical necessities like food.
Additionally, Yeboah and Odiegwu said a rise in unemployment has forced some people to move back to their villages, creating a further strain on existing resources available in markets and exacerbating the “hunger pandemic.”
While the hunger pandemic was taking root in Africa, Yeboah and Odiegwu—who became friends in the first week of their first year in college, based on their love of philosophical debates—were sent home by their university in March (alongside thousands of students in the United States) but stayed in touch during the lockdown.
Although they were concerned by the spread of the virus in the U.S., the state of affairs in Africa was top of mind for them—especially since they had first hand accounts from loved ones back home about how people in their villages were suffering.
As they began to look more into the issue and compiled research on the effects of COVID-19 in isolated villages, they decided to make hunger the focus of their efforts.
“Hunger is a preventable symptom of COVID-19. It’s not the most top of mind healthcare issue, and that’s why we chose it. People assume that hunger is stagnant in Africa, that it doesn’t fluctuate but we wanted to show that there was a rise because of COVID-19,” Odiegwu explained.
After talking to friends and family and contacting African government officials via email to learn more, on April 8 they decided to start a GoFundMe—later named the COVID-19 Hunger Initiative—that focused on raising funds for isolated villages in Ghana and Nigeria.
“We saw a correlation of how COVID-19 and hunger were affecting a target demographic. We knew we had to bring attention to it,” Yeboah said.
At first, despite Yeboah and Odiegwu’s efforts to amplify it on their social media platforms and amongst friends and family, the initiative didn’t receive much attention because of how many COVID-19 related issues there were.
But that changed when issues of racial justice took center stage in the media due to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in May.
As anti-racism protests took place all over the world, Yeboah and Odiegwu continued promoting the GoFundMe on their social media channels and saw a rapid increase in donations; over a two week period between June 4 and June 31, their initiative raised $19,000, the biggest jump in funds that they had seen.
“This movement started in America but it reached so many people who wanted to help—it shows you the power of unity,” Yeboah told Ms.
As their fundraising efforts gained momentum, Yeboah and Odiegwu began the process of making sure the funds reached the vulnerable populations it was meant for. Since the two young women knew many people based in Ghana and Nigeria, it wasn’t difficult to find a trusted point of contact in each community to buy bags of beans, rice, and other staple food items, set up stations, and distribute these necessities to the larger community.
These individuals also worked closely with Yeboah and Odiegwu to fill out the necessary paperwork needed to verify the money transactions and use of funds to buy supplies, and sent videos and photos back to the two young women as proof of their commitment to the cause.
To date, over 800 families have been fed because of their efforts—577 families in Ghana and over 300 families in Nigeria.
Describing themselves as young leaders, Yeboah and Odiegwu believe they are representative of their generation, fighting every day to create the change they want to see in the world.
“Our generation is action oriented—we think of something and immediately do it. We don’t let our barriers constrict us … It’s no longer a single person defining and creating change,” Yeboah and Odiegwu said.
Determined to continue their advocacy and fundraising efforts, they are now creating their own organization—the We the Africans Foundation—which focuses on gathering people together to engage in a dialogue centered around global healthcare, education and politics that affect the African diaspora. They intend to take a backseat and simply listen, not only giving other people opportunities to highlight their work, but also to unify the many organizations in Africa doing good work.
Although Black people in the United States are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Yeboah and Odiegwu believe that helping communities in Africa deserves equal, if not more, attention.
“The media isn’t throwing out a lot of headlines of what is happening in Africa but our lived experiences are showing it.”
As two women who are from the isolated villages in Nigeria and Ghana that they are trying to help, they understand the gravity of the situation and appeal to everyone to get involved, especially their African and African American counterparts: “Let’s build a foundation for what we want Africa to become.”
To donate to the COVID-19 Hunger Initiative, click here.