Ellena Andoniou

For more than 15 years, Ellena Andoniou, BHSc ‘03, MSc’07, PhD‘16, has dedicated herself to research and collaborations focused on improving the health and lives of women and children in Africa.

She says it was a promotional poster she saw when she was a graduate student that first planted the seed that grew to a lifelong passion for global health and equity.

“I was walking through a tunnel on campus one day and saw a poster of a cow and the question ‘How can a cow fight HIV?’ that was promoting the Western Heads East program,” Andoniou said. “I had been thinking about how I could get more involved in doing some international global health work and I saw it just blowing around. I’ll never forget it.”

A collaborative program between Western staff, students, faculty, and African partners, Western Heads East uses probiotic foods to contribute to health and sustainable development in Africa.

Since 2002, program organizers and interns have worked with local partners to establish probiotic yogurt, cereal and juice kitchens in Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda, with the community kitchens being owned and operated by the local women, known as Yogurt Mamas, and youth groups.

The program is a model of social enterprise and also places interns with community partners to collaborate on research and project implementation based on their organization’s needs.

After some investigating and discussions with her thesis supervisor, who also happened to be involved in Western Heads East, Andoniou was approved for an internship. A few weeks later she was on her way to Tanzania for three months to work with the Yogurt Mamas.

“It was like the stars had magically aligned,” she said of being accepted into the program at the last minute.

Following her graduation from the Health Sciences program at Western, Andoniou explored courses in health geography, which ultimately led to a master's degree in that field. At the same time, she also began a master's degree in public health, which she completed concurrently before transitioning to a PhD.

“It was difficult working on both degrees at the same time, but they complemented each other, and it all worked out,” she said. “My research was all related to the work I did with Western Heads East while I was a graduate student. I’ve basically been working with the program since 2005,” she laughed.

While in Tanzania, Andoniou recalls that she wore “multiple hats,” completing research, managing projects and working on an impact report.

“The beauty of working so collaboratively is that you’re there to really support the Yogurt Mamas, which could be a huge spectrum in terms of what that could mean. So, we’d be helping with packaging, or figuring out logistics because there’s no electricity to cool the product or distributing the yogurt. It really varied, but there was never a dull day. It was the most phenomenal experience.”

One of her favourite memories of her internship was being asked to commission a painting that could hang outside the community kitchen and that would be unveiled at a grand opening.

“The kitchen itself was very drab. It was literally a brick building with concrete on the outside of these bricks, very roughly done. One of the issues that we did have with the participants and community members was they didn't know where this kitchen was, so we needed to make the facility stand out. I came across these two young artists and they did an amazing job capturing the essence of the kitchen with a mural,” she said.

In addition to being the pick-up location for participants in the yogurt program, the kitchens have traditionally also served as a community hub. Seeing the impact the kitchen had on the community had a lasting impact on Andoniou.

“Participants could go there and interact with the mamas, they could share information, and many of them felt like it was their only outlet to discuss a lot of the challenges they were facing. And of course, with HIV, there's a lot of stigma anywhere and everywhere, regardless of how much time has passed by. So, the kitchen didn't only serve for them to come and pick up something nutritious to eat, it also served as a community hub, where they could just chat and be themselves and, you know, feel a little bit more relaxed. I think that was the most heartwarming feeling. It created a safe space for everyone.”

Following her experience in Tanzania, Andoniou has continued working in Canadian and international roles related to global health, development, equity and women's issues, including recently as a research associate in One Health, where she explored community health workers’ experiences as agents of behaviour change in the context of human and zoonotic tuberculosis in Kenya. Prior to that, she was the program manager for a health systems project aimed at improving maternal, newborn and child health in Rwanda and Burundi funded by Global Affairs Canada.

“It's still very much the same line of work – just different topics. And it all started with Western Heads East,” said Andoniou, who hopes to one day work for an organization such as the Unite Nations World Food Program, or another organization related to global health work and health, and facilitating or enabling people to empower themselves. “You're not parachuting in to be a saviour. You're making an effort to help people help themselves. The hope is you enable a sense of empowerment for them to improve their lives.”

Join us in celebrating 20 years of changemakers and catch up with some of our past interns! Share your memories and learn more about the impact of Western Heads East at westernheadseast.ca/20th_anniversary.