Strengthening health systems through faith-based networks

Nurse Kalinda Bienvenue prepares a COVID-19 vaccination.

Strengthening health systems through faith-based networks

  • Rebecca Waugh
  • Aug 22, 2023

As we come out of the emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's crucial that we don't let complacency overshadow one of the most profound lessons this global crisis has taught us: preparedness matters.

The pandemic caught us off guard, exposing our collective vulnerabilities and highlighting the critical need for resilient and well-resourced health systems worldwide. While the initial scramble for masks, sanitizers, and personal protective equipment (PPE) captured our attention, the bigger lesson lies in the importance of investing in robust supply chains for essential medicines and medical supplies.

The crisis has underscored the profound impact of delays in accessing tests and vaccines. Low-income nations, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, faced significant challenges in obtaining vaccines due to both availability and logistical constraints like a cold chain requirement. This lag in vaccine distribution has left many African countries far from achieving their vaccination targets, perpetuating the risk of ongoing transmission and future shocks.

There is a pressing need to fortify national and local supply chains for health care essentials. Investing in these supply chains not only helps us prepare for future emergencies but also ensures that the present health care needs of communities are met effectively.

Health system strengthening

Since 2006, Corus organization IMA World Health has built and supported integrated, holistic and sustainable health systems that increase access to quality health care in low-income countries. This involves working directly with national and local government entities and other key players to provide technical assistance and capacity building support to strengthen engagement, capability and investment at all levels of the health system.

Faith-based health facilities are estimated to provide 30 to 70 percent of all health care in sub-Saharan African countries, particularly in remote and rural areas. Given their critical role, IMA World Health strengthens the capacity of faith-based networks to improve the quality and performance of these health facilities through close collaboration and training.

IMA World Health focuses on supporting both public and faith-based sectors through the World Health Organization’s recommended six building blocks of health systems strengthening: improved health service delivery; health workforce development; health information systems, access to essential medical products, vaccines and technologies; health system financing; and leadership and governance.

One of IMA World Health’s long-standing partners in this work is the Ecumenical Pharmaceutical Network (EPN), a Christian network organization with 131 members in 38 countries, predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa. The majority of these members provide health care to communities in the most marginalized and remote areas where national government health services are limited. More than 300 million people rely on health care provided by EPN’s network.

As one of the founding members of EPN, IMA World Health is leveraging insights gleaned from the challenges of COVID-19 and accelerating a renewed partnership with EPN to bolster supply chains across sub-Saharan Africa.

Partnership with faith-based networks

IMA World Health partners with EPN to address gaps identified in the supply chain of health commodities in the church health systems of Sierra Leone and Nigeria through the Smart Leveraged Church Supply Chain project. The project strengthens Christian Drug Supply Organizations (DSOs) to ensure that a consistent supply of affordable and quality-assured medical products reaches communities across sub-Saharan Africa. To improve preparedness for future shocks, EPN and IMA World Health are implementing smart supply chain best practices and strengthening data management while developing the technical skills of health care personnel to build stronger and more sustainable systems.

In Nigeria, a member DSO has been participating in a mentoring program where needs such as recruitment of qualified staff and development of standard operating procedures (SOPs) are now being addressed through IMA World Health and EPN support. In Sierra Leone, the Christian Health Association of Sierra Leone (CHASL) is responding to the frequent pharmaceutical stock-outs and concerns about cost and quality of pharmaceuticals available locally by creating a new Drug Supply Unit to serve its 53 member institutions across the country, many in remote and marginalized communities. EPN and CHASL are coordinating support from IMA World Health, DIFAEM (German Medical Missions Institute) and CCIH (Christian Connections for International Health) to rehabilitate and retrofit a facility near the CHASL office to serve as a warehouse, train personnel and secure seed funds to stock the unit. These activities aim to ensure a sustainable supply of medical products and financial self-sufficiency at the facility.

Through the Osprey Foundation-funded Promoting COVID-19 Vaccine Equity through Faith-Based Networks in Africa project, IMA World Health and EPN are also collaborating with the Africa Christian Health Associations Platform (ACHAP) to strengthen the capacity of targeted Christian Health Associations (CHAs). The project advances COVID-19 vaccine demand and delivery activities in eight African countries (Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Liberia, Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, and Zambia), supporting the strategies of their respective ministries of health to reach unvaccinated populations. EPN is playing a strategic role by developing an online course, “Pandemic Preparedness and COVID-19 Vaccination,” offered in both English and French, and providing data bundles and technical support to 115 health workers enrolled across the project countries. Such collaboration with both ACHAP and EPN is closing gaps in service delivery by microplanning alongside ministries of health, engaging faith leaders as champions for vaccine uptake, and developing evidence-based media and communications strategies.

Commitment to preparedness

Supply chain challenges require sustained commitment, collaboration and resources. This was highlighted in March 2022, when EPN, ACHAP, and the All-Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) convened in Nairobi and issued a Call to Action. Governments, development partners, and religious leaders were implored to join hands in responding to the pandemic and preparing for future health emergencies.

In the face of these challenges, IMA World Health, alongside dedicated partners like EPN and ACHAP, is stepping up to contribute its part. Together, we are comprehensively addressing the critical gaps in service delivery that will facilitate access to primary health care. The lesson learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is clear: investing in robust health systems, strengthening supply chains, and fostering collaboration is not only a necessity but a moral imperative for a healthier and more equitable world.


Rebecca Waugh is Corus’ Senior Technical Advisor for Faith-Community Engagement.

Learn more about our partnerships to strengthen the health system in Sierra Leone.