Co-Founder of Organic Health Response & Kenyan Director, Richard Magerenge
Richard Magerenge is a native of Mfangano Island, Kenya. When he was thirteen years old, Richard Magerenge’s mother died on Mfangano of a mysterious wasting illness. Some said she was bewitched, others said she was afflicted with a condition known for generations among the Suba as chira. When Richard’s father died two years later, whispers in the village included a new Swahili term: virusi (“the virus”). Richard had joined the countless others experiencing the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS.
Richard managed to find his way through high school, later working alongside a group of young adults to establish the Lake Victoria Youth Group, a group focused on combating the emerging disease that was now killing thousands in remote communities. Richard’s peers nominated him to complete a training workshop in Voluntary HIV Counseling and Testing (VCT) and a computer literacy workshop in Nairobi. With his new VCT certificate and computer skills, Richard was able to “sneak” onto the computers of an international development organization on the mainland; he started “surfing the net” for the first time. Navigating the web, Richard was attracted to websites promoting the Organic Agriculture movement in the United States. He was excited to realize that the cultivation techniques these websites described were not radically different from the techniques his family had been using for generations, long before the introduction of industrial chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Richard began talking to his uncle, a respected farmer named Joel Oguta, and convinced him to fully convert their farm on Mfangano and register it on the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms website.
Richard and Joel’s farm eventually drew in students from around the world, including medical student Chas Salmen, who was at the time exploring sources of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Western Kenya. The collaboration between these diverse groups began what is now known as OHR.
Recognizing intense enthusiasm among young adults on the island for access to the Internet (at the time completely unavailable), Richard and Joel decided to donate a large piece of their farm to build a solar-powered Internet facility. With a clear insight into the youth of their community, they had come across an ingenious idea to incentivize HIV testing among young people.
They called their vision a “Cyber-VCT Center.” The idea was to provide on-site, voluntary counseling and testing (VCT), and to provide free Internet access to any person on the Island who knew his or her HIV-status. Moreover, they hoped to use this cutting-edge resource facility as a field lab to empower a new generation of socially conscious youth with tools and services offered nowhere else in the area. Upon hearing the proposal, OHR partner Inveneo agreed to provide computers, a solar-power system and a broadband Internet link.
Today, OHR is constituted of local-global collaborations between a group of Kenyan organic farmers, teachers, health care workers, and secondary school students on Mfangano Island, and a team of medicine, anthropology, public health and environmental science students from the US. OHR was formally established in Kenya in 2008 as a Kenyan Charitable Trust, registered in 2010 as a US-based 501c3 non-profit, and became a Kenyan Community Based Organization in 2011. OHR is owned by the community and is operated out of the Ekialo Kiona Center, a 10,000sq-ft solar-powered resource facility, which opened its doors in 2009 to the world’s first Cyber-VCT facility. Thanks to eight years of hard work by 35 paid Ekialo Kiona Kenyan staff and various volunteers, and over two-dozen medical, anthropology, and architecture students in the US, OHR has continued to promote and improve the health of Mfangano Island.
Today, the future of OHR lies in continuing to foster community and youth discussion as part of a holistic and sustainable approach to HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention within this unique community. With local HIV prevalence estimated at over 30%, in contrast to Kenya’s national rate of 6.3%1, Mfangano Island is struggling to address an epidemic highly concentrated within beach villages around Lake Victoria. At the same time this community is fighting to preserve the indigenous Suba language and way of life. With only 119,000 Suba speakers remaining it is a decisive time for the Abasuba people—their island ecosystem, indigenous language, and future generations are endangered by the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS.