Sitting at the lowest point in East Africa’s famed Rift Valley, Magadi provides proof that there can be beauty in the desolate. And Tata Chemicals Magadi (TCM), the company that has made this arid spread in Kenya the heart of its business, shows how commitment to the community, no matter how difficult the circumstances, can translate into substantial gains for everybody involved.
It is this commitment that has led to TCM — known as Magadi Soda Company (MSC) prior to becoming a part of Tata Chemicals following its acquisition of Brunner Mond in 2005 — being chosen as one of the 38 finalists in the Global Business Coalition’s Business Action on Health Awards for 2011. TCM is one of the seven nominees in the 'community investment’ category, and it has been recognised for providing awareness training and support services for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, family planning, immunisation, nutrition and general wellness to employees and local communities.
There is more to TCM’s community equation than that, and it would help to know what the company is about to understand, how it came to dedicate itself to a cause that is immediate and central to the people it lives and works with. Established in 1911 as MSC, TCM's business is the production and processing of soda ash, a key ingredient in the making of glass, detergents and paper and in leather tanning. The company’s commercial and manufacturing activities are governed by high standards of environmental upkeep and safety, and just as high an allegiance to the development of services that cater to the needs of the community in which it operates.
Tackling the HIV/AIDS issue has been the most important component of TCM’s deep-rooted engagement with community health in Magadi. The centrepiece of its health initiative is to promote an environment where HIV/AIDS is acknowledged, to begin with, and to help minimise the impact and severity of the condition on the company’s employees and the local community.
The specific objectives of the programme are straightforward:
HIV/AIDS has for a long time been a source of stress and strain to Kenya and to the work environment at TCM. Most Kenyans, including the community in and around Magadi, has had direct or indirect experiences with HIV/AIDS, most often through the loss of a colleague, a relative or a friend.
TCM has been at the forefront of the battle against HIV/AIDS in Magadi. The company has a stated policy on the condition, an action plan and a steering committee — chaired by its managing director, Mike Odera — to oversee it. There is a peer group of educators and counsellors and this plays a vital role in prevention efforts, in minimising stigmatisation and in cultivating an openness about the scourge.
TCM first responded to the AIDS blight in 1989 by way of health education activities aimed at reducing HIV transmission. But it wasn't until 10 years later that a more structured HIV/AIDS programme was formulated, starting with a peer educators’ group being trained in the year 2000. Knowing about and understanding the condition was critical at this point, given the prejudices about it. From there flowed other activities, including onsite services, condom distribution and the dissemination of information on prevention and treatment as well as nutritional support.
The TCM programme currently targets a workforce of 763 employees, 350 workers of its contractors, about 2,000 dependants, the 5,000-member company township and a local community estimated to number 30,000 people. As part of its community outreach programme, the company also has 10 schools in the Magadi division under the canopy of this programme.
Workplace and community visits by TCM’s health team also take in issues such as lifestyle diseases, healthy living, hygiene and general wellness, and the company’s outreach undertakings include subjects like immunisation, breastfeeding and family planning.
TCM partners a host of government and non-governmental organisations to bring its community health efforts to fruition. As for the resources to back the company’s endeavours, this has expanded with time and the spreading of its initiatives. Currently, the company spends about $14.5 million annually on its health programmes and the Kenyan government’s Ministry of Health provides drugs worth close to $110,000. Additionally, international donors have made contributions.
Besides awareness generation and treatment of HIV/AIDS, among the more significant results accruing from TCM’s community health push are fewer pregnancies among schoolgirls and a reduction in sexually transmitted diseases. But it is on HIV/AIDS that the biggest benefits have been secured. Figures for HIV/AIDS prevalence have been in steady decline and voluntary testing numbers have been on the rise.
There is plenty of effort that will have to be made by TCM and its people in its continuing war against HIV/AIDS, in particular, and other health scares, and the challenges continue to mount for those at the frontlines. Confronted with illiteracy, moribund traditions and decaying cultural norms, TCM has its hands full trying to win this war, but that will not stop the company from fighting the good fight, one in which it has that great constituency — the community — in its corner.