Truckers and sex workers drive home HIV awareness in Ethiopia

The World Food Programme is working with partners to create a healthcare supply chain that provides education and assistance

Edward Johnson
Dec 9, 2019 · 4 min read
A WFP vehicle in Jijiga in the Somali region of Ethiopia in 2015. In addition to food assistance, WFP works with partners to provide services such as HIV testing and counselling. Photo: WFP/Petterik Wiggers

The World Food Programme (WFP) has a phenomenal operation in the Horn of Africa, the eastermost part of the continent. Its biggest operation is in Ethiopia where over 7 million people rely on food assistance each day. In any given week, over 4,000 metric tons of food are on the move onboard a fleet of trucks that navigate more than 126,000 kilometres of road in the country of 105 million people.

To move great quantities of food fast, a seamlessly functioning network of drivers and corridors is needed. While skilled at negotiating bumps in the road, WFP drivers can however be thrown off course by invisible obstacles, affecting the supply chain’s efficiency.

‘We’ve made huge strides already — 1,470 people tested in six months; 950 truck drivers, 100 sex workers and 420 members of the public’

Ethiopia’s Federal Transport Authority (FTA) estimates that its sector has one of the highest prevalence rates, with 4.5 percent of its workforce living with HIV. More than one percent is considered an emergency.

With that in mind, the FTA partnered with Kenyan NGO North Star Alliance to develop a pilot project, funded by WFP, which it hopes could become a scalable solution to mitigate the spread of HIV. North Star worked with local volunteers and health workers along key corridors in Ethiopia to provide a series of peer educator trainings, HIV testing and referrals for the mobile communities that use the highways.

Outreach work with truck drivers and sex workers mostly takes place in truck parks and along highways. Photos: WFP/Edward Johnson

Since May, North Star, the Ministry of Health and the transport authority have focused on HIV-awareness sessions at truck stops, lodges and bars along Ethiopia’s various corridors of traffic, offering voluntary testing, referrals and counselling. Additional peer-led group sessions at the same locations have been developed to encourage participants themselves be effective agents of change in the community.

“We’ve made huge strides already,” explained FTA’s Abelneh Agedew. “1,470 people have been tested in six months; 950 truck drivers, 100 sex workers and 420 members of the public.”

Under the broad objective of improving health and road safety along Ethiopia’s transport networks, the project has three specific goals:

  • increasing access to HIV prevention and health services for long-distance truck drivers and corridor communities
  • reducing road accidents and improving the reliability of long-distance drivers
  • boosting FTA’s capacity to implement sustainable HIV and health programmes along transport corridors.
Volunteers Emebet, left, and Jemanesh train people to stem the spread of HIV. Photos: WFP/Edward Johnson

Key to the project’s success are the local volunteers. Emebet was diagnosed with HIV 16 years ago and is a staunch advocate for proactive testing now. “My mission is to help sex workers understand the risk,” she said. Like many sex workers who find opportunities around areas where truck drivers rest, Emebet used to travel from the rural areas each night.

“I can imagine a HIV-free Mojo. It is possible with a step-by-step process.’”

Emebet’s supervisor Jemanesh has been involved in similar projects around Mojo, a town 70 kilometres from Addis Ababa, for years. She is motivated by a long-term goal — “I can imagine a HIV-free Mojo. It is possible with a step-by-step process, but we’ll get there one day,” she says.

Project coordinator Dereje, left, and the Ethiopia Federal Transport Authority’s Abelneh. Photos: WFP/Edward Johnson

Jemanesh’s approach is personal. “You have to listen. People want to talk and ask for help, but sometimes they don’t know who to ask. I’ve learned to talk on their terms — if they’re out dancing, I go dancing too.”

She’s recruited 11 volunteers including Emebet that way and they’re now at the forefront of this ambitious project to boost the health of Ethiopia’s transport infrastructure.

North Star Alliance focuses activities in areas frequented by truck drivers and sex workers. Tents were erected in and around truck parks with Mojo, selected for its strategic location.

“Mojo is an international hub,” said project coordinator Dereje. “But it’s not just cargo passing through — it’s also disease.”

The pilot project has ended and authorities are now evaluating its success and a potential second phase.

Read more about WFP’s work in Ethiopia here.

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