Hand in Hand with the People of Togo. Economic Development That Starts with Stopping Malaria

In an indigenous language of Togo called Ewe, Assi le Assime means hand-in-hand. To the people of this largely French speaking West African country, Assi le Assime: The Togo Development Partnership is the non-profit organization (NGO) that helps bring them hope.

Founded by Elizabeth Simonetti ’83 (PHARM/CLAS) Assi le Assime is forging partnerships in economic development to support efforts as diverse as fighting malaria, providing clean water, and teaching current food production techniques and small farm management.

For Simonetti, it’s a way for her to live her faith. By providing what she calls the four pillars of food, water, work, and prayer she is helping to eliminate poverty and disease for some of the approximately 7.6 million people who live in Togo, a small country nestled between Ghana and Benin on Africa’s Atlantic coast.

Malaria Control

The fight against malaria is crucial to her mission, Simonetti says, because the disease remains endemic in most parts of the world and its effects are often lethal.

“Malaria has killed more people in the history of mankind than all the wars and all other diseases, and Togo ranks in the top 10 countries for malaria morbidity. Because we’ve successfully eradicated the disease in the United States, it’s often overlooked by Americans as a continuing problem in less developed countries,” she says.

According to the World Health Organization’s 2017 world malaria report, there were approximately 216 million cases of malaria in 2016, with 90 per cent occurring in Africa. Worldwide, there were approximately 445,000 deaths from the disease in that time frame.

To this end, Assi le Assime is working with the Togolese Prime Minister, representatives from several of Togo’s government ministries, and researchers from the University of Lome’ in the nation’s capital to create a pilot study designed to eliminate the disease vector (female mosquitoes) via aerial spraying of a bio-pesticide.

The study protocol is due to be submitted to Togo’s National Bioethics Committee in July 2018. With the Committee’s approval, the first phase of the study will begin this fall. The aim is to decrease the incidence of malaria in the study zone by 90 per cent by the end of 2019. Following that, the results will be published with the hope the program will then be expanded to cover a much larger geographic area.

“What makes our study different,” says Simonetti, “is that rather than trying to develop vaccines or drug therapies, which other organizations are working on, we are trying to get right to the source to eliminate the mosquitoes that are carrying the disease. We really believe that vector control is the best solution. It worked in the United States and we believe it can work elsewhere.”

By eliminating the disease, which attacks red blood cells and robs them of their oxygen carrying capacity, an entire population will become healthier, leading to improved scholastic achievement among children and economic productivity among adults.

The Journey

Simonetti, currently serving as vice president of the UConn Pharmacy Alumni Association, comes from a family full of UConn School of Pharmacy graduates. Her background includes a BS in pharmacy and a BA in French Studies from UConn, a MA in general administration from the University of Maryland, and an Ed.D. from the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education.

Her career led her to work in various capacities including as director of educational services for the American Society of HealthSystem Pharmacists and as director of continuing education and professional affairs at Mercer University’s school of pharmacy in Atlanta, Georgia. She also worked in pharmaceutical development at Roche Pharmaceuticals, then headquartered in Nutley, New Jersey.

“There is a wealth of knowledge, experience, and enthusiasm in Togo; they have written the protocol, and they are driving the review process. We have not created a protocol for them and said, ‘Here. This is what you should do.’ Instead, with the support that Assi le Assime can provide, combined with the efforts of the Togolaise who are immersed in the study of this disease, we’ve created a partnership that can make a real difference on a daily basis,” Simonetti says.

A devout Roman Catholic, experienced in pharmacy, and fluent in the French language, it seemed natural for her to spend her time with the Canossian Sisters of Italy, a missionary order that runs the Centre Medico Sociale Ste. Bakhita Medical Dispensary in Togo.

There, acting as staff pharmacist, she helped the medical staff switch patients from IV to oral therapy, introduced the practice of reconstituting oral antibiotics with distilled water – a new practice in Togo at the time — and counseled patients on the proper use of their medications. It was a perfect fit, and the seeds were planted for Simonetti’s next adventure.

She says that she had always felt a certain calling to help others, but when she eventually left Roche, she wanted to continue the relationship with the people of Togo that had begun several years earlier. That’s when she founded Assi le Assime.

Ongoing economic development

Simonetti explains that her organization works in partnership with grassroots organizations, corporations, other nonprofits, and universities to create economic opportunities for people who live in one of the poorest countries in the world. While some Togolaise are employed in the phosphate mining industry, and others work on cocoa and cotton plantations, there is still a great need for education and employment across much of the population.

“We take a capitalistic approach to eliminating poverty,” she says, “and that includes teaching people how to help themselves. For example, on our 4-hectare teaching farm, we have just completed a chicken facility that holds 1,000 hens. We will wholesale their eggs to women who will sell them in the marketplace in the town of Tovegan. In turn, those women will use their profits to pay their children’s school fees, to buy food, and to work their way out of poverty.”

Other projects on the teaching farm include how to use drip irrigation to grow crops year round – in both rainy and dry seasons. New in 2018 was the introduction of pigs in a facility designed for raising nutritious, disease free animals in humane conditions.

And, lest anyone think Simonetti isn’t committed to her work, she has offered to actually kiss a pig at an upcoming fundraiser in June called “Pigs, Pork, Pints” to be held in Derby, Conn. if the event meets its financial goal.

Further details about the work of Assi le Assime can be found on the organization’s website.