How I turned handwashing campaign into a global movement

Dr Myriam Assa Sidibe is an author and leading experts of brands that drive health and well-being through mass behavioural change

Dr Myriam Assa Sidibe is an author and leading experts of brands that drive health and well-being through mass behavioural change

Dr Myriam Assa Sidibe is one of the world’s leading experts of brands that drive health and well-being through mass behavioural change. From within Unilever, she has created a movement to change the handwashing behaviour of one billion people, the single biggest behaviour change programme in the world. She conceived and established the multi-awards winner United Nations recognised Global Handwashing Day–now celebrated in over 100 countries. As we mark the day today, Sidibe, a senior Fellow at Mossavar-Rahmani Centre for Business and Government at Harvard Kennedy School and author and founder of Brands on Mission, talks about her passion for handwashing


Q: What led you to start the global hand washing campaign?

A:  I have been thinking about handwashing for the last 20 years. I’m an engineer by training and I worked in refugee camps in Burundi and Rwanda. I became very frustrated by the fact that people were not using the toilets and the hand washing facilities we were building. So, I went back to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Hygiene to do a doctorate in public health and focused on behaviour change and how to get people to comply and use some of these infrastructures. At the time, my supervisor had published a Lancet article on hand washing with soap and the impact on public health and she had some money to do research on what motivates school children to wash hands. She gave me some of the money to conduct research.

Q: What happened next?

A: I spent a couple of years in Senegal and East Timor looking at what motivated children to use soap for hand washing.  So when I came back, I went and presented the report to Unilever, which had funded my research and they offered me a job.  I spent the next 15 years working in marketing for soap companies, trying to drive how you can get handwashing going under the soap brands. So I spent a long time creating the global handing washing day. I co-founded the day and put together the partnerships to bringing it alive and created it in 2008. The idea was to profile handwashing as a key public health intervention.

Q: How did you turn a bar of soap into the most formidable weapon against childhood diseases?

A:  There is nothing new about the creation of a bar soap because it has been therefore for a long time. There are many examples in science such as the case of Ignaz Semmelweis who was sent into asylum for pushing his fellow doctors to be careful about hand hygiene and trying to stop women from getting sepsis. So, there is nothing new about it. However, in my own small way what I have done is bring up the profile of hand washing and it so happens that Covid-19 pandemic can be prevented or stopped by washing hands with soap or wearing mask. So it is the profiling we have done and used the power of the private sector to change the world.


Q: During this Covid-19 period, how has the campaign impacted the war against the pandemic?

A:  Covid-19 has made handwashing a social mission for the whole world and so all the things I have been dreaming of in terms of handwashing are currently happening. But I think as we have seen with other pandemics such as SARS, when the pandemic is controlled people go back to their old ways. Data shows that four people out of five people come out of the toilet without washing their hands so what we want to do is use the urgency created by Covid-19 to put in place the fundamentals of what will be required to change those habits into systematic behaviour.


Q: What would you say are some of the achievements of the campaign?

A: The Global Handwashing Day is huge thing.  It is celebrated in a 100 countries by 500 million people, children across the world have done 13 Guinness World records and it has mobilised over thousands of celebrities. The public relations value it has created is worth hundreds of millions of Euros. I think that is where we needed to be in order to create the world’s largest activation and I think it is really incredible.


Q: In your Ted Talk in 2014–the simple Power of Hand washing– you spoke a little about how your upbringing shaped who you are today. Could you please tell us more about that?

A:  My parents have spent their whole lives helping people escape from poverty when they worked in different non-governmental organisations and the United Nations. They worked really hard to help us get some good education so that we would keep putting the most vulnerable at the heart of the conversation. So they never really prepared me to work in a for-profit organisation and this was a brand new experience that was very different. I spent 15 years working for Unilever doing what I dreamt of doing. What I have learnt is that brands are an amazing agents of change. I am not working there anymore (I left last week).  I am at Harvard Kennedy School and I have set up my own movement Brands on a Mission, which seeks to get brands and companies to invest in health and well-being.


Q: You are a big advocate for the relationship between for-profit and not-for profit sectors.  Does it make business sense?

A: I think being able to integrate social mission at the heart of a brands strategy makes a lot of business sense because it helps put complete authenticity and credibility to a brand and can drive differentiation from your competitor. In business it pays to be good.  Businesses are built to make money but I believe in the market economy, which is the biggest tool to drive change. But if you can show businesses there are model they can use to drive change that is a good thing.

Q: Your resume is quite impressive. What would you describe as your biggest achievement?

A:  I consider my book, Brands on a Mission- Achieving Social Impact and Business growth through Purpose a huge achievement. I am a public health professor, writing a business book– that is big for me. The book is about devising a framework for companies on how to embed social impact at the heart of their

Dr Myriam Assa Sidibe is an author and leading experts of brands that drive health and well-being through mass behavioural change

business model. It also talks about my two decades in the soap industry. At the same time, getting Unilever to believe that we could reach a billion people with the handwashing campaign was a huge thing for me and the fact there were people who were behind the mission and they believed in me is a huge accomplishment.

Q: What was your lowest point in your 20 plus years working in the public and private sector?

A: The lowest moment is when you are caught in-between the public sector and the private sector. The public sector thinks you are out to make a lot of money while the private sector doesn’t fully acknowledge you as one of them. Being caught between these two worlds is really difficult because you don’t really belong. When you are an Intraprenuer –Someone who is dreaming big and trying to make things happen you are basically trying to move mountains. It is very difficult.

 Q: What is the legacy you want to leave behind?

A:  The fact that I am constantly trying to make a difference and finding innovative and pioneering ways to make social justice a sustainable business model. I believe that the business world can make a difference.

Tells us a little about yourself

A: I am married. My husband is running a French bakery in Nairobi. I have four children. My children keep me grounded and remind what is important for them. My husband is from Cote d’Ivoire and I am from Mali and we have been living in Kenya for 10 years. I am also the chair of The National Business Compact on Covid-19 (NBCC), which was created during Covid-19 and I felt it would be a good way to give back to Kenya. In the last seven months, the coalition has raised over Sh651 million ($USD6 million) conducted campaigns that have reached 15 million people, set up more than 5, 400 facilities hand washing stations in Kenya and distributed hundreds of masks and soap.

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