Organic Health Response: using the Net to fight AIDS in Kenya

Organic Health Response: using the Net to fight AIDS in Kenya


Computer_Lesson The Organic Health Response seeks to use new tech on Mfangano Island in Western Kenya to turn the tide against the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS across Lake Victoria.

Part of this means using sustainable Internet tech with serious bandwidth, provided by Inveneo of San Francisco.


(Kelsi, Fina, Billy and the Fig Tree)

Where we work, “organic” is about much more than health-food. We recognize each human organism as dynamic nexus of biological, social, and ecological relationships. In order to treat disease, we believe health interventions must address the equilibrium of an individual’s relationships, i.e. the microbial, familial, political, and ecological webs of energy exchange that give meaning to being well versus being sick. Organic describes a formation that happens gradually with a low degree of predictability.  It is something that ebbs and flows until it finds a good fit. It is typical to the formation process of living systems such as organisms, communities, or ecosystems. OHR seeks to function organically, allowing freedom to create opportunities that lead to innovative solutions to complicated problems.


(Adam, Richard, Joel, Lauren, and Chas)

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 new Swahili terms: UKIMWI (“AIDS”) or virusi (“the virus”). Richard managed to find his way through high school, and later jumped at the chance to complete a training workshop in Voluntary HIV Counseling and Testing (VCT). With his new VCT certificate, Richard was able to “sneak” onto the computers of an international development organization on the mainland. He started “surfing the net.”

Navigating the web, Richard was attracted to a series of websites regarding the Organic Agriculture movement in the US. 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 farmer named Joel Oguta, and convinced him to fully convert their farm.  On Mfangano, Joel’s grandfather had been respected as the first farmer to plant mango trees; Joel agreed with Richard to try and plant a new kind of seed. After three hard years of work, they registered their organic farm at Kitawi beach on the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms website (

In 2006, Adam Sewall and Lauren Friedman, two students at Evergreen College in Washington, came across Richard’s online post. They were impressed by Richard and Joel’s passion, and decided that Mfangano Island was the right place to realize a long-held vision for a “sustainable life.” They emptied their bank accounts, dropped out of school, filled two backpacks, and joined Richard and Joel on Mfangano Island to start an experimental farm. 

Six months later, while working in Kenya, an Oxford medical anthropology student named Chas Salmen crossed paths with Adam and Lauren at a bus stop in Homa Bay. After visiting their farm on Mfangano, Chas decided to make the Suba the focus of his ethnographic fieldwork on the roots of HIV/AIDS in Western Kenya. (See the bottom of this page to read the first chapter of Chas' ethnography, "Towards an Anthropology of Organic Health: the Relational Fields of HIV/AIDS among the Suba of Lake Victoria"). 

Like Lauren and Adam, Chas was hooked on Mfangano. He returned with an Oxford colleague named Malini Daniel, president of a student-run non-profit called STRIDE, to conduct a community health needs assessment. This time, Richard and Joel approached them with an interesting idea. Joel wanted to donate a piece of his land to build a solar-powered Internet library to coordinate HIV testing services and teach about sustainable agriculture. 

The Organic Health Response was born…


(The Chwera Chwera Micro-Clinic)

The Organic Health Response seeks to activate social solidarity, information technology, and environmental sustainability on Mfangano Island in Western Kenya to turn the tide against the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS across Lake Victoria.

Here we see Ekialo Kiona's Cyber-Center Coordinator, Brian Mattah, leads the first series of EK staff computer trainings. For most, these trainings are their first exposure to computers, research and the web. Brian will continue teaching computer trainings to the staff and hold regular classes with all EK members. A community member observes, "Everytime a person who has never used a computer touches a mouse or taps any button, you expect a smile from their faces – a sign of excitement!"

"All of us at OHR would like to extend a personal thanks to Craig Newmark and the Craigslist Charitable Foundation for their generous contribution of $20,000 to the OHR-Inveneo Partnership to help us improve our computer lab and encourage HIV counseling and testing at the Ekialo Kiona Center on Mfangano Island."