Impact investment

Israeli-led international effort looks to give Ivory Coast ability to heal its children’s hearts

Initiative brings together government, philanthropist Haim Taib’s Mitrelli Group and Save a Child’s Heart to train Ivorian doctors in pediatric cardiac surgery

The Ivory Coast government, the Israeli-owned Mitrelli Group consulting firm (and its related philanthropic subsidiaries), the Israeli NGO Save a Child’s Heart and a French medical nonprofit have teamed up to develop the West African nation’s pediatric cardiac surgery capabilities with a new $4.7 million initiative over the next five years, they said in last week.

Half of the funding for the project would come from the Ivory Coast government and half would come from nongovernmental sources: two offshoots of the Mitrelli Group — the Menomadin Foundation, a philanthropic fund, and Promed, the firm’s health-care company — and Save a Child’s Heart.

The goal of this effort is both to make Ivory Coast self-sufficient with regards to pediatric heart surgeries — currently children who need such operations must travel abroad — and to turn the country into a hub for such treatments for Africa, which would be both a boon to the continent and a potential source of medical tourism money for Ivory Coast, one of the leaders of the project, Eva Peled, Mitrelli’s partner in Ivory Coast, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

Until Ivory Coast’s own surgical capabilities are up and running, the Mitrelli Group, Save a Child’s Heart and the Ivorian Health Ministry agreed that 30 Ivorian children will come to Israel for heart surgeries each year for the next five years.

According to the World Health Organization, roughly 2,700 Ivorian babies are diagnosed with congenital heart disease each year, out of approximately 300,000 births.

Nine children with such heart problems arrived in Israel earlier this month to undergo surgery at the Sylvan Adams Children’s Hospital, which is part of the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, outside of Tel Aviv. Two of them have already undergone successful surgeries as of last weekend, according to Save a Child’s Heart.

This joint initiative was the result of years of collaboration between the four participating organizations. Haim Taib, who both runs the Mitrelli Group, which is registered in Switzerland, and serves as president of Save a Child’s Heart Africa, brought the effort together.

“This is an incredible opportunity to make a difference in the well-being of children and their future through upgrading local capacities and creating sustainable solutions,” Taib said in a statement. (He was not available for an interview.) “If 1% of children in the country need heart surgery, philanthropic activity, however blessed, is just a drop in the ocean. In order to create a significant, sustainable and long-term impact, the government must be involved, because only the government has the power to create a long-term solution.”

Simon Fisher, executive director of Save a Child’s Heart, also hailed this collaboration, which he said was a form of impact investment. “This triangle of having government, [private] companies and philanthropy is a triangle that works,” Fisher told eJP.

Fisher added that this type of collaboration was possible due to his organization’s contacts with the Mitrelli Group, as well as Save a Child’s Heart’s reputation and experience treating “6,600 children from 69 countries in 28 years of activity.”

The Mitrelli Group, which advises and manages national projects for governments, has been working in Ivory Coast since 2016. Among the projects that the consulting and logistics firm was overseeing was a large-scale construction and renovation effort of hundreds of clinics in the West African coastal nation, Peled said.

As a part of this effort, Peled and the Mitrelli Group learned about the Institute of Cardiology of Abidjan, where Ivorian doctors had successfully performed open-heart surgery for decades until the clinic’s staff lost their ability to do so as it had been closed – off and on, for a variety of reasons – for several years, losing its surgeons and nurses the training and experience needed to perform these difficult procedures.

“When I saw ICA, I was amazed. You have this infrastructure, you have a beautiful center, you have doctors, cardiologists, surgeons, you have the entire staff there, you have equipment. And talking to the doctors, I realized that over the years, their capacity decreased,” Peled said.

“We were thinking, ‘It would be wonderful for us to be able to assist them, to gain their reputation again, to enable them to, to operate on children that need this by themselves again and not depend on the international community to assist them,’” she said.

Peled said seeing that the country had this infrastructure, the Mitrelli Group brought in outside consultants to determine if the ICA could again perform these cardiac surgeries. “Was it only a matter of training? Or is there another problem? Maybe their capacities are not good enough, maybe they don’t have equipment,” she said.

They found that the issue was indeed just the lack of training and experience. Due to Taib’s connection to it, Save a Child’s Heart seemed the obvious partner for this effort as the organization not only helps bring children to Israel for heart surgery but also helps train local doctors and nurses in cardiac surgery.

Peled said she also reached out to Ivory Coast’s first lady, Dominique Ouattara, who has a long history of activism and philanthropy. “The reason why I approached her was that if we really want to make Ivory Coast the focal point for heart surgery in Africa, I personally believe we can bring you to a certain level, but joining forces with the first lady can bring you to the next level,” Peled said.

To start this collaboration, in 2020, the Mitrelli Group and Save a Child’s Heart worked with Ivory Coast to bring five children who needed heart surgery to Israel. With that connection made, Peled said they started to look into establishing a training program for Ivorian doctors, initially considering sending them to Israel for a few years.

The problem was language: Ivory Coast is a predominantly French-speaking country. While English is often spoken by Israeli doctors, fluency in French is harder to come by.

“Bringing the doctors from Israel was not an option because of the language barrier,” Peled said. “So I started looking for a partner in France.”

Fisher directed Peled to Dr. Mohamed Ly, a Mauritania-born French cardiac surgeon, who had attempted a similar initiative in Ivory Coast a few years prior with his nonprofit Association Française du Coeur pour l’Afrique de l’Ouest (AFCOA). Fisher had worked with Ly years prior when the latter was working in Mauritania.

“So we approached Professor Ly and said, ‘We came up with this idea. We have this vision. What do you think? Would it be possible for us to arrange delegations from France, in coordination with Israel, to train the people of Ivory Coast? He said, ‘I can’t believe it! It’s my dream!’ I said, ‘Great, it’s a match!’” Peled said.

As part of this initiative, the Mitrelli Group’s offshoots would pay Ly’s AFCOA to send teams to Ivory Coast to train local doctors in pediatric heart surgery, with delegations coming every few months for five years beginning this September.

Ly, who was not available to speak, said in a statement that this initiative represents a “monumental step towards providing essential surgical care and empowering local teams, ensuring a brighter future for children who currently lack access to these critical services.”

Fisher from Save a Child’s Heart said he was particularly excited to collaborate on this initiative with Ly’s foundation. It marks the first time that Save a Child’s Heart will work with a French nonprofit, he said.

“For Save a Child’s Heart to partner with a French organization is a mega achievement,” he said. “We are looking forward to hosting Prof. Ly in Israel in September.”

In addition to these regular training sessions with French doctors, Ivorian doctors would also travel with the Ivorian children to Israel in order to train under teams at the Sylvan Adams Children Hospital, Peled said. 

Ivory Coast’s health minister, Pierre Dimba, said in a statement that developing these capabilities was part of a “national strategic priority” of health-care independence.

“Sending children abroad for surgery is a blessing but not a long-term solution,” Dimba said. “Our vision is to stop outsourcing our healthcare, and instead begin to export our own capabilities to help others.”