Maternal Health Heroes: Interview With Liya Kebede #MHHSS

We are excited to publish our fourth interview in our Maternal Health Heroes Summer Series with Liya Kebede, Supermodel and Founder of the Liya Kebede Foundation. Throughout the summer we will speak with some of the most notable maternal health advocates in the world ahead of the Global Maternal Newborn Health Conference that will be held in Mexico City between October 18 – 21, 2015. Follow the conversation at #MHHSS.

LiyaLiya Kebede is an accomplished designer, supermodel, actress and maternal health advocate. She has been featured on multiple American and international Vogue covers, has appeared in runway shows and major print campaigns for top designers around the world, and is a global brand ambassador for L’Oreal in the cosmetic, skincare, and hair care categories.  Kebede founded The Liya Kebede Foundation ( in 2005 with the mission to reduce maternal and newborn mortality.  In 2007 she launched the clothing line lemlem, ( meaning to bloom and flourish in Amharic.  The line is handwoven in Ethiopia and recently began expanding into other categories while maintaining production in Africa. In recognition of her body of work, Kebede was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2010. 

Jennifer James: What prompted you to tackle maternal health and mortality in Africa? Was there a certain life event that brought the issue to your attention?

Liya Kebede: I got involved in the maternal health movement beginning around ten years ago. I had recently become a mother myself.  I had incredible maternity care during my own pregnancies — but I knew that millions of women in Africa did not and that many were dying from preventable complications during childbirth.  I had to do something to make sure these deaths did not go unchallenged.

I started as a Goodwill Ambassador for the World Health Organization and over my six-year engagement in that role — and since then through my Foundation — I have tried to inspire others to feel as passionate about this cause as I do and to lend their support to reach more women with services.

Jennifer James: As a founder of an international global health foundation what have you found to be the biggest intervention or program that saves more mothers’ lives?

Liya Kebede: Earlier this year I wrote about some of the big actions beginning to take root that I hope will make safe motherhood a reality for more women in the coming years.

I strongly believe that a Global Fund for Moms – a coordinated approach to financing similar to existing funds that are expanding access to HIV treatment and vaccines – could offer a major boost to national maternal health programs in highly-impacted countries.  This July the World Bank and major donors formally launched a new financing facility to mobilize loan and grant resources to expand maternal health services beginning in four countries, including Ethiopia.  I think this is a promising step.

Furthermore, there are some incredible smart technologies that have the potential to directly impact millions of moms — from solar energy solutions that power clinics to mhealth applications that equip both moms and healthworkers with updated information, reminders and tools they can use to manage pregnancies safely.

Jennifer James: When you visit women (especially those in rural areas) what do you hear most from them about their maternal health care?

Liya Kebede: The thing that strikes me the most when I meet these women is that there is still so much fear around pregnancy and childbirth — quite simply because the risks they face are still too high.  The chance that they will not be able to find, reach or afford good quality care in time should they experience complications is a real concern for far too many women.

Jennifer James: Last year I had the opportunity to meet ENAHPA (Ethiopian North American Health Professionals Association) at Adare Hospital in Hawassa and saw the new maternity wing under construction. I was also pleased to learn that your foundation is a partner in constructing the new unit. How has the construction come along and what are some of the improvements in maternal health care at the hospital? Do you think innovations seen at Adare can be replicated across Ethiopia?

Liya Kebede: We’re so proud to have helped the Adare Hospital establish a maternity wing and to have contributed toward equipping – and foremost – toward delivering obstetric trainings for the medical team there as well as the network of health extension workers that look after and refer women from the surrounding rural communities.  The hospital maternity unit is able take on more and more of the complicated cases in the region now in addition to increasing family planning and prenatal services.

Jennifer James: What does the future hold for the Liya Kebede Foundation? What do you hope to achieve in Africa, and do you plan to expend to other continents?

Liya Kebede: Advocacy is such an important part of what we do and this year ahead is an important one for moms as the Millennium Development Goal are replaced with a new set of global targets.  Half of all moms in developing countries still lack access to maternal services and at the Foundation we’ll be pushing ahead trying to use our voice effectively in calling for maternal health to remain a top priority so more women receive the care they need to thrive.

Learn more about the Liya Kebede Foundation at

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