Georgie Badiel Liberty was just another young model in New York’s fashion scene when I first met her over a decade ago. As a fellow West African from Togo, I was drawn to her stories of growing up in Burkina Faso’s underserved communities, and to the way she described a future where Africans could be empowered to improve their own communities, instead of always relying on foreigners to take the lead. A former Miss Burkina Faso who also won the Miss Africa contest in 2004, she was then focused on pursuing her own American dream.

That dream came true as she found herself in demand, working with glossy magazines, including mine, as well as with major designers such as Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs and others in America and Europe. When she married the Liberian-American entrepreneur Chid Liberty in 2018, the wedding ceremony was covered in a glowing, full-page New York Times article. By the time she got hitched however, she had already reinvented herself as a successful social entrepreneur and author living a new African dream, in addition to her American one. Her best-selling book The Water Princess, written by Susan Verde and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, was published by Penguin, and translated to Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Turkish, French and Spanish.

Having launched the Georgie Badiel Foundation in 2015 around a commitment to provide access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities to people in her home country, she was always willing to tell interviewers that GBF (as she calls it) only employs locals in Burkina Faso, and that she knew, first hand from childhood experiences, what it’s like to spend several hours every day collecting water with women from her family. Now that more than 270,000 Burkinabe have benefited from water access through GBF, she has decided to ramp up on her training and education efforts by doing her bit in Burkina Faso to help alleviate the current public health crisis as a result of the spread of Covid-19.

The Georgie Badiel Foundation is known for transforming lives through access to clean water in your native Burkina Faso. Why are you now so active on the coronavirus and its impact on everyday Africans?

GBF is focusing on SDG-6, the sixth Sustainable Development Goal, which is about providing clean water access and sanitation. Our mission is connected to improving health. Not just access to water. These are so many diseases from dirty water that lead to death, especially for infants and toddlers. Education, entrepreneurship and women’s empowerment, those are the solutions, because girls and women are the ones responsible for fetching water. That means they can go to school and open businesses once clean water access is available, instead of spending hours collecting water.

Since inception, GBF has also been implementing various awareness campaigns, relating to, among other priorities, well maintenance. When I founded GBF, I visited quite a few villages that were in need of clean drinking water. Some of them had a well, but it was broken. No one knew how to restore the well. So GBF decided to launch an awareness campaign on well maintenance, with a special focus on training women so that they could restore them. We also implement workshops on hygiene practice in the places we work. This all helps to fight the virus.

When Covid-19 started to drastically impact the lives of people across the world, my team and I thought it would be very important for GBF to launch an awareness campaign in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, which has a population of over 2.2 million. As of March 19th, Covid-19 had already hit Burkina Faso with over 33 cases. Ours was the first Sub-Saharan country to report a death linked to coronavirus. We see in Asia, Europe and North America how challenging it is to fight this virus. And unlike Africa, those other continents are equipped with modern healthcare facilities.

I feel it is important for a grassroots organization like GBF to act now, and to take on this big challenge, so that we can help save many lives. We need to keep in mind that the coronavirus is linked to our core mission. There is a direct connection between clean water and the spread of the coronavirus. The World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in America all recommend using soap and clean water—in addition to social distancing—as the best way to prevent the spread of virus.

What kind of on-the-ground experience does your Foundation have with Africa’s sanitation issues? What have been some of your team’s learnings since you launched the Foundation in 2015?

Beyond providing sanitation facilities there is a real need to raise awareness, train and educate on these issues. In 2015 for instance, GBF built a new well in a public school in Ouagadougou. The school did not have access to clean water. While building the well, our team implemented an awareness campaign on hygiene for the students. After the well was built and toilets were functioning, many of the students kept the same practices they had before they had new sanitation facilities and did not follow any hygiene best practices. The GBF team went back to the school and continued the awareness campaign for an additional two months. It was one of the most challenging moments as we saw how critical it was to change student mindsets and behaviors.

That was one of our learnings, a learning we can bring to the fight against Covid-19. We cannot assume that people have the basic knowledge, or the practice. In Burkina Faso, I’m hearing stories of people who think they virus will just go away. They do not even know the basic facts, because they don’t have access to real information. In Africa, youth and women are very important in helping to shape a collective shift in terms of mindsets and best practices. That is why all our programs include women and youth.

To be successful, we understood very early on while designing our first programs that our mission is not only to provide a service to the population and community but also to train locals and beneficiaries so that they can feel part of our team and mission as our local partners. It’s about really owning the issue. We now want to apply some of those learnings on changing mindsets to spreading the word on the coronavirus.

How do you think your high profile in the fashion world, coupled with your access to world leaders such as President Kaboré of Burkina Faso, can help to change Africans’ habits and slow the spread of the coronavirus on the continent?

I think my journey can inspire many Africans to take the lead on this issue. Before being a model or meeting with the President of Burkina Faso, I myself had to spend hours to fetch water during my childhood. I am living proof that everything is possible, that all kinds of changes are possible. Thanks to my profile, I now have access to international platforms where I can speak, and I always bring my love for Africa and Africans with me. I am committed to dedicating my time, limited resources and energy to helping people. I want to do my part.

One of my favorite leaders was Thomas Sankara. And one of my favorite quotes from his many words of wisdom is, “The enemies of a people are those who keep them in ignorance.” In this difficult time, the best way to fight Covid-19 is with knowledge. Unfortunately, many people in villages do not have much access to information letting them know how to combat this new virus that is ravaging the world. We need everyone on board, governments and civil society. In Burkina, GBF as a grassroots organization is reaching out to people and raising awareness on how to protect oneself against the coronavirus. Together with the government, we can make a big difference in people’s lives.