Strength of a Woman: A Multifaceted Journey in Public Health, Law, and Social Justice

March 29, 2024


Dorcas Odhiambo Onyango

Senior Communications Officer

Elizabeth Kimani-Murage

Theme Leader, Health and Wellbeing (HaW)


Who is Elizabeth Kimani?

I am a mother of two (a 19-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl), a wife, and a changemaker. In the world of research, public and policy engagement, and human rights activism, I have made significant contributions and achieved several milestones.  

I am a public health specialist with background training in environmental health pursued at undergraduate and public health at the master’s and PhD levels. As a passionate urban farmer and promoter of the same, I feed my family and those around us from my kitchen garden. I am a lawyer and an advocate of the High Court of Kenya. I invest in advocacy to promote social justice and human rights, with a signature interest in the right to food and, increasingly, other related rights, including the right to a healthy environment from the perspective of promoting human and planetary health. 

My mission? to make the world a better place for everyone, particularly for the least privileged, by promoting people’s health and well-being through a human rights-based approach.

When did you join APHRC, and what has your journey been like?

I joined APHRC in 2003 as a Research Trainee, two years after its establishment. I have since risen through the ranks to become a Senior Research Scientist. I head the Health and Wellbeing (HaW) theme and lead the Nutrition and Food Systems (NFS) Unit. The HaW theme houses NFS and four other Units (Sexual, Reproductive Health, Maternal, Newborn, and Adolescent Health; Chronic Disease Management; Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases; and Health Systems Strengthening). In addition to leading fundraising initiatives and driving evidence generation, I actively engage in public and policy engagement on nutrition and food systems health issues and mentorship.  

You wear many hats; you are an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and a scientist. How did you get here?

Growing up, my mom always saw something in me. She’d say, “Wambui, one day you will be a judge.” Her words planted a seed in me, strengthening my resolve to champion justice. Growing up, I witnessed my dad’s involvement in an unending court case regarding land they had acquired with his friends. This lasted the whole of my childhood!  It seemed people in my community grew apathetic towards legal justice given our and their own experiences, such that whenever there was a dispute, they never wanted to face the courts. Courts would never deliver justice for them, and advocates were too expensive or exploitative! Growing up, I often thought, “One day, I will help people access justice.”

Through different exposures beyond my childhood, including university studies and my work at APHRC,  I have seen firsthand the struggles and vulnerabilities among people, particularly the urban poor and the drylands, where I have conducted most of my research. The desire to promote human rights and justice propelled me to pursue law. I am still figuring out how best to plug into the justice space, though I am increasingly involved in social justice activism, especially the right to food. Now, I am not just a scientist and researcher, I am also a connector, helping to bridge the gaps in the legal system. Currently, I am actively involved in two cases pending hearing in the Kenyan courts regarding food sovereignty. Despite these successes, I am inspired to get more involved and to go beyond the right-to-food issues to climate justice issues, which are closely related. My desire is to see a more just world!

How has your experience been at APHRC, and what do you enjoy most about working at the Center?

Working at APHRC has been an amazing experience. What I have enjoyed most is the opportunity to discover myself and the freedom to define my research niche and program and chart my career path. We live once! I do not have another life in the future beyond my work to give myself a chance to live my dreams. Therefore, having the opportunity to balance my scientific work and my passion for social justice within the same workspace has been gratifying. My work gives me immense happiness, joy, and fulfillment! I always feel energized to wake up and pick up from where I left off the previous day. I have also really enjoyed professionalism and objectivity at APHRC. Not to mention respect for human values, including fairness, respect for human dignity, and equality, among others.

As a woman, how have you managed to balance career & family life? Can women have it all?

Both family and career are very important for a woman. Women should feel free to enjoy both, not one at the expense of the other. Women should be supported to combine their reproductive (including caring for their children and families) and productive (career) responsibilities, recognizing that both are equally important. I consider myself very lucky to have all the support I need – from my family and workplace – to actualize this.

APHRC’s maternity policies actively promote the integration of family responsibilities with work commitments. Additionally, my husband has been an invaluable source of support. For example, when I went to South Africa for my Ph.D. studies, I left my son, a toddler then, behind with him (and of course, the nanny). My husband ensured we (himself, myself, and our son) stayed connected daily for long hours, demonstrating his commitment to our family’s well-being. My supervisors were also very supportive of my work-life balance. They allowed me to do a sandwich, the kind of program where I stayed in South Africa for about three months and stayed in Kenya (as an Intern at APHRC) for about two to three months until I finished my studies. This ensured a good connection with my family while I progressed in my career – a support system every woman deserves. In Kenya, we are fortunate to have reliable domestic support systems and to alleviate the burden of household chores. In my case, this has enabled me to dedicate ample time to my work and family. Women can thrive when they have the right support systems.

I often think time is elastic – it depends on how you wish to stretch it. That said, I often wish I had 25 hours in a day. There is always one more thing I wish I could finish in a day if I had an extra hour. 

What are some of your greatest achievements?

I have numerous achievements! Here are some of the ones I am excited to share.

As a student at Moi University, Town campus, I boldly entered the student leadership race at the Moi University Student Organization for the Director of Accommodation and Catering position. I was one of the few women who had ever ventured into that race, and I won by a landslide. During my tenure, I ensured transformative policies were in place for fair treatment of all cadres of students.

While pursuing my Ph.D. in 2010, I received the most prestigious Ph.D. Award (awarded annually to the best Ph.D.) at the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. 

I was honored to be one of only two people at APHRC who were lucky to be granted the prestigious Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Training Fellowship after my Ph.D. I undertook the fellowship between 2012 and 2015. It was amazing! I was very well mentored, which helped me grow as a research leader and develop a research niche in nutrition.

I have led transformative research that established and evaluated Kenya’s first-ever human milk bank. Human milk banking ensures that vulnerable children who do not have access to their mother’s milk can access breast milk via the bank. This promotes their nutrition and health and actualizes their right to food and nutrition.

I am proud to have been announced as one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Top 10 visionaries under its 2050 Food Systems Vision Prize in 2020 in a global competition involving 1300+ applicants. Our 2050 Food System Vision (see video) is to restore Nairobi (and other African cities) to “A Place of Cool Waters.” As part of the Zero Hunger Initiative, we empower grassroots organizations in urban poor settings in Nairobi to undertake agroecological urban farming to feed themselves and their communities with dignity. The work of one of the groups, City Shamba, was recognized during His Majesty King Charles’s recent visit to Kenya.

I am one of the recipients of the recently announced 2.5 million pounds climate and health grants by the Wellcome Trust to make the climate impacts on health visible for action. I lead a transdisciplinary team of researchers, policy actors, and civil society groups to make visible climate impacts on health in Eastern Africa drylands under the Visibilize4ClimateAction Project.

Managing to acquire a law degree, complete studies at the Kenya School of Law, and eventually be admitted to the bar despite my age, work, and family responsibilities. Truly, when you want something, the universe conspires to help you acquire it as Paulo Coelho advises in his book, The Alchemist, which I really love reading.  I saw this in action!

I have become a multidisciplinary person – I can now see things from different perspectives.

In March, the world celebrates International Women’s Day. In light of this, what would you tell your 20-year-old self from where you sit now?

I would tell my 20-year-old self that along life’s journey are many hidden pearls. Open your eyes to spot them, pick as many as you can and use them well.

Parting shot

I will end by reiterating inspirational words from Buddha that I often use: Our minds create our worlds. If we want to see something happen in our lives and this world, we have to envision it in our minds first and then actualize it. And when you want something, the universe conspires to help you achieve it, as Paulo Coelho inspires us.