News from ECI, April 2020

Dear ECI family,

For the first time since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, there seems to be a little optimism in the air. The measures governments are taking around the world to contain the spread of the disease are showing great benefits. Those measures need to be encouraged!

In DRC particularly, we are cautiously grateful that the spread of the disease appears to be slower than we’ve seen in other communities. That is true in Congo and other sub-Saharan countries, with the notable exception of South Africa. Caution is key in interpreting positive COVID-19 infection rates in Africa, since there is so little capacity for testing. Since there is no certainty to be had, we take comfort in knowing that quick action by the African governments, coupled with deep expertise controlling other infectious diseases, is serving us well.

As executive director of ECI, it gives me great pride to see that our teams in Congo are as committed as ever to serve their own people. Our programs are resilient, our staff is the best in the world, and our mission to serve the Congolese people is stronger than ever. 

The need to serve remains great — not only because of the pandemic. This past Friday, April 24, armed militiamen massacred 18 people in Virunga National Park, among them 12 brave park rangers, who lost their lives in an attempt to protect the park’s irreplaceable natural richness for the good of all humanity. Just four months ago, I was in Virunga myself. We had led a delegation of visitors there, at the invitation of park warden Emmanuel de Mérode — legendary conservationist, past ECI grantee, and perpetual friend. We are united in believing that the future of DRC is worth fighting for, and we share our deepest condolences with the families and friends of those who were killed. May God be with them.

During the time of social distancing, ECI is focusing on creating community and connecting our communities together. Our leadership team has been in touch with most key ECI and Asili supporters during the past month, and we’re happy to report that these relationships have been strengthened by this crisis. We asked some ECI staff members in Congo to share video messages of solidarity, and our supporters were deeply moved by the gesture.

Worldwide, our lives have been changed in so many ways by this pandemic — even those of us who are simply sheltering at home. The disease and its effects are never far from anyone. My family and I are no different. My mother-in-law was recently admitted for care on the USNS Comfort in New York harbor. Thankfully, she is recovering. But the experience reminds me that COVID-19 will touch every family.

Fortunately, we can all find resilience by supporting each other. I have found great comfort in being close to my family, and I am using this opportunity to do the things I missed with my kids — sitting and reading to them, telling them stories and praying together.

Abraham Leno
Executive Director, ECI

Situation report

Congo and its neighbors

With the notable exception of South Africa, sub-Saharan nations have reported dramatically fewer COVID-19 cases than we expected, given the virulence of the coronavirus in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. In the absence of robust testing, however, we have know way of knowing whether the epidemic is spreading as quickly in Africa as it has elsewhere.

ECI and our partners are continuing to prepare as though the epidemic were taking the same course it has elsewhere in the world. But since we don’t yet have evidence that morbidity or mortality from the disease are increasing, our staff are in a holding pattern before launching a more aggressive response. We are not relaxing our vigilance at all, but we are cautiously hopeful that good news may be on the horizon.

If you’d like to know more about the COVID-19 response in North and South Kivu, you are welcome to look at the weekly briefings we have been sending to our friends at the USAID mission in Kinshasa: bit.ly/eci-covid19-briefings.

ECI staff and partners

As always, I am in daily contact with all my staff, and all ECI managers are in daily contact with their coworkers, collaborators and communities. None of our staff members or grantees has been confirmed to have COVID-19.

What’s new

Although the pandemic has changed the work we’re doing, the ECI family is as busy as ever.


  • Flexibility and support. Because ECI wants to get grant funding into communities as quickly as possible, we had already disbursed 75 percent of our 2020 grant funding before the pandemic arose. Many of our current grantees’ activities are being put on hold during the pandemic. We are working with them to make our support more flexible, connect them with other funding sources, and help them engage communities around public health.

  • Grantees take leadership. ECI grantee and friend Dr. Dénis Mukwege, founder of the Panzi Hospital, is leading leading the provincial COVID-19 response. Here’s Dr. Mukwege’s statement to the press from April 10.

Social enterprise

  • The front lines of COVID-19 response. For about 100,000 people in South Kivu, Asili water points and medical clinics provide vital supplies during the pandemic — clean water, medical care, and trustworthy information.

  • Spreading the word. Working with the Asili medical and community engagement teams, ECI has created community education materials about COVID-19 prevention in French and Swahili, and we’re sharing then throughout South and North

Strengthening markets

  • Coffee harvest continues. Travel restrictions have postponed some of the work ECI partners had planned to do among coffee-farming communities in DRC. But the coffee harvest is continuing, and we have every reason to believe that the relationships we’re building between Congolese farmers and Western markets will survive the pandemic as strong as ever.


  • Telling stories of resilience. We had planned a big announcement of ECI’s acquisition of Asili some time in the fall. But the pandemic has changed our thinking. We believe that the work ECI is doing to respond to COVID-19 is so important, and so helpful, that we want to start talking about it right away. At the encouragement of our founders and the board, we’re restarting ECI’s social media channels to tell the stories only we can tell.
  • Advocating for DRC in Washington. We believe that the ECI approach to humanitarian work — built on local solutions to local problems, direct aid to CBOs, and world-class social enterprise — offers the best possible guidance for the federal response to COVID-19 around the world. Ben, Whitney and Abraham are drafting a letter to the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees to advocate for our approach, and we’re just getting started.

How you can help

  • Interact with ECI on social media. We’re on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Your comments, likes, retweets and reposts are the easiest and most direct way to spread the word of our work.
  • Give us your feedback. As we find our voice as an organization, we need the help and guidance of our friends and family. If you have ideas for our social media, our blog, or our communications in any way, we want to hear them. Send your ideas directly to the comms team at info@easterncongo.org, or just reply to us on the social networks.

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