Co-founder of Global Handwashing Day, Dr Myriam Sidibe. [Courtesy]

Handwashing, with soap and running water, is probably one of the most emphasised ways of curbing the spread of coronavirus. In recent times, articles and videos have emerged on how to properly wash hands. This information may be novel to many, but not Myriam Sidibe.

She is so passionate about cleaning hands and its importance that co-founded the Global Handwashind Day marked every October 15.

Sidibe is among the very few people on the planet with a Doctorate in Public Health with special emphasis on handwashing.

She graduated from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. During her time at the London College, the only other person with similar qualifications was her supervisor.

Dr Myriam Sidibe is a champion for good nutrition and proper hygiene, especially among school-going children.

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"Involving our children in the washing of hands as often as possible especially before and after key times including blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing plays a major role in avoiding the spread of Covid-19," says Dr Sidibe.

Dr Sidibe, a Malian, was born in France where her parents were studying. Although she grew up in what could be termed a privileged household, the vagaries of poverty in her home country were not far from her.

“I went to a public primary school in Mali and saw first-hand how those with limited means suffered from preventable causes. I always wanted to do something to alleviate the causes of suffering among our people,” said Sidibe in a previous interview with the Standard’s  Eve Woman.

Her first training was in civil engineering, specifically in water and waste management. But this was not enough. According to her, you can give people the right tools and facilities but they need help in utilising them to their benefit. A hands-on approach was necessary.

Young children, she says, were dying either due to poor nutrition or unhygienic practices. Mass-mobilisation was necessary for her to achieve her dreams of assisting the less fortunate.

In 2006, she joined Unilever and spearheaded its social mission programme throughout 55 countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

As the Global Social Mission Director for Unilever - Lifebuoy, Myriam Sidibe leads a movement that has reached over 183 million people in more than 16 countries. Her passion in preventing child mortality is best illustrated by her words on her 2015 Ted Talk –this is the only Ted Talk on handwashing.

“Imagine a plane about to crash with 250 babies on board. Now imagine 60 such planes crashing each day. That is the number of children who do not reach their fifth birthday. Most of these deaths are preventable and that’s what makes me sad, makes me angry. Diarrhoea and pneumonia are among the top two killers. To prevent them, we don’t need the latest innovation but one of the oldest inventions – a bar of soap. Washing hands reduces diarrhoea by half, respiratory diseases by a third...” and on and on she goes.

Her goal is to get at least 12 million Kenyans to change their habits regarding handwashing by 2020 “This is the most cost-effective way of preventing disease. You can find a bar of soap in nearly every home but whether people use it is another thing altogether,” she says.

So embedded is handwashing in her psyche that when young, her eldest daughter, Soraya, would hand over hand sanitisers to visitors right on the doorway lest they infect her then newborn brother, Yerim-Michel with a disease.


Sidibe has written a book, Brands on a Mission – How to achieve social impact and business growth through purpose. Here, she explores the importance of creating a performance culture that is built on driving impact through purpose and the type of talent required to drive these transformational changes within companies.


Her father, Michel Sidibe, who is her greatest mentor, rose from a humble background to be the second in command to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and the second executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS). He is also the Minister of Health and Social Affairs of Mali.

After ending her first marriage, Sidibe met her childhood friend Welffens and the two tied the knot on Jamhuri Day 2012.

Welffens is a career hotelier who worked as a top manager at The Tribe, a Five-star hotel in Gigiri. He later opened a French restaurant, Grenier à Pain, at Riverside Drive in Nairobi.

She is a citizen of the world. By the time she was 40, she had already lived in over 20 countries and visited more than 50 in all continents as family and duty called.

Sidibe says she will not tire of articulating her twin subjects – better nutrition and good hygiene – in the best way she can. 


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