Norwich woman plays key role in helping those in need in Kenya

First inspired to help those in the world's poorest countries as a schoolgirl at Norwich's Notre Dame High, Jo Abbot is now one of the British government's top workers helping those in need in Kenya.

Dr Abbot, based in Kenya's capital Nairobi for the past year, is deputy head of the UK government's aid programme there and responsible for overseeing schemes aiming to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Kenyans.

It is the 43-year-old's latest position in a 20-year career that has also seen her help communities across Africa in Malawi, South Africa, Lesotho, Uganda, the Congo, and she said her interest all began when she heard talks about projects overseas including the work of CAFOD (Catholic Overseas Development Agency) at Notre Dame.

'I am really passionate about development. I went to Notre Dame High School and it was hearing about projects overseas while I was there that really fired my interest in development and this longing to make a difference and work overseas,' she said.

'It is about fairness. It feels very unfair that some people in the world still live in such poverty and there is such inequality.'

Dr Abbot, who was born in Elsing, near Dereham, and also has a home in Hingham and plenty of family around Norfolk, is likely to be in Kenya until 2015, working on a range of programmes.

Over the next few years, UK aid aims to lift 830,000 of Kenya's most disadvantaged people out of poverty through a hunger safety net programme, get 300,000 more children from Kenya's poorest areas into primary school, improve maternal and reproductive health services for 15,000 women, distribute 5.2 million treated bed nets to accelerate progress in the fight against malaria, and support the implementation of a new constitution and police reforms to increase stability and help make the government more accountable to the poorest people. As much of her role in these programmes is strategic, Dr Abbot wanted to take herself back to the grassroots level and experience life first-hand in a remote rural village.

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Last week through the NGO Care she took her children Zachary, seven, and Maxwell, four, to stay with the Muriuki family who live in Iramuko village, in Gichichi, Mbeere South District.

'I spend a lot of my time in meetings and I wanted to experience what life was really like for the poorer people in the villages,' she said.

'I wanted to go with the children too because they have lived in many different African countries but we live a different life to these people.

'We stayed with a family and the children saw what life was like for other children.

'While I was at a community meeting they were climbing mango trees and came back covered in mango juice.

'They learned that not all children have toys, and made skipping ropes and footballs out of plastic bags. It was a bit of an eye-opener for the boys.'

Dr Abbot said the visit showed her that while there were some modern-day advances helping the community – such as some of the villagers having solar panels giving them light in the evening and enabling them to charge mobile phones – and projects like a village banking system helping them further their prospects, there were also many basic things that needed to be put in place such as easy access to running water.

At the moment the Iramuko women get up at 4am and spend a third of their day getting water for their families, and are allowed just 80 litres of water a day for their whole family, including animals.

Dr Abbot said: 'I think that the issues that I saw during my visit are that in some ways things are moving forward – technology is making a difference to people's lives and some of the things organisations are doing are really helping people to come together and lift their lives out of poverty – but the basic considerations like water, electricity and roads are needed for isolated villages to move forward.'

She said that ultimately Kenya's government needed to be responsible for this, but that the UK and other countries' governments and charities had an important role in helping to make sure this happens.

Are you involved in a project helping people overseas? Call reporter Emma Knights on 01603 772428 or email