Restoring Smiles Among HIV-Positive Employees: Lake Harvest’s Workplace HIV and Wellness Program Pays Dividends

By Michael Gwarisa in Kariba

As the 2030 target to end AIDS draws near, numerous interventions are being implemented across the globe in a bid to fast-track progress towards reaching the ambitious target. For companies operating in hard-hit regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa, HIV/AIDS has had major consequences on profitability and productivity of companies due to increased cases of absenteeism and AIDS-related deaths among the productive age groups.

The UNAIDS acknowledges that HIV/AIDS is not just a public health issue but rather a workplace issue and a development challenge that needs the active involvement and participation of business. In 2018, the Zimbabwean government launched the Zimbabwe Private Sector HIV/AIDS and Wellness Coordination Board (ZIPSHAW), as one of the strategies to oversee the implementation of HIV and wellness programs in working setups by the private sector.

Several companies around the country have been implementing HIV and Wellness programs over the years to try and reduce the scourge of HIV and Non-Communicable Diseases in organisations (NCDs) in the workplace.

A fish at Lake Harvest in Kariba. Lake Harvest is a leading Tilapia producer in Africa. The company is giving Tilapia Fish to its employees as part of its Workplace HIV and Wellness program

Lake Harvest, a leading fish farming and processing company in the Sub-Saharan region, is one of the companies with a vibrant and successful HIV policy and wellness program in Zimbabwe. The company is also reviewing its HIV policy to ensure it addresses emerging HIV in the workplace challenges.

To cater for the nutrition of its employees living with HIV in line with its HIV and wellness program, Lake Harvest has a nutritional aid program where it gives out monthly rations to 12 of its employees who have opened up about their HIV-positive status. The monthly rations comprise of a US$60 grocery voucher and seven kilograms of Tilapia fish every month.

Boniface Chiremba says the workplace HIV wellness program has been good to him

Boniface Chiremba (50), a Lake Harvest employee living with HIV, says the company has created a favourable working and social environment for employees living with HIV.

I joined Lake Harvest in December 1999 and when I tested positive for HIV, you remember back then, things were different, it was a death sentence. I lost all hope and I thought I was going to die. However, through counseling and the support I get from this company, I am now living a healthy and fulfilling life just like those living without HIV,” said Chiremba during a National Aids Council (NAC) Editors and station managers media tour in Kariba.  

Apart from providing nutritional support to the employees, the company also conducts condom distributions programs amongst its employees. Lake Harvest is also collaborating with other organisation in the implementation of the workplace wellness and HIV program. These include the Zimbabwe AIDS Network (ZAN), the National AIDS Council (NAC) among others.

“I have more than 15 years taking HIV medications, and through the company’s HIV program, i have been adhering to my medication. Right now my viral load is undetectable. Despite the long period i i have lived with HIV, i have not even transmitted it to my wife. Last year, we were blessed with a health baby and she is not even HIV positive. Me and my wife gave birth to health baby and she was born HIV negative.  I can safely say I am healthy and fit. I don’t have any problems. I come to work every day just like any employee.”

The company also facilitates viral load testing services for employees. They have also introduced recreational activities for all the employees and those living with HIV also participate in them without fear of being discriminated against.

Through its land distribution program, the company has also allocated land to its employees and some from among the 12 member support group have applied and already reaping benefits from their toil.

Maxwell Kurisa, a Lake Harvest employee is doing well in his vegetable farming endeavors within the Lake Harvest premises.

Maxwell Kurisa is growing vegetables under the Workplace HIV and Wellness program

“I grow tomatoes and vegetables. I started this garden some time ago as part of the company’s peer education program. I benefit physically from this gardening as I am always on my feet working and tending to my plants. The garden has also brought immense financial returns for me. Sometimes I make approximately US$120 per week from selling vegetables to the company’s canteen,” said Kurisa.

Lake Harvest started implementing the HIV and wellness policy in 2002, at the height of the AIDS pandemic. The organisation was assisted in developing the program by the Zimbabwe AIDS Prevention Support Organisation (ZAPSO), Family AIDS Caring Trust (FACT) and the Zimbabwe AIDS Network (ZAN). Around 2007, they became a member of the National AIDS Council (NAC).

Mr Samson Coffee, Lake Harvest Environmental Services Coordinator said their HIV policy 
and wellness program priorities the welfare of their employees living with HIV.

“We have been recording reduced cases of incidence or new HIV infections. We have made sure that all employees not just the HIV-positive ones but all employees are on Medical Aid. However the difference now is that for our HIV positive workers, we have made sure that we advance their medical aid so that it takes care of Non-Communicable Diseases that also affect the person living with HIV among other health conditions,” said Mr Coffee.

Mr Samson Coffee is leading a vibrant Workplace and HIV program at Lake Harvest in Kariba

He added that they are targeting only their employees with their wellness program and their thematic areas are workplaces where they are operating namely in Kariba, Harare, Mutare and Siavonga in Zambia.

“We also have medical officers who visit to conduct medical examinations here. We also have health staff who conduct quick screening of our employees. Even though we have had our successes with the program, we have had challenges and one of the biggest challenges is funding of our program.”

He added that while they encourage workers to regularly test for HIV, the company policy does not force employees to get tested and neither does it force them to disclose their status unwillingly to anyone.

While fears of indirectly promoting stigma through the special treatment Lake Harvest renders to its employees living with HIV, the company’s Human Resources Manager, Mr Givemore Nyarumwa said, “When recruiting, prompting and terminating employment, we don’t look at one’s HIV status, we work within the confines of the labour policy. Even when it comes to distributing fish rations and grocery vouchers, no one knows how many kgs of fish one gets besides the beneficiaries.”

Lake Harvest uses a variety of prevention and treatment approaches and aims to prevent the spread of HIV, manage its impact on infected employees, and reduce disease-related stigma and discrimination. The 12 member group of person living with HIV works more or less like a support group and provides peer  to peer counseling, and can make referrals to testing services, free condom distribution and the provision of free antiretroviral treatment to employees. Nurses in the organization have also been trained to provide treatment and screening of other diseases such as HIV, Syphilis, Malaria and others.

Meanwhile, Kariba District has a total population of 75599 from its nine urban wards and 12 rural wards. The district has two hospitals and eight clinics. The major economic activities are power generation, fishing, tourism, tobacco farming and safari hunting. Key drivers of HIV in the districts according to the National AIDS Council include Spousal separation, low condom use and low risk perception.

In terms of the HIV disease burden, the HIV incidence stands at 0.16 with adults making 4442 of the HIV burden in the area. Antiretroviral Therapy coverage stands at  96.18%. Major problems include Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), unprotected sex among youth and Child marriages. Interventions to address the challenges are the Global Fund Sister to Sister program which is being implemented in 10 wards. The Male  Mobilization program is being implemented in 10 wards whereas the peeled program led by fishermen and se workers among other interventions.

 

 

 

 

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