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Supermodel Liya Kebede Reaching Out to Those in Need

By Andrew Burgon /
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November 27, 2013

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Liya Kebede Using Her Supermodel Powers and Compassion to Help Others

Liya Kebede is a world-renowned fashion supermodel, designer, actress and WHO Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health. She has appeared many times in famous fashion magazines like Vogue and has modeled for Victoria’s Secret, Dolce & Gabbana and Yves Saint-Laurant among many others. She has also been in major print campaigns for top designers around the world. In 2003, she was hailed as a ground-breaker for being the first ever black model to represent cosmetic company Estee Lauder. According to Forbes, she was the eleventh highest paid model in the world in 2007.

Kebede’s Philanthropic Efforts

Complications from pregnancy and childbirth continues to be one of the leading causes of death for women and newborns in developing countries. In Ethiopia, a mother dies in childbirth every minute, leaving her baby 10 times less likely to survive past the age of two. Dying while trying to give life just felt so desperately wrong to  Kebede.

In 2005, she was approached by the World Health Organization (WHO) and offered the post of WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health. She decided to accept it determined to have a positive impact on the lives of women in developing countries.

She traveled with the organisation to meet health workers all over the world who have little to no equipment or medicine. She met motherless children and husbands who had lost their wives.

She encountered many tragic tales. One of them was told to her by an elderly woman who shared with her how her daughter died giving birth to her third child. She couldn’t even afford food to feed her newborn granddaughter. She ended up having to give the baby away. The whole family was destroyed. The deaths of all these women have a terrible rippling effect throughout Ethiopia.

She then founded the Liya Kebede Foundation as a way to easily channel the efforts of those who wanted to get involved. It’s mission is to reduce maternal, newborn and child mortality in Ethiopia and around the world. It funds advocacy and awareness raising programs as well as direct support for low-cost technologies, community-based education and training and medical programs.

Maternal health care services cover before, during and after childbirth. Health care workers get medical training and equipment is donated to help improve the quality of care at maternal health facilities.

Advocacy efforts in Ethiopia and around the world help prompt political aid, health sector solutions and affordable support services. They work with policy makers impressing upon them the importance of maternal newborn and child health and helping them to suitably prioritize it.

The foundation’s featured program is the Hawassa Maternal Child Health Center (MCH). The Ethiopian Government and the Ethiopian North American Health Professionals Association (ENAHPA) are partners in the project.

They operate a public-private clinic four hours south of Addis Ababa offering reproductive, pre and postnatal care, and emergency obstetric services to half a million people. Since the center opened in 2011 nearly 5,000 mothers have received medical care. In 2012, hospital deliveries had risen by 51%. The center has increased vaccinations, nutritional counseling and checkups for young children. They have had some success in reducing mother-to-child HIV transmission rates.

The MCH aspires to be a model for new maternity clinics in underserved communities across Ethiopia.

Kebede has been to Ethiopa many times to take an active role in her foundation. In 2009, she worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation taking part in their Living Proof Project. She documented her journey to Ethiopia and gave an account about the state of maternal care there.

A Clothing Line Called Lemlem

One day Kebede met some traditional weavers who were doing poorly business-wise due to a decline in demand. She promised she would think of a way to help them and she kept it.

Kebede established her own clothing line called Lemlem in 2008. Lemlem means “to bloom” or”flourish” in the Ethiopian language. She hopes that it can help break the cycle of poverty and bring prosperity into the lives of the Ethiopian people.

The fashion line features hand-spun woven and embroidered women and children’s clothing made in Ethiopia. It’s also Liya’s way of preserving and promoting Ethiopian culture.

In Her Own Words

“If you don’t have a dream in life, I don’t know what you have. You have to want something beyond your reach; it’s exciting when it works out.”

“There’s a saying in Africa: To find out you are pregnant is to have one foot in the grave.”

“Every minute, one woman dies of pregnancy. Seventy to eighty percent don’t have to. That is why I love to help.”

“Protecting women and girls is something close to my heart.”

“I am driven by the desire to help save the lives of mothers and children worldwide. I was lucky to give birth in New York City, so I didn’t have to worry about whether my child and I would survive. I am grateful to be a maternal health advocate. It’s something that gives me so much back.”

“Modeling still excites me. It is a great form of expression for me. I have been lucky enough to work with incredibly talented people. I’ll never forget seeing my first French Vogue cover and spread. Seeing all those images of myself in a magazine like that—it gave me such a thrill! Another exciting moment was my first American Vogue shoot. It was a big group shot, of all top models, by Steven Meisel. I was in awe. And smitten with the profession.”


Kebede writes articles for the Huffington Post about maternal and child health. You can also ‘connect’ with her the following ways.

Twitter: liyakebede
Facebook: Liya Kebede
Instagram: liyakebede
Official Website:


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