Shelton native on a mission to eradicate poverty, disease in Togo

MILFORD — As a missionary in the West African country of Togo in 2007, Elizabeth Simonetti tended to the medical needs of thousands of Togolese.

While medicine brought relief for many, too often she found herself holding the hand of a person who did not survive, whether it be from malaria or other intestinal bacteria.

It was those experiences that sparked her desire to remain a presence in Togo and find ways to attack the poverty and dangerous living conditions that were the root of the cycle of sickness in the country of about 8 million located just to the east of Ghana.

“After a year working with in Togo, my assignment may have been over, but I knew my work there was not,” Simonetti, a longtime Milford resident and Shelton native, said. “This only started my journey in Togo.”

Simonetti, a pharmacist by profession, founded the non-profit Assi Le Assime: The Togo Development Partnership.

The partnership, which she runs with Togolese entrepreneur Kokou Mountou Herve Tchamsi, began in 2011, three years after she completed her missionary work with the Canossian Daughters of Charity, a Catholic religious institute that dates back to 1808.

“We used to see patients every couple of months, coming in with malaria, intestinal worms, other recurrent chronic diseases,” Simonetti said about her time in Togo as a missionary. “The questions I kept asking myself was ‘What is going on upstream before they hit our clinic and how can we fix it?’”

Now she visits Togo twice a year, although the pandemic has prevented regular trips the past two years.

Simonetti last visited in October, and plans to return in March.

The organization’s name, in the native language Ewe, means “Hand in Hand” — a perfect description of its goal, according to Simonetti. The group’s work is focused on eliminating poverty and disease through global philanthropy and local enterprise.

Her operation helps to create jobs by establishing small enterprises that make mosquito canopies and water filters to alleviate poverty and provide education to help these small enterprises meet local market needs. The idea is to help create jobs by establishing small enterprises that make mosquito canopies and water filters to alleviate poverty and provide education to help these small enterprises meet local market needs,” she said.

Simonetti has seen the ability of modern medical treatments to improve lives. Her parents owned White Cross Pharmacy on Center Street in Shelton. From Shelton, she attended the University of Connecticut. After pharmacy school, she did her residency in Washington D.C., where she stayed for 10 years with the American Society of Hospital Pharmacists (ASHP). When she left, she was acting director of educational services.

She then moved to Atlanta, Ga., where she was a faculty member at the Mercer University School of Pharmacy. When she left, she was vice president for international education, spending time in Asia and opening the university’s office in Hong Kong.

Simonetti then joined the New Jersey-based office of Hoffmann-La Roche, a Swiss multi-national healthcare company commonly known as Roche. It was at Hoffmann-La Roche that the opportunity arose to work for up to 18 months in a developing country — and that led to her deciding to choose missionary work.

“I was the first American to take this opportunity with Roche,” she recalled. “I am a devoted Catholic, so I wanted to be a part of something that fit with my faith. That led to the missionary work, and to Togo, where I stayed ever since.”

Access to clean water is a problem is Togo, which in turn leads to poorly prepared crops and animals that carry disease that ends up infecting the population.

Through Assi Le Assime, Simonetti acquired more than two acres of land in Togo, on which now sits a farm. On the farm, Simonetti’s crew — headed by locals John and Pacha — raises pigs and chickens. The goal is providing jobs and quality food for the population.

“We raise pork without diseases and we train people to raise pigs that are disease-free,” Simonetti said.

Simonetti said the pig business had started to solve a major problem — supplying nutritious, disease-free pork to restaurants and consumers alike.

“We started by improving the local breeds of pigs, by administering vitamins, anti-parasite medications to keep them disease-free, and by feeding organic feeds with plenty of fresh water,” she said. “The result is that we sell 6-month-old pigs to consumers and to restaurants. We know that they are disease-free, because at harvest there are no liver, heart, or intestinal parasites.”

Chickens are common in Togo, and there are many farmers looking to either begin their own flocks, or to replace older chickens. Hatcheries across the country sell day-old chicks. But farmers can’t be sure if those chicks are from local chickens or hatched from eggs imported from France or Belgium, Simonetti said.

Simonetti said her farm hatches chicks from carefully selected ISA brown chickens, bred and hand-raised in Togo.

“We carefully select and sort the eggs that will go into our incubator, which holds 4,000 eggs,” she said. “We average about 150 chicks per hatching, and all the chicks are sold to farms at prices 50 percent less than hatchery prices.”

Simonetti said the farm gets about 5,000 eggs per month from its laying hens, and sells them for about $1 per dozen. The local farmers know their chickens are local to Togo, that they are organically raised, and that the chicks from local stock will thrive in the area, she said.

“We act as a wholesaler. We sell them to women who sell them in the marketplace,” she said. “With the money the women make, the pay for their children’s school fees and household expenses.”

She said the next project is for the farm to start making its own animal feed. This is another project that will employ workers, involve purchases from other farms and keep more money in the pockets of the nearby population, she said.

“Our goal is to eliminate poverty and disease,” Simonetti said. “There is the nutrition angle, the economic development angle and raising awareness about healthy living. This is at the heart of what we do.”

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com