- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2009

A U.S.-backed project has built a network over the past decade that has sold 50 million insecticide-treated mosquito nets in African countries plagued by malaria.

Implemented by the Academy for Educational Development (AED), the project, known as Netmark, closed up shop on Wednesday after creating a viable market that can continue to manufacture and distribute nets in Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda, Mali, Zambia, Ethiopia and Ghana.

Malaria, carried by mosquitoes, sickens 300 million to half a billion people every year and kills more children in Africa than HIV/AIDS, according to the World Health Organization. In Africa, about 2 million people, mostly children and pregnant women, die of malaria each year.

The main goal of Netmark, a public-private project funded in part by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), was to create a viable market for insecticide-treated mosquito nets.

By the end of September, it had sold 50 million nets and increased awareness among local populations about how to prevent malaria.

“AED partnered with major international insecticide and netting manufacturers, and we found distributors in Africa” to sell insecticide-treated nets (ITNs) for between $3 and $6 each, said Willard Shaw, vice president of AED.

“AED took care of the educational campaigns,” he said. “We talked about the importance of sleeping under a net, especially for children and pregnant women, through radio and television ads.” He said they also publicized the nets through songs.

“The mosquitoes mostly come at night, between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.,” he said. “During health sessions, we tried to show them that buying a net, even if they are more expensive than aerosols or coils, is more cost effective in the long term. It would last for years.”

According to a Netmark survey, only 23 percent of Ugandan women had heard of insecticide-treated nets in 2003. That had risen to 98 percent in 2006.

But awareness does not necessarily translate into a purchase. To reach even more people, Netmark created a voucher system.

The system enticed people to come to hospitals to redeem coupons.

“We managed to get subsidies from private companies that were interested in our project,” Mr. Shaw said. “A person would come, voucher in hand, to buy a net, would only pay a portion of the price, and our sponsor would reimburse the difference to the shopkeeper.”

In addition to $67 million from USAID, Netmark received subsidies from Exxon Mobil, the British government and UNICEF. Commercial partners overall invested $88 million in the program.

Mr. Shaw said more than 2 million families used the vouchers. In Nigeria, 92 percent of those who got vouchers redeemed them.

“We tried to have, in every country, two to four brands in competition, so that people could choose the blue net over the green, the family size or the normal one,” Mr. Shaw said.

African net manufacturers and international insecticide companies also teamed up to come up with nets that remain effective for up to five years instead of the one year for typical nets.

“We wanted to adapt to the local situation. Ugandan manufacturers now produce large nets that can fit for the triple bunk beds that can be found in boarding schools,” Mr. Shaw said. “The Nigerian brand Sunflag is about to start manufacturing” its own long-lasting nets.

Beyond public distribution through vouchers, about 6,500 shops now sell the nets.

Despite the end of the Netmark project, USAID will continue to distribute free nets. “All of this will continue because we laid down the foundations,” Mr. Shaw said.

On Sept. 23, another initiative was launched by several African heads of state. The African Leaders Malaria Alliance (ALMA) aims to end malaria deaths by 2015 by distributing bed nets to 700 million people by the end of next year.

“We are already more than half way there,” said Ray Chambers, the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy for malaria. “ALMA is going to accelerate the process.”

The envoy acknowledged that government-funded projects alone cannot be the solution.

“Creating a business for bed nets is very important for African economies. We can provide for the poorest, but eventually a market has to flourish. People will need to replace their nets,” he said.

Thinking back over the past 10 years, Mr. Shaw expressed satisfaction with what the project had achieved.

“It was not about white people coming to explain to the Africans that they had to use a net,” he said. “We showed them there is a profitable business there, because eventually, public funding will shift to another cause. Money doesn’t stay.”

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