Shelf Life

Fighting malaria through business ideals

Kai Ryssdal Oct 12, 2011
Shelf Life

Fighting malaria through business ideals

Kai Ryssdal Oct 12, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: We found this somewhat mind-boggling statistic on the website of the World Health Organization this morning: A child in Africa dies from malaria every 45 seconds. Forty-five seconds.

It’s a horrible human cost that comes with economic consequences for the mostly developing countries where malaria’s endemic. Crazy thing is, malaria’s easily preventable.

That’s where philanthropist Ray Chambers comes in. He made his money in private equity a long time ago. He’s now the United Nations Special Envoy for Malaria, with the not-unambitious goal of getting rid of that disease — forever.

It’s a story told in a new book by Alex Perry from Time Magazine. It’s called “Lifeblood: How To Change the World One Dead Mosquito at a Time.”

Gentlemen, welcome to the program.

Alex Perry: Thanks for having us.

Ray Chambers: It’s our pleasure to be with you.

Ryssdal: Alex, let me start with you and ask what might seem like a fundamental question: What drew you to this story?

Perry: Living in Africa, working in Africa, I knew how devastating malaria was. I knew its cost. And to get rid of malaria would be an extraordinary boost to development, and to getting a fundamental measure to send Africa on a path towards prosperity. So it was its ambition, but there was a bigger story here about the innovations that the campaign was bringing to aid and development work. They’re applying, essentially, business techniques and a little entrepreneurial hustle to aid.

Ryssdal: This is a fairly straightforward problem, Ray Chambers. Mosquito nets and spraying insecticides, in essence, to reduce mosquitoes in most of the world. I mean, when you sat down to think of your business model as you went about this, what was the equation?

Chambers: Well we knew that over one million children under the age of five had been dying from malaria each year. So you can get three children under a bed net that costs less than $10. How do we raise enough money, help to set up the logistics, distribution, make sure the people sleep under the nets, so that could lead us to close to zero deaths?

Ryssdal: Alex Perry, you took us to what you call — and I’m going to quote yourself here — the “most malarious place on earth.”

Perry: This town, Apac in northern Uganda, which is essentially a very small settlement inside a giant swamp — the average person there was being bitten four times a day by a mosquito infected with malaria. So I went, and it was like something out of a daylight horror movie. I drove into this town, it absolutely deserted apart from three naked men stumbling around; they were kind of like zombies. And in the year that I was there, which was 2009, 124,000 people had been treated for malaria.

Ryssdal: So Ray Chambers, despite all of that — of the horrors of malaria or pick-your-global-problem: hunger or poverty or no water, whatever it is — there is an unease about aid, about trying to do good without actually bringing some kind of harm. How do you — and how did you, in this instance with malaria — turn aid from benevolence to a business that can succeed? How do you do that?

Chambers: I think malaria, using the return-on-investment argument, is very compelling. We do think these bed nets have become so essential to people and we’re constantly pushing the price down — if we can get them down to around $3 or $3.50 a net, we can actually see the average African person paying for the replacement net out of their own pocket sometime in the next 10 to 15 years.

Ryssdal: Alex Perry, your thoughts?

Perry: The real innovation here is about positioning this not as charity — you don’t do this because you’re a nice person, you do it because it’s in your self-interest. So for instance, you go to ExxonMobile and you say, ‘do you know what, if you covered your workforce from malaria’ — you don’t say that would be a nice thing, you say — ‘your workforce would be a lot more productive, your profits will go up, your absenteeism will go down.’ That’s where the sustainability comes in, that’s when people start doing it without having to be asked.

Ryssdal: Alex, just to bring it full circle here: You went back to that zombie town after the campaign had been in full swing for a while. Tell me what that was like.

Perry: So yeah, I went back 18 months later, and the streets are packed. The buildings have been repainted, children are going to school, and the malaria rates had more than halved. It was just extraordinary.

Ryssdal: Alex Perry’s book about Ray Chambers and the fight against malaria is called “Lifeblood: How To Change the World One Dead Mosquito at a Time.” Gentlemen, thanks a lot.

Perry: Thanks for having us.

Chambers: Thank you very much.

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