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Making Money Making Bed Nets

One of the most effective ways of preventing malaria is the use of insecticide-treated bed nets. And while most of the bed nets used in Africa are distributed for free, Africa has developed a thriving business selling them to the public.

It's all due to a U.S.-funded initiative that began 10 years ago.

For a long time now, most of the bed nets used in Africa have been manufactured in Asia. But the demand has been so great that companies in at least four African countries -- Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda – have opened manufacturing plants.

The idea for a commercial bed net industry in Africa began with the $67 million NetMark project. For the last decade, it's been run by the non-profit Academy for Educational Development, or A.E.D.

A different approach

Juan Manuel Urrutia, Johannesburg-based deputy director of NetMark, says, "What is so special about this project is that this was a development project, not an aid project"

The U.S. Agency for International Development was behind it.

"The U.S. government, through USAID, provided the funding to develop a program to create a public-private partnership in malaria prevention by developing retail markets in selected African countries for insecticide-treated nets," he says.

Malaria, a disease transmitted by mosquitoes, kills about one million people every year. Most of them are in Africa and many of them are children. However, insecticide-treated bed nets are literally life savers.

While most of the nets are being made in Asia, African companies are coming on strong.

"After 10 years, there are six manufacturers, 40 distributors, reaching over 6,000 retail outlets in seven countries in Africa. In 2008 the project sold 20 million treated bed nets. The projection for 2009 is that the program may sell 21 million nets this year," he says.

Why buy one?

Yet if most of the malaria-fighting bed nets are distributed at no cost, why would the public pay anywhere from four to seven dollars to buy one? Urrutia says first, they're needed, and second, they're actually cheap in the long run.

"Bed nets are expensive…. The environmental and labor safety issues make it an expensive good to manufacture. Yes, you could think that $7.00 for a bed net is expensive. But if…it could last up to four to five years, you're talking about $1.50 for 100 percent protection per year," he says.

Urrutia says they're much more effective than aerosol sprays, which can cost up to $20 per year. He acknowledges, however, that some people cannot afford the nets, so there will always be a need for free distribution.

"We would distribute vouchers with a subsidy that could be from 50 to 80 percent of the cost of the net. So, in Senegal and Ghana, for example, in 2009 close to 350,000 families were able to get a net for $1.00 with a $6.00 subsidy," he says.

The biggest markets for bed nets are Nigeria and Ethiopia, due to the size of their populations.

Pays for itself

Urrutia says the NetMark project has been so successful, it can sustain itself, even if no more donor funding is available.

"It's the United States Agency for International Development helping developing countries help themselves," he says.

U.S. Malaria Coordinator Admiral Timothy Ziemer says the NetMark project has helped build a "culture" of bed net use in Africa.