BY Henry Neondo
Two years ago, Journalists from across the East Africa were flown or driven to Arusha, Tanzania to celebrate an innovative Japanese product that was touted to have the potential to save millions of people from malaria.
The Japanese product was for the first time being manufactured in Africa – the continent where 90 per cent of the world’s malaria deaths occur.
UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the Acumen Fund, which jointly announced the breakthrough, said the transfer of the Japanese technology to an African manufacturer, A to Z Textile Mills in Arusha, Tanzania, was made possible by an international public-private partnership aimed at greatly reducing malaria deaths.
What was interesting about this new technology was that it extended the efficacy of insecticidal bednets to more than four years without being retreated.
Compared with ordinary nets which need to be treated with insecticides at least twice a year to remain effective, a requirement which has been difficult to achieve, in part due to cost, availability, and custom, the long-lasting nets which retain their effectiveness for at least four years was good news and African journalists present were simply mesmerised!
Until A to Z Textile Mills began producing the nets in Africa then, long-lasting nets were only manufactured in East Asia. Known as “long-lasting insecticidal nets (LLIN),” the new product was without doubt a powerful weapon for fighting malaria, which kills more than one million people annually, most of them children under the age of five.
The Acumen Fund, a New York-based non-profit organization that invests philanthropic resources in innovative social entrepreneurs and enterprises with a primary goal of social change provided a loan to A to Z Textile Mills to purchase the required machinery for the manufacture of insecticidal nets.
This was done after visiting a number of bednet manufacturers in Africa deciding to settle on A to Z Textile Mills Limited in Arusha as it proved to be the most promising candidate company for the early transfer of the new technology.
The machinery and specialized chemicals came from Japan’s Sumitomo Chemical Company, which invented the process for producing the long-lasting nets. Sumitomo streamlined the production process to make bednets more affordable, and transferred its “Olyset” technology on a non-exclusive basis to A to Z Textiles without any license fee.
In addition, Sumitomo agreed to train African technicians and establish quality control procedures for long-lasting bednets manufactured in Africa. The company also expressed its willingness to transfer the Olyset technology to more African bednet producers.
ExxonMobil, another partner in the venture, was to supply the resin for the manufacture of long-lasting nets. And all those present then including Hillary Benn, UK’s Secretary for International Development commented that producing the nets in Africa increases their availability to the people most affected by malaria and strengthens the development of industry in Africa. In addition to the human toll, malaria costs Africa $10 to $12 billion annually in lost GDP.
What draws me to walk down the memory line two years after the Arusha visit however is the realization, disappointment would be more accurate that the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, of which Hillary Benn is a board member could bypass the A to Z factory based next to Kenya from where they could have cheaply exported the bednets and rather go all the way to a brokering firm, Vestergaard Frandsen, based in Switzerland to access such nets to Kenyans.
Like any human being, I ask myself whether this was the best economical thing to do. To begin with, the Vestergaard Frandsen is a blanket manufacturing company, according to the words of none other than the Chief Executive Officer himself, who also goes by the company name, Vestergaard Frandsen.
Of course like any other ‘member of the global community concerned with fighting malaria in Africa’, data on burden of the disease, its debilitating effects on the poor population of Africa came in plenty from the firm’s press release (copy and paste) as it wanted to show itself concerned in the fight against malaria by Kenya.
The CEO however was very evasive whenever the question propped up about its link to the A to Z factory, on its history of manufacturing bed nets and in its history of fighting malaria.
The CEO instead admits that once the order is found from Africa, it sets out to go and purchase the bed nets from Vietnam or Cambodia, with long history of manufacturing bed nets and have the same transported to where they are needed, of course Africa.
He says that it costs USD5 to have the nets in the home of a Kenyan mother living in areas prone to malaria, mostly Coastal or Western regions of the country.
If the same drive from Global Fund partners, always hyping on being out to help Africa fight the diseases it set to galvanise resources for, were put on Arusha firm, the price would without doubt be less---much less.
That notwithstanding however, we refuse to think that there could be a notion within the Global Fund donors, with the history of disbursing funds with a catchline on how the funds should be spent, that would rather see money given out by the donors spent within the sphere where the funds originate.
Tanzania of course is not a donor but like Kenya is a recipient nation and should not be a beneficiary of the economic windfall malaria, HIV/AIDs and to a little extent TB is bringing into the global economy.
By the end of the two days in Kisumu where the launch by the Ministry of Health was being carried out, it was clear to me and I could hear the same murmur from a number of colleagues, that the Switzerland firm was simply out to cash on the windfall malaria disease has brought and I admit that I could be wrong, the Global Fund is out to abate the scum.