[This article was published in 2009 and updated in May 2012. Read the update here.]
Incidents of malaria in Zambia have nearly tripled over the past 30 years. In 1976, the incidence rate was 121.5 cases per 1,000. The numbers rose to 398.8 per 1,000 in 1998 and 428.0 per 1,000 by 2003. In 2006, with hospital visits to treat the infectious disease on the rise, it was estimated that 50,000 deaths per year were attributed to malaria.
Following a pilot program in rural Zambia (funded by ExxonMobil) in 2005 and the publication of the proof of concept, the NetsforLife® program partnership was founded in 2006. A unique consortium of funding partners conceptualized, vetted, promoted, blessed and launched NetsforLife® with the lead corporate partners of ExxonMobil Foundation, Standard Chartered Bank, Coca-Cola Africa Foundation, Starr International Foundation, White Flowers Foundation and Episcopal Relief & Development as both a funding and implementing partner. NetsforLife® distributes long-lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLITNs) and trains people in remote communities about the protective value of LLITNs, how to use them correctly and how to recognize malaria symptoms and when to seek medical treatment.
The initiative works to instill a “net culture” in sub-Saharan Africa by promoting communitywide understanding of and knowledge about the transmission of malaria and the need for prevention. NetsforLife® operates through faith-based organizations established in remote communities where transportation is limited.
In remote Africa, churches are often the only functioning institutions and a primary source of social services. Church leaders are held in high regard and have the presence and power to unite communities. The NetsforLife® partnership is committed to utilizing these established and trusted networks on the ground.
NetsforLife®’s success in closing the gap between ownership and use is attributable to its unique ability to engage church leadership in emphasizing malaria messaging and in recruiting church members as volunteer Malaria Agents. These agents are trained through NetsforLife® and are the first line of defense in mobilizing communities and promoting awareness to reinforce a net culture. The high-quality training provided to the Malaria Agents and extensive follow-up the agents perform are critical to establishing their high levels of ownership and use in NetsforLife® communities. This community-level investment, anchored in the local church, facilitates sustainability and capacity building.
The original mix of partners purposefully included private-sector players who could inject business savvy, bottom-line mentality and intense focus on quality and results. Dr. Steven Phillips of ExxonMobil notes Episcopal Relief & Development, as a faithbased organization, was eager for corporate partners to participate beyond financial sponsorship; to contribute to business core competencies, such as assistance with on-the-ground employee engagement, marketing and communications; and monitoring and evaluation. He said one of the most valuable aspects of this part of the collaboration was the ability to establish a corporate-style system of monitoring and evaluation, something not common in partnerships he’d seen before.
Phillips explains that, too often, programs operate without measuring results. The ones that do measure often fail to get data into the hands of the right people, such as donors, program managers, fieldworkers and the communities in which programs are run. From a business perspective, monitoring and evaluation are critical in that they provide a sense of accomplishment, induce further commitments and help determine next steps as well as best practices.
“It creates a virtuous cycle of increasing support and better performance,” Phillips says. ExxonMobil specifically funded a monitoring and evaluation model in each of the African countries.
Seven Million Nets by 2012
The collaborative malaria prevention program began in 2006, in eight countries. In 2009, a milestone delivery of one million nets across 17 countries was met. The primary NetsforLife® objective is to distribute seven million nets in 17 sub-Saharan Africa countries by 2012.
The successes of the program come from many levels of collaboration among partners with various areas of expertise. The NetsforLife® consortium is overseen by an executive board that approves budgets, helps secure funding, defines communication strategies and identifies potential partners. A steering committee comprised of one representative from each partner organization meets quarterly to gather each partner’s input on the board’s decisions and to discuss operational issues.
The NetsforLife® initiative’s next challenge will be to meet the demand that has been created for nets and education, while adhering to established methodology and upholding monitoring and evaluation standards. Program developers realize the initiative’s presence is still very small in proportion to the problem.
NetsforLife® serves people in need regardless of faith affiliation or membership within the churches from which it operates. An integrated community development model allows the people of the remote African communities to be involved in the process of education and net distribution.
By Ashley Mastandrea