By, Joseph Cahalan, President, Xerox Foundation
After another long travel day that includes a ferry across Lake Victoria, one of the major sources of the Nile, and six hours of hard driving, much of it on jaw-jarring, pot-holed dirt roads, we arrive at Ngara by early afternoon. I keep telling myself that innovation requires risk; that we shouldn’t expect too much: that, after all, this was a long shot to begin with. But I am not fooling myself. I want this experiment to bear fruit for Xerox, for the people of Concern and, mostly, for the heroic people they serve.
First stop: the local Concern nursery where lemongrass and Mexican marigolds are grown. Both are thought to be repellents of mosquitoes. Both have been tested. And both have produced only marginal results. My heart sinks when I see the rows upon rows of Lantana. That Lantana!
The same plant I use in my own garden back in Connecticut? Did I come half way around the world hoping for the possibility of finding a breakthrough in the prevention of malaria only to find a garden variety plant I use at home?
I tell myself to slow down while I am introduced to Jaka Magama, a man who grew up in Tanzania, became an engineer, is working on a graduate degree in business and leads Concern’s work in northwest Tanzania. He is accompanied by Frank Mng’ong’o, another Tanzanian engineer working for Concern and a Ph.D. candidate at the prestigious London School of Hygiene and Tropical Diseases, arguably the best of its kind in the world.
They are jewels — two individuals who worked hard to get good educations, could have gone anywhere to work, but elected to come to this remote area to “help the poorest of the poor”. To be in their presence is to witness human decency.
As they begin their presentations, they tell me that malaria is the number one cause of death in this area and that it attacks infants, the elderly and everyone in between with equal aggressiveness. There are two major ways to fight it — with nets to keep mosquitoes out of homes and beds and with spraying.
But there are problems with each method. They both cost money that the people in this community do not have. They both are short-lived. The nets wear out and have to be replaced and the spraying has to be done twice a year. Funding is not dependable. Governments and donors are subject to the strains of the economy and other pressures.
The Lantana plants, if effective, would not have these same problems. They are inexpensive, grow fast, require very little maintenance and are attractive. And, in this community, they have another advantage. This solution comes from nature. It’s comfortable and familiar and has a better chance of acceptance.
Frank begins to discuss the approach to the research. Two hundred families had the Lantanas planted around the perimeters of their homes. A control group of one hundred homes did not. Traps collected the mosquitoes on a regular and consistent basis and they were sent to labs for testing to see if they were carriers.
Frank presents me with a paper published in a scholarly journal and authored by him, some of his research assistants, and a Ph.D. who is volunteering her time. The approach and the science are very encouraging.
So, too, are the results. Two types of mosquitoes. In one type, the number of Lantana homes has 56 percent less of these mosquitoes. In the other type of mosquito, the Lantana houses have 83 percent less. These results are not just significant; they are striking.
Frank and Jaka are quick to point out that much more work needs to be done. We know that the population of mosquitoes is down, but clinical trials are needed to see if a corresponding incidence of malaria itself is down. Two types of mosquitoes were found to be capable of infecting humans with malaria. The Lantana grows very aggressively and could threaten crops so a “sterile” version must be created. And a lot of field work must take place to encourage families to support the program.
One strategy to accomplish the latter is to enlist people who are benefiting from the pilot to become advocates. I asked one such woman if she would help. “Of course” she said, “Concern is helping me. If they asked me for help I would want to do that.”
Judging by what I have seen and the progress that has been made, a long shot experiment has become a good bet. I’m betting on Concern’s team in Tanzania, led by their very talented and determined Country Director, James Davey, to deliver. As we parted ways at the airport in Dar Es Salaam, he said: “Tell your colleagues at Xerox we appreciate their support and that we will do whatever is humanly possible to make an impact and save lives.” There’s no going back now.