There is a good reason for putting out a large variety of products with similar function on the market – like cars. It simply has to do with our innate differences in preference with regard to colour, shape, make, etc. Some like a blue car, others a white or a red one. And, suprise surprise, the great level of differentation means that almost everyone can find a car that matches his/her preferences at an affordable price....
In the former Soviet Union they did not care about this. “A car is a car, and all it should do is take you from A to B”, the soviets reasoned. “One size fits all”. A good example is the Trabant car, originally produced in East Germany. Now what does this have to do with bednets?
1) Trabants were scarce, and if you ordered one it could take up to 15 years before you got it. Availability was the problem, and so it was (for a long time) for bednets. Only the last few years have seen a dramatic increase in uptake and availability…
2) Trabants were not differentiated and all models looked basically the same. For years, the sole colour was white. And that is what we see with bednets – most are white. Although some other colours are seen (green, blue), most of what is out there is white.
3) Trabants were cumbersome in use. Refueling the car required lifting the hood, filling the tank with gasoline (only 24 litres), then adding two-stroke oil and shaking it back and forth to mix. Its pollution was 9 times higher than the average European car of 2007. Nets are still cumbersome too. People don’t want to use them because they are too hot to occupy during the night, daily use (crawling in and out, tugging it under the mattress or mat) is not nice, and there is concern (at WHO level) about the huge amounts of pyrethroids that will remain on nets, after being discarded as waste, when these enter the environment.
Nets have been ‘marketed’ as a good tool against malaria (which is correct of course), but without any real consideration of the client’s perspective. The communist view on the Trabant is what we see with nets in Africa today.
Not surprisingly, we see worrying reports about the use of nets, recently reported in Malaria Journal and on SciDev.net. In Burkina Faso people stopped using them within a year after receiving them for free. Lack of knowledge, that malaria transmission went on in the dry season, even when there are few mosquitoes, is a major concern. But what if we would differentiate the product and make it more desirable, practical, and even beautiful?
Standard nets are dull, but what if you would have them in a large variety of colours? And what if they would have prints on them (the logo of Manchester United printed on a net would be loved by all these young schoolboys in Tanzania!). Or a name printed on them, or whatever. Surely kids will prefer something more flashy. Adding a zip would make life a lot easier, getting in and out of the net. Add a small pouch for a condom and use the net to prevent HIV/AIDS. Or add some nice print on it that women can embroid.
As slowly but surely the African market gets saturated with nets, there is a lot of scope for differentiation to satisfy customer needs, hithereto a neglected area. More so, this differentiation may provide opportunities for local small entrepreneurs in endemic countries. Innovation in the area of bednets is not complete, it has only just started.