There is an increasing focus on how to leverage private sector expertise and resources to achieve greater social impact. Common tactics include stimulating a sense of corporate social responsibility and highlighting consumer demand for more socially aware companies. However, one strategy that must also be included is identifying opportunities where there is a strong business case to be made for private sector investments in social issues, such as malaria control and prevention.
Malaria impacts businesses in a variety ways, including lost productivity from employees taking time off when they or their family members are ill, as well as greater expenditure on healthcare programs to treat employees. The results, though, are the same: decreases in a business’ profits. The private sector is well aware of these costs. In a piece authored by Dr. Brian Brink, the former private sector delegate to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, he highlighted BHP Billiton’s plant in Mozambique. During the construction of their aluminum smelter, malaria cost the company $2.7 million.
This example is not unique. In fact, a recent study estimated that businesses in Ghana lost $6.58 million in 2014 to malaria. With malaria being endemic in many of the world’s fastest growing economies, the impact of the disease on businesses is real, measurable and cannot be ignored. Therefore, it is necessary to look at what options are available to businesses in these areas, and whether the returns on investments in malaria control are greater than the costs of control programs.
For companies that employ large portions of the workforce in a region, it may be more cost effective for them to implement their own malaria control programs. These programs can include company clinics that offer rapid diagnostic tests and treatment for malaria, indoor residual spraying of business facilities and employees’ homes, and direct distribution of long-lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLINs) to protect employees and their families. An examination of malaria control programs in three agricultural and mining companies in Zambia revealed that the average annual cost of these programs to the company was $34 per employee, and that the annual net profit on their investments was $9 per employee beginning in just the second year. This demonstrates that comprehensive malaria control programs can have a swift return on investment for companies with the capacity and resources to implement them.
For companies that may not have the ability to implement large-scale control and prevention programs, there are still opportunities to engage in the fight against malaria as well. Awareness campaigns, similar to those that promote hand-washing, can help businesses ensure that their employees are aware of the symptoms of malaria and the importance of prevention efforts. Smaller businesses can also help with the direct distribution of LLINs to their employees. One of the greatest challenges in fighting malaria is accessing people in hard-to-reach areas, but businesses that already operate in these areas provide an opportunity to overcome challenges with logistics and infrastructure. At an average cost of about $3 per LLIN, directly providing each employee with a net offers a relatively low-cost approach for businesses to help protect their employees from potentially harmful mosquito bites. Future research is needed on quantifying the returns that activities like these produce, but in the meantime, each of them can help increase productivity and decrease healthcare costs for individual businesses.
The progress that has been achieved in the fight against malaria is no less than remarkable. Seven countries have recently been certified by the World Health Organization as having eliminated malaria, but if that number is going to grow, we will need to engage all sectors in the fight. As advocates, if we want to leverage private sector expertise and resources to achieve greater social impact, we need to make the case that these investments have real returns on productivity, costs, and competitiveness.