On June 20, 2009, 15,000 people waited in a soccer stadium in Dakar, Senegal, for the Senegalese singing sensation Youssou N’dour to take the stage. N’dour was there to perform his new song, “Xeex Sibbiru.” The song — whose title translates “Fight Malaria” in Wolof — was to be the new anthem for a nationwide fight against the disease that has decimated the country. It might seem an unlikely hit, given the seriousness of the subject, but that’s precisely the point. Malaria, which is spread by mosquitoes, remains a devastating disease; worldwide, 3,000 people die of malaria every day. “That is a tsunami every month,” says Martin Edlund, the Senegal country director for the organization Malaria No More (MNM). “This is a 9/11 every day.” And yet, malaria is entirely preventable. Surprisingly simple and inexpensive interventions, such as sleeping underneath a bed net that keeps the mosquitoes out, can drastically reduce infection rates.
Of course, for bed nets to work, they have to be used. That’s where “Xeex Sibbiru” — which encourages listeners to take action against malaria — comes in. The force behind this health-themed hit is MNM. The nonprofit, founded in 2006, is dedicated to ending malaria deaths across the world, and the concert exemplifies its approach. Founded by businessmen, MNM is bringing lessons from the private sector to the public health world, trying to figure out how best to leverage resources — bed nets, bug spray, medication — that have already proven effective against the disease. “It’s one of those rare diseases that is 100 percent preventable,” says Jeff Smith, MNM’s chief marketing officer.
Globally, malaria represents a staggering burden. More than 3 billion people — half the world’s population — are at risk of developing malaria, and the disease kills a child every 40 seconds. The toll is particularly devastating in Africa, where the disease costs the continent $12 billion a year. These numbers have made malaria a major priority on the global health agenda. One of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, set in 2000, is to stop the spread of malaria by 2015. The world public health community has pledged to end malaria deaths in Africa by that year.
To combat a problem this big, MNM takes a multi-pronged approach. The group’s efforts include pragmatic, on-the-ground work, including developing new models for distributing bed nets and helping to run workshops in which African nations learn from each other about the most effective ways to get nets into their citizens’ homes. The organization also fights the disease at the highest levels, working with national and world leaders to influence policy. It helped run a White House summit on malaria and founded the Malaria Policy Center in Washington, D.C. The center aims to set the national agenda on malaria, briefing policymakers on the malaria crisis and encouraging the United States and other wealthy nations to take an even more active role in eliminating the disease.
Malaria No More is exceptionally effective at leveraging its business prowess. At the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos, the organization launched a major capital campaign, working with businesses and corporations around the world to raise $100 million to invest in combatting malaria in Africa. The organization has also proven itself to be particularly adept at marketing, raising the profile of malaria — through Twitter campaigns with Ashton Kutcher, for instance, or partnerships with "American Idol"
— and galvanizing the public to take up the fight. “From a business standpoint, it makes sense,” Smith says. “A lot of times marketing takes a back seat in public health.” Thanks to the work of MNM, 30 million mothers and children in Africa now have mosquito nets.
The “Xeex Sibbiru” concert was just the latest example of what happens when MNM brings the power of marketing to bear on the problem of malaria. When aid workers got out into the field to distribute the bed nets, kids ran up to them singing the song. (According to surveys, nearly half the country reported having heard the anti-malaria song; after the campaign, the number of households reporting having at least one bed net rose to 81 percent, from 64 percent.)
Malaria No More is currently running a national, "American Idol"-style concert to find the best amateur Senegalese singer-songwriter with an original song about malaria. The winner, to be picked in a televised finale, will get to record his or her song with N’dour and become a national spokesperson for fighting malaria. “These campaigns,” Edlund says, “are breaking through in ways that traditional public health campaigns just don’t.” If MNM has its way, fighting the debilitating disease could become what all the cool kids are doing.
A version of this story originally appeared on GOOD. Read it here.