As I lay listening to the high-pitched whine of the mosquito around my ears early this Surulere morning, it came to me in a blink. Casually wondering whether Bibi’s malaria would now be transferred to my bloodstream, I had asked myself, “why doesn’t this bed have a bednet?” Treated bednets are cheap and available in Lagos, as elsewhere in Nigeria and the continent. It is commonly known that they help prevent visits by the infected anopheles mosquito, so why aren’t they more popular?
There are two reasons. First, we worry about whether the net will fit the shape of our bed. In Africa, beds are not bought in Ikea and made in standard sizes, and most people don’t have measuring tape. Also, ceilings are different heights: how do we know the bednet will be tall enough to hang from the ceiling? In all this, how then do we know that the net will not fit and be a wasted purchase? So, the question of dimension is the first barrier to adoption. But more significant still is the question of how to hang the thing. The net will require a nail or a screw in the ceiling. Most African homes don’t have the tools (a hammer and nails, not to speak of an electric drill or electricity to power it) to do this without bringing someone in. And who wants to have a workman grunting away in your bedroom, knocking plaster and bits of wood to the floor? Even if a workman is called for, there is the faff of moving the bed so he can get access to the ceiling without indelibly staining your sheets with his footprints.
Given that insecticide treated bednets are a good first line of defence against the dreaded M, you’d think that the clever people behind the idea to dole them out would have worked on the significant barriers to uptake. The message that bednets help in the fight against malaria needs therefore to be complemented by messages on the wide range of sizes available and how simple they are to put up (assuming that both can be true). Better still, a bednet that is easier to hang on the ceiling (or construct from the floor) without the need for a hammer, nails and screws should be considered. This is a design problem in need of a solution. The bednet business might still be a good business opportunity: offering nets that are the right size and easy to use. At present, it seems like we’re missing the Gladwellian trick and I don’t know if I’ve now got malaria.