27 March 2014

Africa: Malaria Research Funding Website Leaves Limited Legacy

A website intended to rewrite the rules of how malaria research is funded failed to exploit the early potential of social media to link the public with researchers - but its one achievement, a new mosquito repellent is due to hit Tanzania's market early next year.

MalariaEngage, a website that profiled African malaria researchers and allowed people to directly send them small amounts of money, was an early example of crowdfunding.

"It is my dream that tens of thousands of people will use MalariaEngage to build a movement that will see through the challenges of eradicating malaria to the very end," Tom Hadfield, co-founder of the site and a British entrepreneur studying at Harvard University in the United States, told SciDev.Net when MalariaEngage.org launched in 2008.

"The whole point of MalariaEngage is to put people in direct contact with African researchers," Peter Singer, co-founder and professor at Canada's McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health, said at the time. "There is nothing like that available anywhere else at the moment."

But the site folded within just a few months, after it became clear that it would not be financially sustainable in the long term, or raise enough money to fund serious research.

"We meant it to be a pilot to see if the approach would work as a proof of concept," says Abdallah Daar, a professor at Canada's McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health and another of the initiative's co-founders.

The initial inspiration came from Hadfield's trip to Sub-Saharan Africa, where he met malaria researchers struggling to attract attention and funding.

Alongside the profiles of African researchers, the website detailed how their projects could address particular health problems in the hope of encouraging people around the world to make small donations.

"At the core of MalariaEngage was a belief in the power of friends telling friends telling friends," says Hadfield. "Our vision was to use social networking tools to build a movement of tens of thousands of people all united in an effort to eradicate malaria."

Daar says the website did attract tens of thousands of visitors and raised about US$3,000 during the four months that it operated. Donations were received from around the world, with the majority coming from Canada and the United States.

School students from Toronto, Canada, carried out traditional fundraising to supplement the money raised by the site, and a total of US$5,000 was transferred to Tanzania's National Institute for Medical Research. It was spent on the development of an insect repellent made from natural products.

Mwele Malecela, the director of the institute, says the funding went into testing the repellent and getting it to market. The product, called 'Fukuza-Mbu', which means 'mosquito repellent' in Swahili, is awaiting approval and is expected to be on the market early next year, he adds. The work was also funded by the Tanzania Health Research Users Trust.

"The legacy of MalariaEngage is that it was able to fund projects that otherwise would not have been known or funded," says Malecela. "It also got people interested in a particular project and made them want to support it. The value of just that awareness is priceless."

The team behind MalariaEngage say they have no plans to re-establish the initiative.

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