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Leadership interview: "A leader anticipates and prepares for change"

Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen, CEO of Vestergaard Frandsen S.A. has just accepted the Economist’s Social and Economic Innovation Award for developing low-cost health devices for the world’s poor at an Awards Ceremony in London.

[RBM leadership interview conducted by Boriana Savova, Communications Officer, Roll Back Malaria Partnership Secretariat, October 2009]

Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen.jpg
Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen

Q: What motivated you to pursue the path of humanitarian entrepreneurship? Why did you choose to focus on malaria, among other diseases?

Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen: I started out as an entrepreneur in Africa, where at the age of 19 I opened my first company in Lagos. My core business at the time was selling trucks and truck engines, which had nothing to do with public health or doing good. But this experience ignited my passion for Africa and guided a strategic overhaul of our family textile business into a dynamic house, driving positive change within malaria, guinea worm, diarrhea, HIV and more.

Q: Your company has been awarded the 2009 Economist's Social and Economic Innovation Award for developing low-cost health devices for the world's poor. This recognition is the latest in a string of prestigious awards that Vestergaard Frandsen has won since 2005. What does this new achievement mean to you?

Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen: It is positive feedback and recognition that we have found a plausible way for a company to prosper by helping save people's lives and improving their health.

Many people in Vestergaard have worked hard and intelligently on developing our current technological platform for the continuous development and improvement of low-cost health tools.

Our partners have also worked hard in their field of work and have helped create an environment, in which our products can reach people and do good.

We have been hugely inspired by our partners over the years. The integration of bed-net distribution into immunization campaigns for measles in 2002 and 2003 was one such inspiring idea.

So in accepting this award for innovation, I would like to also acknowledge the power of partnerships in health, which help cast a bridge between an innovation and its final users.

Q: In addition to being the CEO of a successful manufacturer of disease-control textiles, you have been an active member of the Board of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership. What has been the value of working in this Partnership?

Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen: As individual organizations we are often like race cars driving at top speed towards our individual objectives. RBM's role is to ensure that we all drive in the same direction.

Q: Can you point to an example of a successful partnership effort in which you have participated?

Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen: I will point to two recent examples, both generating far-reaching benefits. One is, undoubtedly, the development by all partners of the Global Malaria Action Plan. The plan has created clarity around key strategic issues, and has sharpened the Partnership's focus on results.

Another example is RBM's technical support for countries' applications for Global Fund grants. RBM's comprehensive technical assistance has helped countries generate more than $850 million in Global Fund grants in 2007 and attract a total of $1.6 billion for 14 countries in 2008. This funding is making a world of difference at country level.

Q: Some of your company's direct competitors are also members of the RBM Partnership. What are the challenges of collaborating with the competition?

Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen: The fact that large parts of the private sector delegation at RBM are my competitors keeps me on my toes (laughs).

There has been mutual respect from day one, and it’s very satisfying to be in a delegation where everyone works hard. There are three important things for the private sector delegation. Firstly, continuously looking for commonalities and establishing common goals. Secondly, involving everyone who wants to be active in the delegation and influence the private sector's position. And thirdly, sharing information and ensuring transparency.

Q: The malaria community has set up ambitious targets for itself - reaching universal coverage by 2010 and sustaining the gains until worldwide elimination becomes possible. What needs to happen now for the Partnership to be able to reach these targets?

Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen: A razor-sharp focus on the 2010 targets will lead many countries to universal coverage of bed nets for all people at risk, marking one of the major public health achievements of our time.

The funding gap we currently face for 2011 and onwards is however still a monumental challenge. Current funding commitments are far from sufficient to ensure the replacement of nets necessary for sustained coverage.

The data we have suggests that Vestergaard Frandsen and other net manufacturers are becoming the next Detroit car manufacturers, facing a massive drop in demand with low levels of committed funding for LLIN procurement for the next few years. The key issue right now is not how to go to scale, but how to stay at scale.

We urgently need to focus on financing the years 2011 - 2015.

Q: One of the outstanding challenges that RBM is facing today is the low use of malaria interventions, including nets, by target populations. What does VF do to address this problem?

Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen: In malaria prevention the partnership went to scale with a "one size fits all" approach. To stay at scale and show sustainable results, provided there is sustainable funding, we must start to develop, build and deliver tools that fit the people and the changing environment people live in. Not only do we need to start accepting consumer research as an actual science but we should also dramatically expand our capacity for mapping insecticide resistance.

This is a major task for my company as it will be for many other RBM partners over the coming years.

Q: An increasing number of companies today subscribe to the triple bottom line principle and begin to measure their success in terms of not only economic and social benefits they generate, but also ecological impact. How does VF work on ensuring that the millions of nets it produces and exports to endemic countries will not turn into an environmental threat over time?

Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen: It is refreshing that some companies have started seeing a bottom line beyond the making of money. In my company we have seen how private public partnerships have matured over the last decade to a point where today there is neither controversy about, nor conflict between doing business and doing good.

At Vestergaard, we have turned corporate social responsibility into our core business by dedicating our entire innovative platform to developing lifesaving technologies and concepts for people in the developing world.

Our environmental agenda in relation to bed net production includes continuous optimization to reduce waste and increase recycling. This work is assisted by an environmental audit program. We have taken a major step in packing all nets in bio degradable bags, which will help reduce the environmental impact in the countries that receive our nets.

Q: What does it take to be a successful leader in global health?

Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen: Hard work and focus but also an ability to anticipate change and prepare for it through analysis and strategy. We started working on issues such as insecticide resistance, for instance, long before it became a preoccupation for the malaria community.