A Company Prospers by Saving Poor People’s Lives

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

It all started with mosquito nets. Or, no, with guinea worm filters. Or, before that, with a million yards of wool in the mountains of Sweden.

Or, taken back another generation, to uniforms for hotel and supermarket workers.

There are plenty of charitable foundations and public agencies devoted to helping the world’s poor, many with instantly recognizable names like Unicef or the Gates Foundation.

But private companies with that as their sole focus are rare. Even the best-known is not remotely a household name: Vestergaard-Frandsen.

Its products are in use in refugee camps and disaster areas all over the third world: PermaNet, a mosquito net impregnated with insecticide; ZeroFly, a tent tarp that kills flies; and the LifeStraw, a filter worn around the neck that makes filthy water safe to drink.

Some are not only life-saving but even beautiful. The turquoise and navy blue LifeStraw is in museum design collections.

“Vestergaard is just different from other companies we work with,” said Kevin Starace, malaria adviser for the United Nations Foundation. “They think of the end user as a consumer rather than as a patient or a victim.”

For example, he said, they have added a cellphone pocket to their bed nets, and make window curtains that kill bugs.

The company, begun in Denmark 51 years ago to make work uniforms, is now run by Mikkel Vestergaard-Frandsen, the grandson of the founder.

After finishing high school in 1991, he said, he had “no interest in growing the market for men’s shirts.” Instead, he went backpacking through India and Africa, entertaining thoughts of going to Kuwait to fight the oil-field fires set during the gulf war.

Stranded in Egypt, he met two Nigerians who told him he could make good money in their country importing used cars from Europe.

“When you’re 19, you don’t have much of a business plan,” he said. “So I ended up in Lagos, selling cars and truck engines and buses.”

But the chaos of a coup in 1993 sent him back to Denmark.

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Source: New York Times (link opens in a new window)