Putting the MBA to Work for Good

HBS students manage an NGO focused on malaria prevention, putting their business training, talented classmates and Harvard resources toward a greater good.

To many HBS students, malaria prevention is simply part of the list of precautions taken before embarking on travel to exotic and faraway lands. But for a group of students, malaria has become much more than just an unfortunate public health challenge. Since March of 2009, Esther Hsu (OD/HKS), Paul Wang (NI/HKS), David Luo (NI/Mount Sinai MD) and Suzy Brinded (NI Partner), along with classmates from Harvard’s Kennedy School and Economics Department have led TAMTAM, which stands for Together Against Malaria, Tunapenda Afya na Maisha (Swahili for “We Love Health and Life”). Malaria is intertwined with poverty – those who are most vulnerable are usually the least protected and prepared to fight it. From here in Boston, the TAMTAM team supports the fight against this disease that infects 243 million people and kills 863,000 each year, with 85% of deaths occurring in children.

TAMTAM was founded in Western Kenya in 2004 by development economists associated with MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. In early 2009, Esther and Paul began to build the current leadership team, which has branched into many parts of Harvard University. Under the current leadership, TAMTAM has also refined its mission and goals. The organization’s two objectives today are to 1) distribute free bed nets and 2) conduct operational research on bed net distribution approaches to refine distribution best practices. To date, TAMTAM nets have reached Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Ghana and Burkina Faso.

Why bed nets?
Insecticide-treated long-lasting mosquito bed nets are a highly cost-effective way to prevent the transmission of malaria and save lives. Mosquitoes that carry malaria predominantly bite after dusk. Sleeping under a net greatly reduces the risk of infection by creating a physical barrier between people and the mosquitoes.

Furthermore, bed nets not only protect people who sleep under them but also contain long-lasting insecticide that kills mosquitoes and disrupts the parasite’s transmission cycle, thus protecting neighbors of the covered households. Currently, large-scale bed net distribution campaigns are being organized by nearly all major public health institutions such as the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, USAID and national Ministries of Health. In conjunction with other malaria efforts such as indoor residual spraying of insecticide and effective diagnosis and treatment of malaria, bed nets are a critical component of the fight against malaria.

For just $7 per net, TAMTAM is able to deliver a net to a family in Africa. Since the organization’s inception, TAMTAM has also chosen to deliver free bed nets in a way that encourages the take-up of other public health goods and services. For example, TAMTAM often utilizes immunization and prenatal care days at rural clinics to distribute bed nets. By announcing the availability of free bed nets to families who come to partake in these often government-sponsored services, clinics can attract more patients to utilize important preventative care services. As a result, bed nets not only go on to protect families from malaria but also improve take-up of local health services. TAMTAM also focuses on pregnant women and children under five, the populations most vulnerable to infection by and death from malaria.

Why bed net research?
TAMTAM also engages with policymakers to help answer questions that are top of mind in bed net distribution. Oftentimes, policymakers lack evidence to determine whether one way to distribute bed nets is better than another, and are constrained by budgets, capacity and decision-making power to conduct their own studies. As a result, multi-million dollar decisions are too often made using anecdotes and suggestions with little hard evidence.

TAMTAM addresses this situation by taking distribution ideas directly from policymakers, testing them in-country through rigorous randomized controlled trials, and quickly reporting results to the original policymakers who asked the question. In this way, TAMTAM distinguishes itself from university-driven research that usually tests academic questions and can take several years to produce results. In 2009, TAMTAM’s research found that using Community Health Workers to hang nets in homes increased net usage by 30%. Such findings are directly applicable to current bed net operations and impact countless lives.

TAMTAM Summers
In 2009, a TAMTAM team including five HBS students and partners worked on the ground in rural Uganda. They were joined by other student volunteers from the Harvard Kennedy School, Stanford GSB and Yale School of Management. The TAMTAM summer team was fortunate to be generously supported by the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative Summer Fellowships and Bain & Company’s Former Employee Summer Program. In Uganda, the team worked with health centers to distribute bed nets and also evaluated the impact on short-term net usage of different distribution approaches, including the net hanging approach described above. This work was done in partnership with local community-based organizations and with guidance from the key policymakers overseeing the Global Fund grant responsible for distribution of millions of nets in Uganda.

In the summer of 2010, TAMTAM will send teams to Uganda and Ghana. These teams include three HBS students – HBS graduating EC Laura Chmar (OD), Esther Hsu and Paul Wang – as well as other graduate students from HKS and HSPH. For Laura, the appeal of TAMTAM is “the opportunity to apply the strategic thinking and analytical skills we develop at HBS to help develop strategies for preventing malaria.” During the January term, Paul, Esther and Dave Luo also visited Ghana to explore potential opportunities for TAMTAM to help.

TAMTAM the Harvard community
Leading TAMTAM as graduate students at Harvard has given the organization many invaluable privileges. Most importantly, finding and connecting with like-minded students who are committed to public health and development has been critical to TAMTAM’s growth. For most of our team members, TAMTAM fits into professional goals and personal interests.

Dave Luo shares his motivations: “Working with TAMTAM has given me the opportunity to stay close to the public health and development field that I’m most engaged in and apply lessons from the HBS classroom to an exciting and growing organization.”
With an original TAMTAM founder currently on faculty at the Harvard School of Public Health, TAMTAM has also benefited from the mentorship of professors. This semester, Nava Ashraf featured TAMTAM as a project in the first-time EC course “Managing Global Health.” Sections NI and NH also supported TAMTAM through generous donations from their section charity auctions.

Growing an NGO in the HBS environment has granted TAMTAM many advantages. It has been a complement to the classroom learning and other activities available to students. TAMTAM is a hands-on and directly impactful way to engage skills such as entrepreneurship, strategy and operations both in Boston and abroad.

If you would like to learn more about TAMTAM and how you can help, please visit Just $7 can send a bed net to Africa and protect a family from malaria. Please help us grow and impact more communities in need!

Esther Hsu is graduating from HBS and HKS this year. She has spent her graduate school summers in Swaziland, Uganda and now Ghana. She will return to Bain Boston in the fall.

Paul Wang is an HKS joint-degree currently completing RC year. He spent last summer in Uganda and will spend the upcoming summer in Ghana and West Africa. He will be returning for his final EC year next year.

May 3, 2010
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