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Will People Use It?

by Krista Weidner

“There’s a story that circulates in the scientific and funding communities,” says Rachel Smith, assistant professor of communication arts and sciences (College of Liberal Arts) and member of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. “In a few studies, researchers introduced bed nets for malaria control, and when they returned a month later they found that some nets were being used for fishing, some were covering plants, and one had been made into a wedding dress. So the mythology began: don’t try to put anything out there in which humans are involved because they will resist it. We believe otherwise.”

Man holding a malaria net over children (photo courtesy of Tony Karumba, Getty Images)Smith and economist Jill Findeis, Distinguished Professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences, are working with Matt Thomas and Andrew Read to investigate methods for delivering their biopesticide in East Africa. “While the biggest biological challenge for malaria control is the development of mosquito resistance to insecticides, one of the biggest problems for delivering the technology is perceived user resistance,” Findeis explains. “Matt and Andrew are developing the biopesticide in their lab, but for it to succeed in rural villages not typically targeted for mass spraying, user compliance must be high. How can we use social science to ensure that happens?”

A team of social scientists led by Findeis and Smith is working with researchers in Africa to understand economic, communication, and social forces influencing the uptake of two innovations under development: the biopesticide, and phosphorus- efficient legumes being developed by plant nutritionist Jonathan Lynch. For the biopesticide, Findeis and Smith want to know, for example, are households willing to dip a cloth into an insecticide mixture periodically to maintain its effectiveness? At what times of year can poor rural households afford the biopesticide (which, paradoxically, may not coincide with the malaria season)? Would they prefer certain colors or shapes for the cloth?

What they’ve observed is encouraging. “People will re-dip the cloths,” says Findeis. “In rural Mozambique where malaria is endemic, there certainly is great interest. Local people ask, ‘Will this control malaria here? When can we get it? Where can we get it?’ As the development of the biological insecticide moves forward, we’re working on the science to improve its widespread use.”

“What’s great about this work is that the science is still flexible at this stage,” Smith adds. “Normally, social scientists are brought in after a product is finalized to develop strategies to encourage adoption of the product with all of its faults and challenges. But Matt and Andrew are open to adapting the technology during product development to increase chances that people will use it. For example, when Andrew learned that the biopesticide’s smell could be important, he said they would search for fungal isolates that smell like cookies! Kidding aside, though, we’re all learning what it will take.

“We have this great collaboration in which we’re willing to consider multiple perspectives. That wouldn’t happen if we were worried about keeping our science to ourselves.”

Photo courtesy of Tony Karumba, Getty Images