/ 27 January 2006

Bono throws red Aids lifeline to Africa

Rock star and activist Bono has launched a new push to fight HIV/Aids in Africa, unveiling a partnership with American Express and other companies to offer products under a brand called ”Red”, proceeds of which will be funnelled to the cause.

”So, here we are, fat cats in the snow, and I say that as one,” said the denim-jacketed U2 frontman, who was flanked by Italian fashion tycoon Giorgio Armani and corporate executives who joined him for the announcement on Thursday at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.

The project, called ”Red”, will market red-themed products from Converse footwear, Gap clothing and Giorgio Armani, as well as a red American Express card to be offered initially only in Britain, as of next month.

Products branded ”Red” will include sports shoes, T-shirts and sunglasses — some produced in Africa, some with African materials.

A slice of the revenue — numbers vary by company and product — will go to the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

”We sought out iconic companies who make iconic products,” said Bobby Shriver, who runs an organisation called Debt, Aids and Trade in Africa and has been working with Bono for several years.

Bono — sporting his trademark wraparound sunglasses — seemed a trifle amused beside his suited, polished partners. But he quickly turned serious, his voice cracking slightly as he recounted the story of an HIV-positive young African who chose to take his single dosage of anti-retrovirals himself, denying the critical drug to his girlfriend and possibly condemning her to death.

He said each day brings 6 500 HIV-related deaths in Africa — and 9 000 new infections.

”We’re losing in the battle … Maybe it’s an Irish macho thing, but I really don’t like losing,” the Irish native said. ”I’m calling it conscious commerce for people who are awake, people who think about their spending power and say, ‘I’ve got two jeans I can buy. One I know is made in Africa and is going to make a difference and the other isn’t. What am I going to buy?”’

American Express marketing chief John Hayes said the new American Express card — whose back side proclaims the goal of ”eliminating” HIV in Africa — will transfer 1% of all purchases made with it to the project.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Bono alluded to the potential discomfort with his new alliances.

”Some people will be very upset,” he said. ”We’re working with big business, we’re working with big companies … [But] the problem just has to be sorted and we can’t do it just with governments alone.

”We’re fighting a fire. The house is burning down. Let’s get the water. You end up beside somebody who lives up the road who you don’t really like. Do you really care if he’s polishing up his image [by] putting the fire out?”

Richard Feachem, executive director of the Global Fund, said that to date, ”a very small proportion” of the fund’s current $4,7-billion comes from corporations or individuals, but that he has concluded that depending on governments is not enough.

The Global Fund was created to finance a dramatic turn-around in the fight against Aids, tuberculosis and malaria. To date, the fund has committed $4,4-billion in 128 countries to fight the three diseases.

”We’ve announced today a launch with four companies [but] we need 400,” he said, adding that success will also depend on whether American Express extends the Red card line to the United States as well.

He said he hopes Red will generate ”tens of millions of dollars soon, hundreds of millions of dollars a little further downstream. Significant money.”

”If we succeed,” Bono interjected. ”But we could fail. If people are jaded or cynical … or genuinely not interested, then we fail. But we’ve tried. I think we’ve come up with a sexy, smart, savvy idea that will save people’s lives.” — Sapa-AP