Fighting Africa's fake-drugs monster
- Andy Rice
- 30 Jul 2010 12:42 (South Africa)
With no money, but a wealth of innovation, Bright Simons created an SMS-based system that is helping Nigeria fight a deadly onslaught of counterfeit medicines. The remedy is so successful it is now being tested in Ghana, and considered by other African states, to stem an avalanche that’s killing hundreds of thousands of people each year.
In November 2008 mothers in Nigeria wanting to alleviate their children’s teething pains were unknowingly administering poisons to their infants. Eighty-four babies died in one of the cruellest waves of infant mortalities from fake drugs to hit the country. It lasted about six months. That time the killer was My Pikin Baby Teething Mixture, a syrup sold to combat infant teething pains, but which was fake and contained a deadly mix of diethylene glycol. More commonly known as anti-freeze, diethylene glycol is used in fridges and cars. In babies the highly toxic liquid, that looks like glycerine, causes vomiting, diarrhoea, kidney failure, liver damage, central nervous system damage and at times death.
The flow of counterfeit drugs into Africa, predominantly from Asia, has reached epidemic proportions. A report by the International Policy Network sponsored by the IMANI Centre for Policy & Education attributed some 700,000 deaths a year to fake malaria and tuberculosis drugs. Last year a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime found that 45 million courses of anti-malaria medication valued at $438 million were trafficked to West Africa from India and China. The global onslaught in fake drugs will reach $75 billion in 2010, up a staggering 92% from 2005, according to the Centre for Medicines in the Public Interest.
Watch: “If symptoms persist”, a documentary on the counterfeit medicines crisis in Africa:
The scale of the tide seems unstoppable, but social activist Bright Simons and his colleagues at mPedigree are the David to the growing fake drug industry’s Goliath. “To effectively do something about the crisis, I realised I would have to create a service that wouldn’t require a lot of money set up,” said Simons. “It would need to become a standard and get industry and government support. From a business model perspective it needed to be a social enterprise that did advocacy work but was also a not-for-profit company that could enter into commercial relationships and which could, over time, evolve into a for-profit organisation with a humanitarian charter.”
Simons is a born activist who was a student leader in Ghana and worked in youth development before using social media to disrupt big businesses’ ownership of the media. An academic researcher, Simons first became interested in the fake drugs issue when he was studying the trade influence of Africa on China. “I discovered that the counterfeit medicine crisis had gone way overboard and I wanted to do more than just write about it. Interpol research showed that 80% of all medicines on sale were counterfeit, which was completely ridiculous,” said Simons, who realised that, given the low level of capital investment available in Africa, the project would have to go to trials and win respect without a big cash injection.
“We used existing infrastructure and our role-out plan was based on building relationships. We went to the telecommunications industry, explained the counterfeit medicine problem to them and asked them if they would support a solution if the pharmaceutical industry applied technology to combat the crisis. They said they would.” mPedigree’s innovation is a simple solution that allows consumers to check whether the medicine they are about to give their children, or consume themselves, is safe and legitimate.
“The service is very straight-forward. The manufacturer undertakes to put a unique code on the medicine that has a scratch panel which is easy for people to culturally integrate because it works in the same way as buying airtime for mobile phones.” The SMS-based service is free to consumers who scratch to find the code on the drugs they have bought. “The consumer sends an SMS with the code to a service that verifies the drugs,” said Simons. The SMS is quickly answered with a response that says “OK” or “NO”. OK means that the medicine is authentic and safe to consume. “NO” means the medicine is fake and could be life-threatening. “The next line gives the name of the medicine and a picture of the box that can easily be compared by visual inspection to give added confidence. We also give consumers the expiry date and batch number.”
Watch: Bright Simons being interviewed at the WEF's Global Agenda Council on the Future of Mobile Communications
Simons and his colleagues at mPedigree developed the system using their own resources. “If you want to change things you need to be able to scale, but we had to find ways of doing this without getting money because we had no venture capitalists to support us and no NGO funding. We did a massive promotional exercise spending a huge amount of time advocating around the problem and speaking about the fact that we had a solution that was home-built. This was incredibly successful and we got endorsements from industry bodies and impressive organisations that brought us into the limelight. This allowed us to create partnerships that enabled us to build a solution without formal investment.”
The medicine verification system was tested in Nigeria, and mPedigree’s credibility grew to the point where in 2009 it approached the Nigerian government to consider the solution as a nationwide standard. “In July this year, mPedigree became the standard for medicines sold in Nigeria and the government now progressively requires that all medicines be compliant.”
The success of the project, says Simons, is because of partnerships with world-class brands like Hewlett-Packard that manage the services’ infrastructure in Europe. “The pharmaceutical industry will not just allow their systems to be managed by a third party without a track record. There are issues of confidentiality, reliability, security and integrity.” Crucial to mPedigree’s success has been offering the pharmaceutical industry the assurance that the integrity of their data is protected. With news that counterfeit operations have set up shop in Nigeria the solution arrived not a moment too soon. Trials are currently underway in Ghana and Simons said the project is currently being considered for Lebanon, Tanzania and Rwanda.
Predictably the innovation is garnering global attention and has won Simons a slew of awards. What’s more gratifying for Simons is that mPedigree is saving lives.
By Mandy de Waal
Read more: “From China to Panama, a Trail of Poisoned Medicine” in the New York Times, Bright Simons’ article “How to Pull Africa from its Black Hole of Technology” from Ashoka.org, “Scratch & Win War on Africa's Counterfeit Malaria Medicines Gets Under Way” in Bloomberg, the report by the International Policy Network called “Keeping it Real - Combating the spread of fake drugs in poor countries”, and mPedigree online.
- Andy Rice