Bright hope for continental scourge

Counterfeit medicine activist Bright Simons is changing the world and saving lives by using mobile technology to keep deadly fake drugs out of Africa.

Read time 6min 10sec

Africa has been cursed by a plague of counterfeit drugs that have proved as hard to stem as they are deadly. Studies on the continent show that 30% of drugs that find their way onto the market are illegitimate, and it's not the loss to the pharmaceutical industry that's the problem.

Often fake drugs contain toxic ingredients that make them dangerous, if not lethal. Then there's the matter of prophylactics that do nothing. The United Nations (UN) has shown that at least half of the anti-malaria tablets that are sold in Africa are counterfeit, which means that often people are paying for, and consuming, preventative medicines that have no effect. It's a big business, with the malaria drug sector turning about $438 million a year, according to the UN.

Meet Bright Simons, the man who wants to try and change that by fighting the fake drug trade with an innovative mobile solution. “I've always kinda been a public-spirited person, a typical activist,” says Simons. “I was a student leader in Ghana for a number of years, where I was involved in trying to improve the capacity of students to engage with school administrators, as well as governmental education authorities.”

Simons also worked in the field of youth development in Ghana before leaving Africa to pursue academic research in the field of migration studies in Europe. It was during this time that Simons became enthused with the power of social media and the ability of these networks to influence communities. At the time, the activist was writing a paper on China's trade with Africa when he stumbled on the issue of counterfeit drugs.

Getting involved

“I came across a very important, but not much discussed, aspect of the trade boom of Chinese products into Africa, which was the trafficking of substandard items from electrical cables all the way to medicines. Being someone who was interested in social technology, I felt I could do something more than just write about the issue,” says Simons. After researching the topic, he quickly discovered the chilling effects of the trade. “We had 2001 Interpol statistics from research conducted in Lagos, Nigeria which showed that 80% of all the medicines on sale were counterfeit.”

I felt I could do something more than just write about the issue.

Bright Simons, founder, mPedigree Network

The devastation and pain caused by fake drugs is terrible, as evidenced in Simons' recent declaration to TED, which tells of a shocking scene in a documentary on counterfeit medicines. “A nurse unknowingly administering fake heparin to her husband, who whimpers to death in her arms as she watches in terror,” says Simons, adding: “Fake pharmaceuticals are a plague eating into the fibre of many developing countries, particularly those of Africa and the Indian subcontinent.”

A Tech Museum Laureate, a Brain Trust member of the Evian Group at IMD, which is largely considered one of Europe's top business schools, Simons is an executive at the Accra-based think tank IMANI, where he counsels on challenges that face African development. More importantly, Simons is the founder of the mPedigree Network, a mobile solution that helps to ensure people that the medicines they are buying are legitimate and safe.

mPedigree was initially founded on little if any money, and Simons had to be innovative to get this system off the ground and recognised. “I didn't have any money and I was living in Europe, and had very few contacts in Ghana in the business community. I did have contacts in the academic world but that wouldn't help. But I thought I could implement something, a lightweight business model that would not require of you to have a lot of money to begin with.” The reach and accessibility of mobile technologies appealed to Simons, who intuitively felt a mobile offering would be the way to transform lives.

Dire need

Just as Simons was trying to get mPedigree off the ground, there was a massive tragedy in Nigeria that drove home the need to quickly and effectively do something to protect people against fake drugs. “There was a huge incident in Nigeria where a lot of children died from counterfeit cough syrup. Periodically we have an incident of big fatalities in which paediatric medicine is found to be contaminated, and children die.”

Simons says 90 children died in the 2004 Nigeria incident, but that this is a recurring nightmare for Nigeria, largely due to the fact that cough syrup needs to be stabilised. But without adequate infrastructure, counterfeiters turn to cheap, toxic solutions like Diethylene glycol, which is the anti-freeze used in cars and refrigerators. This chemical is highly toxic, if not poisonous, particularly for the very young and elderly.

The mPedigree system is very accessible and easy to use. Manufacturers undertake to put a unique code on their medicine, which works the same way as a scratch card. An education drive has helped people to learn to look for the code, scratch to reveal the unique code, and then SMS this code to see whether the medicine is safe. Consumers are responded to with a simple “yes” or “no”, and are also offered visual identity of the packaging together with batch numbers and expiry dates, so they can be reassured that the medicine is good for consumption, and not fake.

The service is free to consumers, and the system has been built on brokering relationships between the telecommunications companies, pharmaceutical companies and government. “We used existing infrastructure and our roll-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.”

The software for the system was created in Ghana, and can be scaled to circulate health advisories and related education. An essential part of mPedigree's business is an advocacy programme to lobby governments and industry on the problem of fake drugs and to see a collaborative approach to try and stem the problem. mPedigree has been running in Nigeria for a couple of years and was last year adopted as an industry standard by the Nigerian government.

“We achieve this through the partnerships that we continue to build, like the strong relationship we enjoy with Hewlett-Packard, which manages the infrastructure for the mPedigree service in Europe,” says Simons, who adds that these world-class technology brands create the trust for pharmaceutical companies to allow their systems to be managed by a third party.

The future looks promising for the collaborative technology solution that seeks to save lives. Trials are being run in Ghana, and Simons says the system is being considered for Lebanon, Tanzania and Rwanda.

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