How a low-tech solution is making a dent in Africa's gigantic fake medicine trade

In Africa, counterfeit drugs contribute to the deaths of 100,000 people annually. A simple app is changing that.
Written by Tshepo Tshabalala, Correspondent (Johannesburg)

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- The selling of phony pharmaceuticals is a big problem for Africa's developing countries. It is believed the worldwide counterfeit trade is worth about $75 billion a year. The World Health Organization estimates that one in four packets of medicine sold in street markets in developing countries could be fake, and that in Africa, phony drugs contribute annually to 100,000 deaths, as people die from diseases their "medicine" is supposedly treating. 

Many global companies are developing and finding ways to fight this counterfeit trade around the world, but in Africa, Ghana's Bright Simons has put the power in consumers hands'. In 2008, Simons developed mPedigree, a low-tech mobile application that verifies the authenticity of medication with a text message using the most basic cellphone.

Since its inception in various African countries, the system has had an average of over 35,000 weekly verifications. A drug manufacturer in Nigeria tripled its sales in 2013 after it adopted the mPedigree platform which has helped eliminate the fake reproduction of its products. And, according to Technology Review, mPedigree helped reveal to a major Indian company pilfering at a depot in which genuine anti-malarial medicines would be replaced by counterfeits.

“In the last 16 months, mPedigree has protected over 40 million anti-malarial doses, as well as 10 million medicines in other categories such as antibiotics, emergency contraceptives, etc. To this extent we believe that this is only the beginning of what is going to be an industry standard across Africa, as far as safeguarding patients is concerned,” says Selorm Branttie, Strategy Director at mPedigree Network. 

The mPedigree platform has won numerous accolades: last year, Simons was given a lifetime achievement award by the International Foundation for Africa Innovation for his work in mobile innovation; in August 2013 he was named by MIT Technology Review as part of the World’s 35 Top Innovators Under 35; in 2008, the World Economic Forum selected mPedigree as a 2009 Technology Pioneer; in November 2010 mPedigree became the first southern hemisphere organization to win the start-up category of the Global Security Challenge in London.

MPedigree works by having manufacturers sign up to its platform and upload information from each pack of medicine into a central registry using standard mass serialization methods that allow it to show a record of possession from the manufacturer through various wholesalers and pharmacies to the user -- its "pedigree." 

The consumer buys a product with a label that has a scratch surface with a hidden 12-digit number, similar to the scratch cards for airtime used across Africa. The consumer is then able to send a free SMS message to query the pedigree information stored in the registry on mPedigree's servers, and receives a quick response to authenticate his or her purchase.

The system was initially invented for use in the organic produce trade, but Simons found its best use in the pharmaceutical business.

The counterfeit trade is prevalent over the African continent because many of its borders and entry points such as ports are porous. It is very easy to smuggle in fake drugs because some of them can be disguised in other product packaging and slip through customs and other security checks.

“The lack of requisite technology to discover these loopholes, as well as the tendency for bribery and corruption to take place at these ports means that there is very little incentive to thoroughly check if the medications brought in are truly genuine. For most it is routine business as usual,” says Branttie.

Plus, the art of mimicking product packages and selling fake medication just to deceive consumers is a lucrative business.

The healthcare delivery system and supply chain over Africa is still not fully mature. For many of Africa’s poor, the price of medicines often dictates which brand or prescription patients purchase for a particular ailment, and often the information and efficacy of a drug is not important.

“Usually patients are then trapped into buying the cheapest medication available which usually is the counterfeited version sold at a marginally lower price just to drive sales,” adds Branttie.

“Also, some of these medicines are very expensive and might be the equivalent of a week’s wages for the consumer. Buying it at a bargain might be the only way out.”

However, in the streets, slums or shantytowns of many African cities, counterfeits are sold just by infiltrating the supply chain of medicines. “A distributor or wholesaler of medication could be introduced to a consignment of smuggled counterfeits at a lower price. He decides he will make a killing from the lower price and distribute to his clients, who retail to the final consumer,” explains Branttie.

These retailers could be anything from registered pharmacists to street side vendors.

The mPedigree platform protects consumers from counterfeit drugs in regions with low literacy and low technical capacity. Through working with about 20 telecoms companies, mPedigree has appeared in 6.5 million packs of medicine. Distributors and other middlemen can check the codes to verify that the supply has not been compromised.

In Africa’s newly crowned, biggest economy, Nigeria, mPedigree has become the mainstream. It is now a regulatory mandate that all anti-malarial drugs and, from July 1, all antibiotics dispensed in pharmacies and chemical shops adopt the mPedigree technology.

Mpedigree’s system has been adopted as the national standard also in Kenya and India, with pilots in Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa and Bangladesh. They've done successful pilots in Sierra Leone and Zambia, where full operational implementation will begin by the end of the second quarter of the year, with plans to go into Rwanda.

Photo: HP/Flickr

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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