A simple and Ingenious app to stop counterfeit drugs in Africa
It’s a system so porous that as many as one in three medicines sold on Drug Lane could be counterfeit, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared with about 1 percent in the U.S. and Europe. The fake drugs often have no active ingredient at all, or just enough to pass quality-control tests, and visually they can be indistinguishable from the real thing. One study, published by the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, found that in just one year, fake and poorly made malaria drugs contributed to the deaths of more than 100,000 children across Africa.
Nongovernmental organizations, international agencies, and other groups have tried to address the problem. A Ghanaian entrepreneur thinks he has an answer. Bright Simons announced the creation of his company, MPedigree Network, at a news conference on Drug Lane in 2007. MPedigree sells software that manufacturers use to label individual packs of medication with a random 12-digit code hidden under a scratch-off panel on the packaging. When a person buys medicine, she can text the code to MPedigree for free and get an instant reply telling her whether the product is authentic. Today, MPedigree says it has labels on more than 500 million drug packets. Clients include the drug companies AstraZeneca, Roche, and Sanofi.
As it’s grown, MPedigree has kept its identity fluid—adopting the startup label to attract attention and court investment, and other times emphasizing that it’s a social enterprise, the better to work with large multinationals with corporate responsibility mandates. The data MPedigree is collecting on African consumers has opened business possibilities that are strictly for-profit. Today the company authenticates a variety of commonly faked goods, from makeup to electrical cable.
It’s an unorthodox path for a startup, but then nothing about starting a company in Accra is conventional. MPedigree’s labels are printed in China and India, and its data centers are on three continents. Very little of this Ghanaian company’s business actually happens in Ghana. It’s a tough place to work. Blackouts can last 24 hours. The cedi was for most of this year the worst performing currency in sub-Saharan Africa. “We don’t keep infrastructure locally,” says Simons. “It’s virtually impossible at a reasonable cost.” He outsources critical services, such as Web hosting, to companies in places with regular power supplies. MPedigree puts up with it all, Simons says, in part to observe consumer behavior that outsiders never could—but mostly because it’s home.
There have been instances like the below where fake medicine sellers try to be smart: In a case, MPedigree found that a single authentication code that’s been checked 1,500 times over the past few days. Somebody has taken one genuine code, made thousands of copycat labels, and attached them to counterfeit morning-after pills somewhere in Nigeria. But this will surely prevent all but one pack of fake medicines to be identified. Thus the damage is minimized. MPedigree is calling everyone who’d tested the fake code to find out where they got the drug and alerting regulators and law enforcement. A similar thing happened in March, Simons says; MPedigree was able to use its data to track down a warehouse full of fake malaria medication.