15 January 2013

Africa: Mpedigree - an African Blueprint for Consumer Empowerment

Photo: Stuart Price/UN
A market vendor in Southern Somalia.


The idea for the mPedigree Network began to take shape the moment I grabbed the first pack of kashi cereals I ever bought and saw an 'organic seal' on the box. The organic seal deeply intrigued me.

Here was a concise promise, immensely powerful in its brevity: 'trust me with your health and conscience." In an instant, I was transformed into a believer. A believer in the unbounded power of Trust.

I would later learn more about organic agriculture and more about the fact that many rural farmers back in Ghana, my home country, grow most of their crops this way but cannot benefit from the premium prices organics get in the market because of the complex, and costly, bureaucratic certification process run from Europe.

The team of doctoral students that crystalised around this mission shared one passion from then on: to create an alternative direct-to-consumer organic scheme based on mobile telephony.

We may have underestimated the challenges of getting farmers in Ghana to adopt the system, and failed to get into market, but the seeds for mPedigree had already been planted: quality assurance must start with consumers. When a fake medicine incident hit Nigeria in 2005, we were ready to pivot. mPedigree would focus on direct authentication of medicines by empowered consumers themselves.

Like many of our early advisors and team members, living in West Africa provided me a first-hand experience of shady medicine peddlers, especially of the herbal variety.

I remember the dubious-looking green pills - supposedly iron supplements - that our secondary school clinic used to prescribe for everyone who turned up with a complaint regardless of their condition. Were the stomach cramps that often followed innocuous side effects or something more sinister? What about the chloramphenicol so liberally dispensed as an anti-dote to typhoid that had become such a hit and miss affair?

We would soon learn that counterfeit and substandard medicines constituted as much as 25% of the total trade in medicines in Africa according to very credible estimates. The biggest challenge was clearly the inability to track medicines and to carefully record how, when and where problems were occurring. The entire supply chain was opaque, making it vulnerable to thefts, diversions, corruption, trafficking and widespread abuse of medicines. Worldwide, counterfeit drugs and pharmaceuticals kill up to 2,000 people daily.

Our approach was simple: build software tools and create partnerships that will enable pharma companies to tag each individual pack of medicine with a unique ID that the patient can text-message to a special hotline for an instant response about the medicine's authenticity and latest status.

Given the extraordinary limited resources we had at our disposal (by this time, even the small team we began with had shrank further), it was not until 2007 that, having now relocated from Europe to Ghana, we were able to launch the world's first, free, multi-country shortcode to address a social problem that is genuinely global in scale and character. Until we showed up, no such uniform toll-free SMS hotline across national borders had ever been attempted.

It is quite remarkable then that 5 years after our first public pilot we are now expanding beyond Africa to South Asia. For the first time, an African innovation is being aggressively imitated worldwide, with copycats being reported in the specialised press monthly.

Through our pioneering advocacy and lobbying efforts, two countries in Africa - Nigeria and Kenya - with more poised to follow, have integrated mobile telephony based consumer verification into their safety regulations, and in the case of Nigeria made it mandatory for malaria medicines.

This is world-impacting in every respect. mPedigree's verification codes would have by February 2013 appeared on nearly 10 million packs of medicine in Ghana, Kenya, India and Nigeria, and a further four countries where alpha trials are now happening. Global partnerships have involved fortune 500 companies and more than 2 dozen telecom companies, as well as regulators and pharma companies, with the multiple interests working to rhythm to ensure a sustainable but free service.

Our tribulations and triumphs all tie back to one reality: we are an African social enterprise. Running on a super-lean budget has been exciting. It has forced us to focus on strong values, stay our course regardless of the distractions heaped on our path. We have also had to learn quickly how to manage our global alliances, as Africa's many opportunities and stereotypes compete for focus in the eyes of partners.

We believe strongly that the complex organic partnerships that today make up the mPedigree Network work precisely because this kind of 'business model hacking' thrive best in a continent still blending complex social norms of collaboration with all the tools of the modern intellect.

Bright B. Simons is the President of the mPedigree Network

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