Using technology to fight counterfeit medicines in Africa and South Asia
Bright Simons was named one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders by Fortune magazine in 2016 because of his work to fight counterfeit medicine in Africa. His company, mPedigree, allows Africans to check on the authenticity of medicines by sending a text message with a code from their drug packaging or scanning the barcode with a smartphone. It’s a powerful way to fight against the deadly scourge of phony medicine. According to one estimate, more than 120,000 children under the age of 5 have died in Africa due to poor-quality antimalarials.
Nearly 2 billion product packets contain mPedigree’s barcodes in 12 countries in the developing world. The company has expanded its system to verify the authentication of other goods, such as seeds, medical devices, cosmetics, agrochemicals, and more. It has also now moved into the smart sensors field and is employing imaging, analytics, and polymers to monitor cold chains as a way of protecting infants and pregnant women from impotent vaccines and anti-bleeding (post-partum hemorrhage) injections.
We spoke with Simons about his childhood interest in science, how he combined technology with social entrepreneurship to found mPedigree, and what’s next for him and his company.
Tell us a little bit about your childhood, your upbringing, and how you got interested in science and technology.
In Ghana, where I grew up, when you are a teen, you take a nationwide test called the Basic Education Certificate Examination. Typically, if your scores fall within a certain bound, you almost inevitably pursue science. So that’s what I did. When I graduated high school, I intended to continue on that path and study astronomy and astrophysics. But at some point, I felt that the pure sciences were not a good match for my interests, and I moved to the social sciences.
What did you do in the social sciences?
I spent a lot of time in the student movement in Ghana, and I've done some work in migrant rights activism, earning Marie Curie scholarships that enabled me to combine migrants rights activism with scholarship. But I maintained my interest in technology, particularly because I knew it could have a very direct impact on human well-being. That’s when I came upon the concept of social entrepreneurship and using technology as a way to directly address social problems.
When did you first combine social entrepreneurship with technology to solve social problems?
My first attempt was back in 2004, when working with others, I came up with the concept of helping farmers in Africa become better off by using technology and started developing prototypes in 2005. African farmers were growing produce using organic methods, but they had to undergo a very expensive certification process if they wanted to sell their produce as organic in Europe. We thought that by using technology, we could create a much cheaper, more efficient certification program that would let farmers sell certified organic produce there, dramatically increasing their incomes. Unfortunately, we didn't have the resources to build infrastructure on the ground to get farmers to adopt the technology.
How did you get from there to mPedigree?
The system we built for certifying organic produce used a tag that would give all the information about how produce was produced and handled, all the way back to the farm that grew it. That got me thinking about the power of trust: How do you know something is what it says it is? How do you trust a particular brand, particularly in situations where it's linked to your health?
After the organic agricultural idea didn’t work out, I read an article about a harrowing incident in Nigeria where a young infant died from taking pediatric medicine that was laced with antifreeze. Initially, it didn't strike me as connected to what we had been doing with organic certifications. But then I realized the problems are similar. On the one hand, you want someone to do a verification process to convince you that this vegetable that you're about to eat was grown organically. On the other hand, you want someone to visit factories and do inspections to convince you that a particular box of medicine will more likely heal you than kill you.
The connection is that it’s a matter of trust, and we can put systems in place to preserve and amplify trust in an industrial age. So it's a very similar problem in a very different light. Once we saw that, it was quite obvious that we could repurpose our technology and apply it to the problem of counterfeit medicine.
Tell us a little bit about the problems with counterfeit medicines in Africa.
One example of the problem is that vaccines and other types of medicines are not stored properly and at the right temperature, so the medications are ineffective. For example, some pregnant women have bled to death on the delivery table because the medication to halt their bleeding didn’t stop their blood from flowing.
Another example is that counterfeiters will make a box that looks like a medicine’s real box and will make a pill that looks like the real pill, but they’re not the real thing and are completely ineffective. It’s mind-boggling, but millions of people are exposed to this problem every day.
Other times, you have companies that don’t officially exist that manufacture and sell medicines but nobody’s supervising the production, nobody’s inspecting anything, and nobody’s making sure they’re doing it right. And all these problems are interconnected; they reflect a broken trust system.
How does mPedigree solve the problem?
We focus on knowing everything about how a product is manufactured and moves through the supply chain, from the manufacturer to the retailer. We put a unique ID on every box of medication, confirming its authenticity. Then we put IDs on the secondary repackaging of those items—for example, the shipping box that holds 20 items, the pallet that holds 400 items (20 boxes of 20 items each), and so on. At every step along the supply chain, receivers must confirm they received it and that it’s intact. That happens all the way down the chain to individual retailers. How different levels of the supply chain are linked to one another depends on either the regulator in a particular jurisdiction or, where specific regulations do not exist, the manufacturer.
At the retail end, consumers can use any kind of mobile phone to check the authenticity of the medicines. With a smartphone, they scan a barcode. Without a smartphone, they send an SMS text message with the identifying ID of the item and receive a text in return confirming whether the item can be trusted. Because every ID is unique and the databases have persistent memory, gaming the system by generating false IDs or trying to copy them is infeasible. All the data flowing through the system are intermeshed to generate predictive insights.
What technology makes it all possible?
The manufacturer is cloud-enabled. They have data repositories, and we can host it on their behalf or they can host it themselves. Distributors are considered appendages to the manufacturer's ecosystem. So if a manufacturer has their own data center, then that distributor’s data is held by the manufacturer.
A lot of the smaller and medium-sized manufacturers, the majority of companies, allow us to manage all that for them in a cloud-enabled infrastructure. They apply the unique IDs and keep records of which medicines were produced when. All that information goes into their repository.
Then we have the transaction layer, which details how the products move along supply chains. That’s kept in a standard database which uses the electronic data interchange format. We also have a new, emerging blockchain implementation that guarantees that no one can deny that a box or palette of medicine has moved from one location to the other, because the data in the blockchain is irrevocable.
We also partner with the telecom companies—we are integrated directly into their SMS feeds. That means we can provide a free SMS hotline for the consumer; they don’t have to pay for the SMS, removing income as a potential barrier to the benefit of increased trust in the medical supply chain.
What’s next for mPedigree? Have you used it for anything aside from medicine?
We are using it to stop the counterfeiting of many different kinds of goods, including seeds for farmers, cultural apparel, cosmetics, automobile components, agrochemicals, medical devices, and many other goods.
We’re also exploring the use of emerging technologies. Machine learning is very interesting to us, because we are getting a lot of data, and these data points are of extreme interest to a lot of people. For example, we have been approached to help provide a data back end for micro-insurance in the Kenyan agricultural sector, because we know what the farmer bought, when she bought it, and so on. Based on that, mPedigree could provide insurance companies with information regarding the likelihood of crop failure or even a credit reference for a particular farmer. All this requires robust privacy and data protection systems, so we are innovating in that regard, too.
Do you have any advice for others who want to follow in your footsteps?
I think that some of the new problems, which a lot of innovators need to start applying their minds to, are not like the ones that have made well-known Internet companies rich. I think those “first generation” digital-solvable problems are increasingly harder to find.
The problems that are left are going to be social innovation-type problems, which are very complex and require a very good understanding of politics and a keen appreciation of sociology and anthropology. So, you're going to have to create things that are messier, which involve multiple parties, which involve multiple levels of the ecosystem, and which perhaps require government to play a much more central role. Those that will succeed in building the next tech giants are most likely those comfortable with this new reality.
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