In April, social entrepreneurs, Bright Simons and Gregory Rockson were honoured with the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship 2019 for their works to improve healthcare in Africa using emerging technologies. Simon’s mPedigree is a food and drug SMS authentication system that helps doctors, pharmacists and consumers avoid purchasing counterfeit goods in real time.
Rockson’s mPharma manages pharmaceutical inventories for mom and pop pharmacies across Africa with a software infrastructure that enables it to aggregate these inventories. This helps to reduce truck procurement costs thereby making medicine accessible and affordable to consumers.
A documentary on the scale of fake medicines in Nigeria led Simon to create mPedigree, a solution to tackle the sale and consumption of counterfeit drugs over a decade ago. In Africa, about 100,000 deaths are linked to counterfeit drugs yearly. Globally, fake malaria and tuberculosis drugs kill 700,000 people a year. Weak regulations, and in some cases, a complete lack of regulation have enabled the growth of the counterfeiting industry leaving consumers to bear the brunt.
Besides the apparent fatalities, counterfeit agricultural inputs hinder productivity and keep smallholder farmers in poverty, consequently decreasing food security and worsening famines. “Almost 10 percent of rice seeds sold in Africa and South Asia are fake … Lots of farmers in Africa and Asia attempt suicide because their crops have failed, and some of that is due to fake or poor-quality seeds,” Simon told Reuters.
mPedigree’s mobile authentication system is a unique product identification marker that helps people determine the authenticity of drugs and agricultural inputs. Products are marked with unique codes concealed by tamper-evident scratch-off labels. Consumers simply evaluate codes within seconds by scanning with a phone camera or via SMS. The codes contain product information including product manufacturer, active ingredients, and product expiration date.
The authentication system does not just benefit consumers, but manufacturers as well. If a product is fake, manufacturers and retailers receive a real-time alert and data to begin tracking down culprits. They can also track how their medicines and products are selling in various regions.
So far, mPedigree has formed partnerships in both the public and private sectors across Africa and has verified about two billion products sold. In Nigeria, it is mandatory that all anti-malarial and antibiotic medicines are marked with unique codes. In Kenya, all seed packaging for smallholder farmers must be labelled.
As a child suffering from thoracic scoliosis, Rockson witnessed the firsthand frustrations of his parents trying to secure the medicines he needed, with pharmacies often experiencing stock-outs and occasionally charging high and fluctuating prices. Knowing how these obstacles hindered wider accessibility and affordability, Rockson decided to do something about it in his final undergraduate year.
His initial idea was to create an electronic prescription system that would tell patients what pharmacy had the drug that’s been prescribed for them and direct them to it. “In Africa, where the pharmacy retail market is highly fragmented, we started a link to the global distribution system,” he said in an interview. The system worked, but it failed to address the essential issue of drug supplies to pharmacies.
Hence, Rockson upgraded his business model to also manage pharmaceutical inventories; by purchasing drugs on their behalf, mPharma creates a greater certainty of availability for pharmacies and consumers. The company also uses the collective power of its pharmaceutical network to negotiate lower prices with manufacturers. In so doing, mPharma is taking ownership of Africa’s broken drug supply chain and introducing price controls.
mPharma is in partnerships with major drug manufacturers including Novartis, Bayer, and Pfizer, and now manages a network of providers throughout Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Many pharmacies in its network have managed to eliminate stockouts. The company also has an innovative electronic credit financing service, an interest-free micropayment plan to help patients pay for healthcare. Currently, mPharma manages inventory for a network of 243 pharmacies and clinics serving more than 40,000 patients monthly.