Bright simons is president of the anti counterfeiting company, mPedigree network and a man who combines the innovative thinking of an entrepreneur with the passion of an activist.
The year is 2008, the country is Nigeria; 84 babies have died because the syrup used to treat their teething pains is found to contain diethylene glycol, an industrial solvent used in brake fluid and antifreeze.
It is a national tragedy but in nearby Ghana a new product is being rolled out which might stop such a disaster ever happening again. It is a system first developed to verify the authenticity of organic foods. The method is simple – each product contains a code that the buyer simply texts to a free number, receiving a message back telling them whether it’s authentic or not. The disaster in Nigeria will provide the catalyst for it to become the global leader in the use of mobile and web-based technologies in the fight against fake drugs.
The company behind the technology is called mPedigree. Its president is Bright Simons, an entrepreneur and activist who has been tackling problems head-on since his childhood. “I got heavily bullied in the second year of secondary school,” he said. “Everybody gets bullied, it’s just I didn’t take it like everybody else did.” What he did was to become president of the student council and begin a series of reforms to reduce abuse, often leading him into direct conflict with the school’s administrators. A career of activism and innovation was born.
After school Bright went to Europe, where he won a scholarship to study astrophysics at Durham University. A purely academic path didn’t totally satisfy him but a switch to migration studies soon reengaged him with activism. “I felt that I couldn’t really separate my very strong opinions about social justice from my professional and academic goals,” he said, “so I became a small part of the Migrants’ Rights movement in Europe.”
But Bright soon realised that activism alone wasn’t enough to provide solutions to some of the more complex problems and increasingly turned towards technological innovation for solutions. His first such idea came when he developed a skin problem while studying in the UK. “I was trying to see if changes in my diet would help so I shifted to organic food. Suddenly it hit me that in Africa we don’t have these problems and in Africa they grow their food organically by default. So why should we not have more African food coming in and farmers being paid more?”
He soon realized the big problem was one of certification – how do you know as a consumer that the box of oranges in your hand really comes from an organic grower? He led a research project finding ways to provide authentication techniques and soon the idea of product codes that could be verified by SMS was born. The idea got off to a good start, even winning a few awards, but it soon ran into stakeholder problems with farmers wanting to be paid for using the service.
On ‘life support’
Soon the product was “nearly dead, on life support” as Bright puts it. It was just before the health crisis in Nigeria occurred. With Bright’s experience of the growing trade in counterfeit goods between Africa and China, the technology soon found a renaissance as a weapon against counterfeit drugs and one which could be expanded to cover all fake goods. “I realised it was the same problem but in a different guise. Whether you want to know if your product is organic or if the shirt you’re wearing didn’t come from a sweat shop, it’s about the same thing – how do I trust, as a consumer, what I have in my hand and I paid for with my money?” The project was piloted in Ghana where it gained some media attention and not long after it was adopted by the Nigerian government. Within nine months the number of anti-malarial drugs protected by mPedigree shot up to over 100 million.
Today more than 15 million people in Nigeria alone have benefited from the technology and mPedigree has spread to a dozen other industries including textiles, agro-chemicals, cosmetics and electrical goods, working with over two dozen telecom operators in a dozen countries in Africa and South Asia. This gives the technology a theoretical reach of over 600 million people and in 2014 mPedigree passed the 500 million product mark. Part of its appeal is that it can be used as a marketing and data capture tool as much as an anti-counterfeiting measure. “If you send a text message asking to validate a package of medicine, it gives you some information. You know what kind of medicines they’ve bought; you know their location; you also know the condition, for example malaria. That kind of information is very powerful. It completely transforms the nature of service delivery.”
But there is still a long way to go. The World Health Organization estimates that fake drugs still account for 10-30% of all medicines available in the developing world and although the product has good coverage in certain areas of the drug market, such as antimalarial, antibiotics and reproductive-related medicine, it doesn’t yet cover the whole range of pharmaceuticals. There have been many challenges – like trying to persuade telecom companies to provide the free SMS service – but Bright thinks the biggest challenges have also provided the company’s greatest strengths, namely its small scale, its limited resources and its base in an African country with limited infrastructure. “In Africa you have to think globally from the outset,” said Bright. “A typical enterprise grown in a typical way is built from the bottom up by hiring marketing experts, top-notch PR agents, risk managers etc. Because we didn’t have that option, we had to use a completely different approach which is to work through partnerships and collaborations.” It is an approach which has seen mPedigree work with the likes of
Hewlett Packard, Orange and Vodafone and Simons become a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council, an executive at think tank the IMANI Center for Policy and Education, a consultant to the World Bank, a member of the Brain’s Trust and a TED fellow, to name just a few of his roles. “These relationships are what we discovered are a few of the levers that can enable small enterprises to achieve global impact,” explained Simons. “It’s a big solution to a big problem.” Big problems, it seems, have never been something Bright has shied away from, an attitude he has kept from his activist roots. He cites Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama as two of his biggest inspirations because they faced down huge, almost intractable problems, with patience and perseverance. “That kind of attitude is typical in the world of activism where people are confronted with enormous odds,” said Bright. “Sometimes you have to wear a problem down until the problem gives up.”
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PHOTO CREDIT: Gates Foundation from flickr