Bright Simons: Providing turnkey safety solutions that tease the bowels of intellectual struggle

by | July 29, 2016 12:55 am


The story of mPedigree actually began before mPedigree. It began with a start-up called Wospro between 2004 and 2005. I was then in Europe, criss-crossing the continent as a researcher, citizen journalist, perennial student, and part-time activist. I was also battling a skin condition that I slowly begun to attribute to Europe’s chemical laden food. I had switched to ‘organic’ food to improve this condition, and then one day it hit me. My only way of telling that one pack of cereal or jar of raspberries was ‘organic’ was entirely dependent on a seal placed on that pack by an institution I trust. ‘Trust’ in this sense was highly automated, allowing millions of packs of cereals to travel the world bearing an insignia that hundreds of millions of consumers could connect with well-being. I realised that though many African farmers grew their food organically they could not make the premiums that organic farmers in Europe. I assembled a team of doctoral students from LSE, MIT, and Dartmouth to tackle this problem. We thought we could change the situation through a nifty piece of technology I designed called, ‘Virprox’. Unfortunately, we failed due to lack of resources. One day, I saw a news item about young children dying from suspected fake medicines in Nigeria. Then it hit me again: this is about ‘policing trust’. I updated the Virprox concept into something called UPAP which added layers of advanced security to the trust automation technology. Another team came together, and in 2007, the new technology platform, then called mPedigree, was tested in the pharmaceutical industry in Ghana. The following year, NAFDAC showed interest after seeing it at work. Four years of intense preparatory work, some of which involved the building of global partnerships with the likes of Hewlett Packard and major telecom companies in Africa, saw the full launch of a much revamped technology platform called ‘Goldkeys’ Nigeria. We haven’t looked back since.

How has mpedigree become the most extensively deployed solution of its kind in the world?

This has been mostly through elaborate partnerships with major multinationals, governments and civil society organisations. Right from the beginning, we knew that the problems we were trying to tackle was too big for us to try to go it alone. We spent months in R&D collaboration with Xerox to explore a novel way of applying our ‘PIN and seal’ label to medicines. But we could not finalise on a commercial arrangement. In parallel, we were working with Hewlett Packard on a cloud computing platform to enable end-to-end tracking of every pack of medicine. We spent a massive amount of time building a toll-free network of SMS shortcodes in many countries across Africa by engaging with telecom companies at boardroom level. We have worked closely with government regulatory agencies in several major African countries. This has taken us years. Until finally, we built a really deep infrastructure and ecosystem across a dozen countries in Africa, the Arab World and South Asia. mPedigree’s Goldkeys technologies, such as Acodion, EarlySensor and the SMS services, are now used in over a dozen different industries, extending well beyond pharmaceuticals into cosmetics (fake cosmetics is a huge problem that affect women more than men), agro-inputs, seeds, automotive components, packaged foods, veterinary products, etc. Beyond anti-counterfeiting, Goldkeys technologies are used to track valuable products from the factory, through warehouses and other logistics facilities, across the retail network and finally at the level of the consumer. The data generated is used exclusively by industry to improve on logistics management and design richer, more meaningful, and impactful, advertising and other customer outreach activities. I am not exaggerating when I say that its vision and ethos is world-unique.

Winning Marie Curie scholarships by virtue of your contributions to the EUROFOR human migration studies program

This is a highly complex area that a short profile would not be able to do justice to. I can only say that my experience as a migrant in Europe begun to define my appreciation for social justice and the constant struggle for a world free of discrimination. I therefore switched my focus from the natural sciences into the social sciences and undertook several research expeditions in Southern Europe to rigorously capture the migrant and refugee conditions in places like Malta and Majorca. To reach wider audiences, I published detailed and comprehensive features in respected citizen journalism media like World Press.I was rewarded with Marie Curie scholarships from Europe’s Directorate-General of Research and was proud to have won grants from the Irmgard Coninx program. Such scholarships enabled research visits to many European research outposts.

Being a member of the United Nations taskforce on innovative models in healthcare, and of the Lancet Commission on Sub-Saharan Health

I enjoy the search for knowledge, but it is its application to the deep conundrums of the human condition that stimulates me the most. I rarely turn down an opportunity to contribute to a deeper understanding of complex social phenomena. The broader and subtler the more appealing for me. In that light, I have been an advisor to Microsoft in their quest to shape a strategic pan-African game plan; I have worked in an expert group put together by one of the world’s leading health journals – the Lancet – to map out the emerging future landscape of health in Africa; and I have also contributed to a taskforce set up to advise the United Nations on innovative models of healthcare. I help curate the innovation showcase at one of the world’s biggest annual forums on health innovation in the world launched by the UK’s Imperial College and backed by the Qatar Foundation. I strongly believe that collaborations aimed at deepening the understanding of a problem with a view to questioning ready solutions tend to lay the ground for true change.

Challenges fighting drug counterfeiting

Counterfeiting is certainly one of the most important things we do at mPedigree today. But in our usual quest to understand a problem to its roots, we have discovered that sometimes counterfeiting is a symptom of deeper problems such as corruption, fragmented supply chains, weak infrastructure, poor data, and simple incompetence. As ‘social entrepreneurs’ our job is not to milk problems for cash. Our job is to uproot problems and then move on to other problems. So we have been innovating non-stop, both in a breakthrough way and also via what I call ‘serial micro-innovations’, little chops to the roots of giant problems which eventually topple the most entrenched obstacles. We are building out our technology platform to expand its usefulness to companies in many, many, industries. We are helping an insecticide manufacturer incentivise its retail network to stock genuine products; collecting data on women’s purchasing behaviour on behalf of a big regional makeup brand; we are working with a transport company to track the quality of servicing for its fleet, even as we secure its lubricants from tampering; and so on and so forth. The key challenge in scaling up all these activities so that mPedigree can become ubiquitous in the lives of all Nigerians and Africans, and therefore fulfil our mandate of ‘bringing quality to life’ is the ‘infrastructure’ issue.

Can drug counterfeiting really be stopped?

Certainly! But to prevent the problem from diffusing into a broad array of more subtle, and therefore more pernicious, forms such as fraud, mis-prescriptions, diversion etc., it is important that the solution is holistic and does not overly focus on symptoms instead of a root, stem and branch redesign of the full supply chain of medicines in Africa and Asia using innovate technologies and clever partnerships.

Countries mPedigree is being used

We are currently in East and West Africa, Southern Africa, the Middle East/North Africa Region, and the South Asian region, with India being our logistics hub and the growing fulcrum of our strongest expansion push in Asia. Once we have a firm handle on this growth strategy we will take a very close look at Latin America and Eastern Europe, whilst integrating our solutions into third-party applications targeting Europe, the US and ASEAN.

Expose on counterfeiting in Nigeria and the way forward

mPedigree works very closely with NAFDAC as part of the latter’s Mobile Authentication System (MAS). Our Ovasight technology suite generates powerful intelligence that we relay on demand to NAFDAC on the hotspots where counterfeiting activities are peaking. Our goal is to deepen this technology-driven collaboration with NAFDAC, and, given how fraud and corruption isn’t confined to the medical sector, other federal, and even state, agencies tasked with human and national security. Should the government create the enabling conditions for us to inject our technologies into its commendable fight against fraud and faking in its divers manifestations, they would find in us a most eager and capable partner.

How are the perpetuators able to penetrate so deep into the system?

The primary means of entry is weaknesses at the various land borders and even air and sea ports. The highly fragmented retail network (unlike the situation in some other regions of the world where most retailing occurs within a few highly integrated national chains) leads to a lot of unbundling of consignments and repackaging creating massive loopholes for criminals to exploit. In fact, the biggest risk facing Nigeria in this regard is the infiltration of terrorists into this space. Imagine the havoc that will ensue when rather than profit, mass murder becomes the dominant goal of major counterfeiters. Automotive parts and fuels alone provide extremely vulnerable targets for sabotage. Recent investigations have linked fake parts to accidents in the aviation sector, among other harrowing situations.

Final words

Africa abounds in innovators and innovations, and certainly Nigeria abounds in innovations and innovators. The only question is the extent to which as societies we are willing to embrace a problem-solving mindset in order to harness these innovations.