After some years in Europe, Bright Simons returned to Ghana in 2005 to, in his own words, do something that was likely to have more measurable and transformative impact on the continent. He had studied astrophysics at Durham University, U.K, and thought to use the knowledge to help local farmers with the process of getting the organic certification that would enable them sell their produce at more competitive prices.
“The idea was that at the point of sale there’d be a code on the product,” Simons explained to the MIT Technology review. “You’d enter that in a mobile device, and up will pop the history and even pictures of the farm.”
The catch was that most of the farmers lacked the basic coding knowledge requisite for the initiative to be successful, besides, the project required more funds than he had. Undaunted by these challenges, Simons transferred the idea to the pharmaceutical industry. In 2007, he started a company, mPedigree (m for mobile) under which he floated the new concept. This involved hiding under a scratch-off panel on medicine packages, a 12-digit code which consumers can text for free to a secured hotline at mPedigree and receive instant reply verifying if the medicine is authentic or not. Distributors can also follow the same process to ensure that supply has not been compromised.
The innovation has caught on in West Africa and other parts of the continent. In Nigeria, for instance, the serialisation appears on most anti-malarial drugs in the market and it has become a standard for verification of the authenticity of medicines. It is not uncommon to see people at pharmacies peering at medicine packs and punching their mobile phones.
Bloomberg reported that mPedigree has its code on over 500 million medicine packs. India, other countries of South Asia and an increasing number of multi-national pharmaceutical companies have begun to adopt the technology. Simons is proud that innovation from Africa is being taken to other parts of the world.
“It’s changing the traditional story about the continent and demonstrating that Africa can be the source of groundbreaking innovations,” he told The Guardian. “This is a genuine reversal of the usual narrative.”
Simons has been a Director of Research at the IMANI Centre for Policy and Education, Ghana. A Salzburg Global Fellow, an Ashoka Fellow. He is on the Microsoft Africa Advisory Council and on the Advisory Board of IC Publications, publishers of New Africa Magazine. In 2010, Simons was given an Archbishop Desmond Tutu Award by the African Leadership Institute.
He classifies mPedigree as a social enterprise, for despite the humungous success of the company, he remains at heart an activist; health activism in this case. The company’s anti-counterfeiting system is at no cost to the end user. Its core objective is to expose manufacturers and distributors of fake medicine and consequently save consumers from the harmful effect of these medicines (the World Health Organisation estimates that about 2,000 people die daily worldwide from use of counterfeit medicine, according to The Guardian).
“It’s a massive undertaking that addresses one of the most retractable, complex problems facing healthcare in the developing world. The fact that we are at the forefront of the solution is exciting and provides immense motivation to move forward in protecting people’s health and saving lives,” he told New Africa Magazine.
For his country Ghana, he wishes to see a country that is committed to making contribution to world innovation and intellectual excellence. And his advice to young aspiring entrepreneurs in Ghana is: learn from your mistakes and use failure as a motivation for greater accomplishments; embrace anger, not self-pity; be angry about injustice; work to uphold the dignity of all humans; find reliable friends and stick with them.