Nigeria: Mobile Technology Targets Drug Counterfeiters

Published: 16 January 2013


 To address the growing danger of counterfeit medications infiltrating mainstream supplies, a pharmaceutical company in Nigeria has turned to mobile phone technology.

Drug bosses, taking advantage of the dependable market and low risk involved in dealing medicine, sneak massive amounts of ineffective and sometimes dangerous products into Africa. The BBC noted that in 2011, the World Health Organization claimed more than two-thirds of anti-malarial medicine in Nigeria was counterfeit. 

So Nigeria has joined a number of other developing nations, including India, Ghana, and Kenya, in adopting a mobile phone system that helps consumers identify counterfeit bottles, The BBC reports. The program recognizes individualized product codes that pharmaceutical companies attach to each package.  Consumers who text that code to a toll free number will receive either confirmation that the medicine is genuine or a warning that it is not, along with a number to call to report the fake product.

To succeed, this type of technology requires the cooperation of pharmaceutical companies, mobile service providers and drug regulators. It seems to be working in Nigeria, where the government passed a mandate to include scratch identification on all anti-malarial medication by early 2013. 

The expansion of anti-counterfeiting capabilities is in the interests of both governments and pharmaceutical companies, for the former as a means to improve the reliability of healthcare, and the latter because counterfeits undercut their profits. The use of mobile phone technology greatly increases the reach of drug enforcement agencies, as individual citizens can function as informants.

Tackling drug counterfeiting has proven extremely difficult in Nigeria, as those responsible for the knock-offs are highly skilled at production, the BBC report said. According to the managing director at a Nigerian pharmaceutical company, differences between legitimate products and counterfeits are often indiscernible, and “sometimes [counterfeits] even come out looking better than the original product”.

The company responsible for the texting technology, mPedigree, sees it as a way to a “future in which consumers in the developing world would be able to place absolute confidence in any medication they purchase,” according to the company’s website.

The BBC acknowledged that this innovation cannot slow the fake drug trade alone. Especially in developing countries, high levels of illiteracy could limit the usefulness of text-based warnings. The product also targets drugs that have already been illegally trafficked, but does not aid in the prevention of that trafficking. Despite these challenges, the founder of mPedigree is upbeat about the ability of his product to stop counterfeiters cold, telling the  BBC, “We are not only squeezing them, we are running them out of town.”