Counterfeit medication: Tech-driven transparency could save Africa US$21bn annually

Counterfeit medication: Transparency could save Africa US$21bn annually
Vivian Nwakah, CEO of Medsaf

The level of transparency brought about by technological solutions in the fight against counterfeit pharmaceutical products could bring in excess of US$21billion annually to Africa, Co-founder & Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of pharmtech outfit Medsaf, Vivian Nwakah, has said.

This number, she adds, is an especially conservative estimate; as data on the true scale of trade in counterfeit and illicit medication is veilled by the market’s underground nature, which has an impact on official figures presented by regulatory bodies.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), in a 2017 report on substandard and falsified medical products, estimated that between 2013 and 2017 the value of trade in counterfeit pharmaceuticals was approximately US$200billion annually – with Africa being the worst affected region, accounting for as much as 42 percent, or US$21billion, of the illicit trade.

The worst culprits remain over-the-counter medications for the most common ailments, led by malaria. WHO estimates that, annually, substandard and fake anti-malarial drugs could be responsible for 116,000 additional deaths from the disease in sub-Saharan Africa; and costs patients and health systems some US$38.5million.

Speaking in an extensive interview with the B&FT, the Medsaf CEO explained that accurate data from platforms such as hers will lead to direct cost savings across the entire value chain for manufacturers due to improved demand measurement, forecasting and inventory planning – while government earns fair tax receipts and customers – most of whom pay out of pocket as they lack insurance – are not subjected to repeat purchases.

“Manufacturers have historically struggled with accessing and collating relevant data; particularly, how the end-user receives medication has been very difficult.

“The transparency offered by tech solutions provides appropriate data which allow for demand planning, forecasting and innovation pertaining to the type of medications that needs to be distributed. It helps manufacturers increase efficiency, and existing literature suggests this could reduce costs by as much as 20 percent.

“That alone is huge for a small business; now, imagine multiplying that across private and government institutions. This will create a massive amount of cost-savings, which can only be achieved through accurate demand planning and transparency,” she elucidated.

She noted that other benefits include increased productivity across the active labour force, and added that the gains from a reduction of the illegal trade could be channeled into more productive uses.

Startup pains

Ms. Nwakah confirmed that being a woman leading a startup has resulted in some challenges with access to finance.

“Starting as a female founder has been challenging. However, Medsaf can say that with an amount of about US$2.7million raised so far, we have been able to smoothly fund and grow the organisation. Through this, we are able to build our software, our team; and as well as continue on our expansion drive,” she remarked.

This corroborates disturbing statistics on funding for women-led businesses, including one which shows that in 2021 – when more than US$4.3 billion in venture capital was raised by early-to-mid stage African startups – 93 percent of the funding went to startups with male CEOs.

The Medsaf CEO however stated that the expansionary drive will see the Nigerian-based company break into other markets on the continent and introduce more features and services.

“We want to be present in as many African countries as need our services, and in the long-term we want to be at the forefront in the movement and flow of safe medication across the continent. We are rolling out more features and services, and will be announcing, very soon, more innovation around the transparency from Medsaf,” she added.

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