The Legatum Center at MIT put on a conference last week on entrepreneurship in emerging markets. I’m not overly optimistic about the planet’s prospects, but I left more hopeful than I came: mix a lot of creative energy with good technology and a sense of purpose, and as a species we just might contrive to live long and prosper.

A case in point is Sproxil, a Nigerian start-up which presented its method for using scratch-off labels and SMS to ensure the legitimacy of a drug at the point of sale. Drug counterfeiting is a huge problem in the developing world. Given desperate need and loose regulatory oversight, it should not be surprising that there is a major business in supplying counterfeit or substandard drugs to pharmacies and other outlets in Asia and Africa.

  • Just how major is difficult to say, as with most illegal activities, but in 2009 Nigeria’s food and drug regulator estimated that 17% of the drugs sold in the country were counterfeit. A Nigerian audience member at Sproxil’s presentation gave anecdotal confirmation: in his section of Lagos, knowledgeable people get prescription drugs from only one pharmacy, preferring it even to hospital dispensaries, because it is known to deal only in legitimate product. 
  • Of course, the cost is not just monetary. Sproxil’s CEO, Ashifi Gogo, cited an International Policy Network estimate of 700,000 annual deaths due to counterfeit tuberculosis and malaria drugs.

Sproxil works with pharmaceutical manufacturers to place a unique identifying code in a scratch-off label on each package. At the point of purchase, the customer scratches off the label covering, sends a free SMS with the code to Sproxil, which checks the submitted code against its database and sends a return text indicating whether or not the drug is legitimate.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that a very simple mobile technology can now be used in a straightforward manner to address a serious problem that affects the well-being of millions. As I say, I’m marginally more hopeful.