Bright Simons: “Good Ideas Don’t Only Come From Rich Countries”

The founder and president of mPedigree says the same problems affect both the Global North and the Global South, and the world needs to pay attention to the South for answers.

26.05.2020 | by Christy Romer
Photo by Harvard Kennedy School
Photo by Harvard Kennedy School

Air-borne viruses, extreme weather, income inequality, collapsing trust in public institutions—challenges that affect people on one continent also affect people on the other side of the globe.

Yet for all our apparent devotion to innovation, decision makers in the Global North seem entirely resistant to adopting solutions that weren’t born there, too.

So goes the argument by charismatic ‘ideas activist’ Bright Simons, whose celebrated public appearances have flown the flag for a more geographically equitable approach to problem solving.

Simons is the founder and president of mPedigree, an organisation that uses mobile and web technologies to secure products against counterfeiting and fakeries.

mPedigree has tackled the challenge of medical piracy in Africa, where one in 10 drugs are fake. It’s taken aim at the prevalence of fake or poor quality seeds sold to farmers in Kenya and the lack of good quality vaccine maintenance in Ghana.

The solution to all of these issues was rooted in the same theory: empowering the end user with a verification process they could use before the product was consumed. By working with major pharmaceutical organisations and regulators, individual codes were placed on each packet of medication or seeds. Consumers could text this code to a number, for free, and receive individual verification that the product was or wasn’t genuine.

The mPedigree solution has saved countless lives and livelihoods. But more fundamentally, it addressed a breakdown in trust in markets and institutions, which Simons stresses is every bit as important in the Global North as it is in the Global South.

“A quarter of all the seafood marketed in the US is falsely labeled,” Simons says in a TED talk, which has had over 1m views. “So when you buy a tuna or salmon sandwich in Manhattan, you are eating something that could be banned for being toxic in Japan.”

He continued: “Most of you have heard of a time when horsemeat was masquerading as beef in burger patties in Europe? What you don’t know is that a good chunk of these fake meat patties were also contaminated with cadmium, which can damage your kidneys.”

Tackling these issues could be as simple as deploying mPedrigree’s verification technology, which was readily accepted by both the public and private sector in Ghana and Nigeria. But he says the idea has trouble scaling because of the latitude on which it was born—a phenomenon he dubs “mental latitude imperialism.”

“And that is why it is not surprising that attempts to create this same verification models for pharmaceuticals are now a decade behind in the USA and Europe, while it’s already available in Nigeria,” Bright Simons adds in the TED talk. “A decade, and costing a hundred times more.

“And that is why, when you walk into a Walgreens in New York, you cannot check the source of your medicine, but you can in Maiduguri in Northern Nigeria. That is the reality.”

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