Growing up in Ghana, Ashifi Gogo was amazed that he could surf the Internet on his mobile phone from anywhere, but couldn't always get clean tap water to drink. The only state-of-the-art infrastructure we have is our cellphone network, said Gogo, a 28-year-old Dartmouth College engineering graduate, who co-founded Sproxil Inc., a cell-phone based drug authentication service. Gogo said the decision by many African nations to privatize the mobile industry has inadvertently created tremendous opportunities to help solve widespread problems such as counterfeiting. Gogo hopes Sproxil will help end the menace of counterfeit drugs in Africa and other developing nations. The following is Gogo's personal five-day entrepreneur journal, exclusively for Reuters.com:
By Ashifi Gogo
Day 1: Monday, March 8
Please hire me - I majored in neurobiology, I love research and I'll work for $0.
Sproxil's brand seems to attract great talent in a way that's rather affordable! You can do a lot with a small team of highly-skilled and motivated people.
Our new Boston-based intern has quite a bit to do. The field of counterfeit medication research is rather young. There are some leading scholars at the American Enterprise Institute and Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Center and first-rate anti-counterfeit practitioners all over the developing world. I'm confident they'll all agree that good data is hard to come by. We need good data to objectively assess Sproxil's social and financial returns to investors, clients and public-sector partners. This is where our Harvard-trained intern comes in.
Today is also India day - I speak with our CFO and strategy czar, Mr. Alden Zecha, on our efforts in India to expand our client base. Nigeria and India are natural partners in the fight against counterfeits. India ships drugs to more than 150 countries worldwide, and one of the largest countries it ships to is Nigeria. Both the Nigerian and Indian FDAs have worked closely on clamping down on counterfeit trade recently.
Day 2: Tuesday, March 9
Today we got a top-notch Nigerian intern right from secondary school. Our Lagos office welcomed him and put him right to work. The young man, set to impress, heads out to observe consumer purchasing behavior at a number of Lagos pharmacies in upscale Ikoyi, down to the more accessible Yaba. Hours pass, it's getting dark. Did we scare him away?
Our Nigerian subsidiary's board chairman tells us of the golden '50s in Nigeria, where students had interesting inventions and Nigerians were known for ingenuity, hard work and sheer entrepreneurship. Over half a decade later, I wonder if such an era might return. Our intern might give me a tiny window to peer into the world of Africa's next generation. Yes, the one that grew up texting through dinner.
Later in the evening, I get in touch with contacts developed during our exhibition at the world's largest congress on mobile phones in Barcelona last month. The mHealth Alliance is gaining a lot of traction as a convening voice for the use of mobiles to solve pressing health problems both in developing and developed societies - it was a pleasure working with them to showcase mHealth in Spain.
Oh, yes, almost forgot about our intern! He did return - but I'm out of room to tell his story. I'll post it on our blog www.sproxil.com/blog/ then. Cheerio.
Day 3: Wednesday, March 10
I bump into a reporter in Nigeria as I head to a business meeting. Lots of doom and gloom. The president is invisible. Riots in nearby Jos. States demanding deregulation of fuel prices. Oil-rich Niger Delta on fire again... I wonder, any good news?
Granted, there are several significant challenges for small business owners in Nigeria, but they are not insurmountable. Sure you'll have to work harder, but with the right partners hard work pays off, even in Nigeria. We work closely with the telecom companies, and as suppliers of telephony services to 70 million people in Nigeria, they are doing quite well financially. Amidst the issues raised above, multinational phone companies in Africa's $38 billion mobile services market (2007, Portio Research) have been posting large turnovers from selling phone airtime to the world's poor, one $1 scratch-off card at a time for the last decade.
Nigeria hardens you as an entrepreneur. When you're done with MBA classes in the air-conditioned classroom, come practice here.
Day 4: Thursday, March 11
Wake up, fire up my beat up netbook. My email client hides behind Windows XP's hourglass as several dozen messages are downloaded. I head straight for the email on one of our suppliers. What happens when your key supplier lets you down at the last minute? This is Nigeria - you need a plan D.
Not everyone makes a good scratch-off card with great consistency, and as we're ordering in large numbers, we could end up with a million-Naira mistake. How much is that in USD, you wonder? Doesn't matter. Letting down a major pharma company could easily make this a million-dollar problem. Not good.
Fortunately for us, there are a number of great local options for making scratch-cards. Upon realizing how large the security printing market could be in Nigeria, the government nudged some of the leading printers to set up shop locally. This has helped us diversify our scratch-off card supplier base.
Consumers are increasingly on the lookout for our anti-counterfeit scratch-off labels. According to a pharmacist visited by Sproxil's field vigilance group, consumers were not buying old stock (products without our labels). Without our scratch-off labels, they can't tell if it's a genuine or fake drug. A quick call to the genuine drug distributor and presto, new stock on the shelf, it's win-win. Consumers get genuine drugs; legitimate brand owners get rewarded and regulators are happy. It's all good.
Day 5: Friday, March 12
This is a very exciting day. A couple weeks ago we sent out a number of consultants to canvas Nigeria, visiting health facilities in rural areas in each of Nigeria's 36 states as part of our activities supporting Africa's largest-ever global health project. Last year, the federal government of Nigeria received a $250-million grant to dramatically increase the availability of malaria commodities to the country's 150 million people. If all goes well, insecticide- treated nets, Artesunate Combination Therapy (ACT) antimalarial drugs and malaria Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) kits will be as pervasive as the malaria-causing killer mosquitoes themselves.
But all is not going well with the Nigerian drug supply chain. A couple of weeks and several hundred pages of surveys later, our consultants sit across the table with gloomy faces. One by one, they start painting a picture of a broken and highly-fragmented supply chain. I watch patiently as they take turns to finish Mr. Broken Supply Chain's portrait, in rather exquisite detail. We roll up our sleeves, fold up the canvas and get to work crafting solutions for this specific problem.
What's going to happen when the malaria commodities come in a few weeks?