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How tragedy inspired Medsaf co-founder to tackle Nigeria’s counterfeit drug crisis

Counterfeit drugs are a grave problem in Nigeria. Vivian Nwakah, a co-founder of healthtech startup Medsaf, knows this too well. Four years ago a friend of hers died after taking fake malaria medication.

The counterfeit drug crisis in the West African country came to a head this week with police carrying out raids on several street markets.

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On Monday, Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control called on Nigerians to assist the agency in its fight against counterfeit drugs by coming forward and reporting any forms of illegal drug production.

“I felt that that could have been anybody, it could have been me,” said Nwakah (pictured above), who lost her friend to counterfeit drugs.

She said that during the time, those who could were bringing “suitcases of medications” for their families and friends from outside the country.

After the loss of her friend she set about talking to drug manufacturers from around the world on their thoughts on the counterfeit drug crisis in Nigeria. She was particularly interested to know why these pharmaceutical companies weren’t providing drugs directly to the country.

Medsaf has signed up over 300 pharmacies and hospitals to its platform

“I talked to hospitals and pharmacies across the Lagos area to understand what their challenges were, if any, around purchasing or procuring medication,” she added.

Solving a disjointed supply chain

She discovered that underlying problem was one of a “disjointed chaotic supply chain issue”.

“Manufacturers have trouble getting their medication across the country, they have trouble with the lack of transparency and distribution, they have trouble with being able to control their brand and just being confident that their medication will not be adulterated with,” said Nwakah.

Hospitals and pharmacies also battle to secure medications. “They are working with 10, 20 sometimes over 70 or 100 various wholesale distributors to get all of the medication that they need,” she said. This ends up making the procurement process more expensive than it ought to be.

“You see leakage everywhere, so there really isn’t a really standardised way to control for quality. You don’t know where that medication you purchased actually came from,” she said.

In 2014 she founded Medsaf — a curated medication platform that connects pharmacies and hospitals with safe, cost effective medications — with Temitope Awosika, who has a background in industrial and clinical pharmacy.

Medsaf customers receive about $400 worth of medication per average purchase. The startup is currently generating between $15 000 and $20 000 per month.

“That’s just with about 50 or 60 hospitals that are purchasing from us. We have over 300 pharmacies and hospitals that have signed up to use our platform,” she said.

The startup’s biggest challenge has been raising money. Initially the founders ploughed in their own money. “A lot of the problems we do face, you can trace them to the lack of capital,” she said.

To date the startup has raised about $100 000 in funding and Nwakah and Awosika are looking to raise a further $150 000 to $200 000 to fund the platform.

Nwakah said the additional funding will be used towards improving the platform’s tech, systems and for on-boarding of more clients.

She said the success of the startup hinges on relationships and collaboration with drug manufacturers, hospitals and pharmacies, this she said has entails understanding how their stakeholders operate.

She believes the platform makes it easier for hospitals to provide better care to their patients and assists pharmacies to generate more sales.

“We are basically saying here’s an absolutely new way to distribute your medication in a way that nobody is really doing in Nigeria.

“We will actually help improve some of the things you struggle with, like making sure that your medication (is) the right price, making sure that they (medication) are reaching the end consumer in the correct manner,” she said.

Not just a Nigerian problem

She said the aim now is to expand the platform to other countries. While she mentioned Kenya as an attractive market, she is keen to focus on expanding to the rest of West Africa.

“The open drug markets of Nigeria they actually supply up to 60% of West Africa. So, we know that this problem is not just a Nigerian problem,” she said.

Ventureburn was a guest of Seedstars at last week’s Seedstars Africa regional summit which took place in Maputo, Mozambique.

Featured image: Medsaf co-founder Vivian Nwakah.

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