Onitsha; a city in South-Eastern Nigeria, is home to perhaps one of Africa’s largest population of traders and artisans. Come daylight or nightfall, rains or shine; the famous Onitsha Main Market is a beehive of activities as scores of people and goods can be seen trying to find their way through a gridlock of human bodies.
Businessmen in endless rows of shops, market women in stalls, hawkers milling about with their wares on their heads or in wheelbarrows, roadside sellers displaying their wares on tables or on sacks spread over the ground while still hoping for the day’s first sale even after dusk, trucks being loaded and unloaded by the ‘agboros’ in workmanlike fashion, and of course, the unscrupulous elements walking aimlessly and waiting to pounce on the slightest whiff of laxity or novice – that’s just a typical day in Onitsha.
People from various parts of Nigeria and even beyond throng Onitsha for all sorts of reasons. The city is as famous for its commercial appeal as it is notorious for being the hub of counterfeit products. And unsuspecting first-timers are left with tales of woe more often than not.
Perhaps the most damning case of the spate of counterfeit products in the market is the proliferation of fake drugs.
Unwholesome medicines are still a problem in Nigeria and this is not helped by the fact that drugs are sold in traditional marketplaces instead of licensed pharmacies.
And in Onitsha lies the country’s largest open, unregulated drug market where just about anyone can visit and get a fix of just about anything.
Although the menace was somewhat curtailed by the vigorous crusade of the early 2000s led by Dr. Dora Akunyili, of blessed memory – the then Director-General of the country’s National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) – the situation still creates a haven for the distribution of fake medicines which have injurious consequences on the health of unsuspecting buyers.
The late DG oversaw a raid of the drug market in Onitsha which led to the confiscation and destruction of counterfeit drugs worth hundreds of billions of naira during her time at the agency. But it is still worrying that even after her departure from the agency in 2008 and unfortunate demise six years after, around NGN 29 Bn (USD 80 Mn) worth of counterfeit drugs were still reported to have been destroyed between 2015 and 2017 in Nigeria, with the Onitsha drug market, again, accounting for a sizeable chunk of that.
Enough about the problem, though – how about we talk solutions? And how fitting is it that a group of schoolgirls from the same city has come up with an ideal one?
Onitsha certainly doesn’t get as many mentions as the usual suspects when it comes to tech innovations in Nigeria, and understandably so – the city is more about trade and commerce – but it does feel refreshing for once, to take a break from all the talk of business and dab into tech.
Teenagers; Jessica Osita, Promise Nnalue, Nwabuaku Ossai, Adaeze Onuigbo, and Vivian Okoye, are all students of Regina Pacis Secondary School, Onitsha, in Anambra State, who became the toast of all and sundry when they went all the way to Silicon Valley last year and brought home the gold.
These five girls are members of ‘Save-A-Soul;’ the only African team which participated in last year’s Technovation Challenge which took place in the United States, and they saw off stiff competition from other teams from China, Spain, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and even the host country, to become global champions in the junior category of the competition. And you might be able to guess what innovation took them all the way.
The Technovation program mentors young girls around the globe on how to use technology to solve problems in their communities and the girls coasted to victory in the global competition on the backs of an idea founded on curbing the menace of counterfeit drugs in Nigeria. They developed FD-Detector; an app that detects fake drugs.
The journey started when the team’s mentor, Mrs. Uche Onwuamaegbu-Ugwu, was shown up on a trip abroad. She was attending an educational summit and was captivated at the STEM and Robotic models she came across in an exhibition stand, and at the same time embarrassed for not knowing the first thing about them.
The educator feared for the fate and future of the children under her care and many others back home. So she channeled that inner apprehension into something productive by importing that STEM culture into her homeland.
Uche returned to Nigeria and in her capacity as an educator; she set up Edufun Technik Hub. She founded the institution on the idea of taking STEM and Robotics education materials to different schools to bring young students up to speed. And Team Save-A-Soul was put together in one of those schools that she had sought out.
The girls had shown quite an aptitude and appetite for what the educator served up and when the chance to compete came along, the girls were willing participants. With permission, they put in three hours three times a week into working on various projects. But it was the chance to compete by coming up with a technology-driven social impact idea that indeed brought out their inner genius.
Their brainstorming sessions involved identifying societal problems that demanded solutions and one a casual walk around a mall near their ‘war room,’ the idea hit them.
They discovered a counterfeit drug problem and further discussions with a pharmacist in the mall gave them further insight. They also learned of the efforts of NAFDAC to curb the problem with its Mobile Authentication Service, as well as the pitfalls and loopholes of the technology.
In an effort to solve the problem, they opted for something different and innovative – an app that uses 2D barcode technology to verify drug authenticity and expiration dates.
They decided to furnish the barcode with two layers of information; one that will be visible to the human eye and another that can only be read by anyone using their app.
They put in several months of work into designing and developing the app, as well as putting together a good pitch, and in May 2018, they traveled from Onitsha to Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, for the regionals.
Their victory in the regionals won them several commendations and accolades from prominent figures in both Nigeria and beyond but they were going to do one better. They rode the crest of that victory to Silicon Valley and won the global grand prize in the junior category – no mean feat!
The team is now looking to market its solution to big pharmaceutical companies to push the project through the design and development phase. Such companies would pay to have their drugs in the FD Detector Database.
Verifying drugs will only require scanning a barcode on the drug at the point of purchase with a mobile phone which has the app installed. No added piece of equipment, and no text messages. If adopted widely, it could help alleviate the country’s struggles with counterfeit medicines, and some 200 million people will have five teenagers to thank.
Featured Image Courtesy: CNN