JOHANNESBURG - Adebayo “Ade” Alonge is the Nigerian co-founder of RxAll, a platform which provides patients in the developing world with authenticated and verified medicines.

Prior to this, Alonge was a strategy consultant with the Boston Consulting Group, and before that, he spent eight years working for multinational pharmaceutical firms Sanofi, Roche and BASF.

In a recent podcast interview for African- TechRoundup.com, Alonge unpacked the state of play within Africa’s pharmaceutical mass market and talked me through how RxAll is enabling direct access to affordable, high-quality medicines while helping to reshape drug purchasing habits within markets rife with counterfeit products.

As RxAll’s chief executive, Alonge is leveraging his valuable corporate experience, as well as his Lagos Business School MBA and Yale Advanced Management Master's degre, to address the fake drug problem in the developing world.

Before he unpacked RxAll’s ambitious aspirations, I asked Alonge to explain why - perhaps for good reason - multinational pharmaceutical companies generally have an unsavoury reputation. He cited two possible reasons, the first being their role in the pricing of drugs.

According to Alonge, it can take up to two decades and billions of dollars in development costs to identify useful molecules through complex chemical research and successfully bring them to market. Drug manufacturers have come to rely on elaborate intellectual property (IP) laws to keep imitators at bay while they recover their development costs over fixed patent periods - which typically span 10 to 15 years.

Technically, during that period no generic or biosimilar drugs are allowed to compete for a share of the market. The companies argue that without this protection, they would not be able to run sustainable and, more importantly, profitable businesses. However, there is a widely held perception that this dynamic renders consumers vulnerable to exploitation and gives drug companies free rein to make obscene profits off humanity’s misery.

This PR problem isn’t helped by the fact that as patent periods near their close, Big Pharmas shamelessly spend hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbying efforts to keep generic drugs from entering the market and disrupting their control over pricing.

The second reputational issue that Alonge believes the pharmaceutical industry is grappling with is the trend towards investment heads from the financial services industry assuming large interests within big pharmaceuticals and putting the maximisation of shareholder value ahead of humanity’s best interests.

He believes that this is what is behind the numerous consolidation drives that are now commonplace in the global industry, leading to ever more dubious attempts to aggressively exploit the inelastic demand of certain niche, sought-after drugs that the world can’t do without.

Citing the Johannesburg-based Health Economics and Epidemiology Research Office’s modelling work which informed the South African Department of Health’s (DOH) recent decision to replace efavirenz (EFV) with the better-tolerated dolutegravir (DTG) as the first-line antiretroviral therapy (ART) regimen for adult patients with HIV, I asked Alonge to comment on Big Pharma’s interactions with national public health authorities on the continent.

He said most African countries had come to rely on the intermediation services provided by non-profit organisations (NPOs) - like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation - to secure the best possible bulk-pricing for drugs distributed through national public health systems.

Of course, NPOs like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others maintain that they have to have a vested interest in protecting African citizens from the otherwise unbridled profit motives of large pharmaceuticals.

However, in most African countries, not least Alonge’s homeland of Nigeria, people have learned to make do with meagre public healthcare infrastructure to meet their basic medical needs and to cope with next to none for more complex medical requirements.

Hence, like most African nations, Nigeria has a booming private healthcare industry and a thriving informal parallel market which cater to Nigerians looking to source everything from malaria medication and infant vaccines to chronic diabetes and cancer drugs.

According to the World Health Organisation's estimates, fake anti-malarial drugs alone result in the deaths of more than 120000 Africans every year.

In Nigeria, as in many other sub-Saharan African countries, fake and stolen drugs are openly sold in the streets and by unregistered dispensing pharmacies.

That’s why RxAll is intent on providing consumers with safe, high-quality medicines at affordable prices. Alonge’s hunch is that the pharmaceutical industry’s estimate of the rampancy of counterfeit drugs on the continent - 30% of all drugs - is off by at least 20% and could be as high as 60%.

The founding team at RxAll has developed and deployed a proprietary artificial intelligence (AI) spectrometer and a cloud-based algorithm to help pharmaceutical manufacturers and RxAll customers ensure that all drugs sold through their digital pharmacy platform and via their network of off-line affiliate pharmacies are genuine.

Patients can also order authenticated drugs online for direct deliveries or for pick-up at any close-by network pharmacy.

RxAll is currently negotiating licensing deals for the use of their spectrometer with various pharmaceutical interests - both manufacturers and pharmacy chains - in developing markets, such as Malaysia.

According to Alonge, the ground-level drug-supply dynamics of Malaysia and many other Asian countries largely mirror that of Nigeria.

Meanwhile, in the coming months, RxAll is poised to roll out their digital pharmacy platform in Kenya, following a cash injection of an undisclosed amount, courtesy of a Kenyan angel investor.

These two developments pretty much sum up RxAll’s aspirations in terms of growth. Their motivation to save lives by helping to permanently change the way Africans source and purchase medicines ticks all the boxes in terms of impact, while their decidedly global outlook in terms of scaling the business across the rest of the developing world speaks to their desire to cash in big time.

Andile Masuku is a broadcaster and entrepreneur based in Johannesburg. He is the executive producer at AfricanTechRoundup.com. Follow him on Twitter @MasukuAndile and The African Tech Round-up @africanroundup.

- BUSINESS REPORT