Bright Simons, mPedigree: “The geopolitics of standards play a significant role in how innovation-focused organisations can have agency”
Bright Simons, a patent-holding enterprise technology inventor, is the President of mPedigree, an award-winning technology social enterprise reinventing the supply chain on three continents to enhance patient and consumer safety in such vital categories as medicines and agro-inputs. He previously served on the World Economic Forum's Africa Strategy Group. He is also honorary Vice President at IMANI Center for policy and education, a Ghanaian think tank dedicated to policy and research on rule of law, market growth and development, individual rights, and human security and institutional development.
This interview is also available in French.
As a CEO of an African tech company and multiple patent holder, how does the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China (and also Europe) affect your business and how do you forge partnerships?
Our company mPedigree has operations in China. In terms of our work, we primarily specialize in supply chain transformation. Initially, we aimed to address the issue of counterfeit life-impacting products, starting with counterfeit medicines. In time, we expanded our focus to the broader issues of trust in the supply chain, how to enable it and harness it for innovation and productivity, whilst multiplying the categories of products we protect. China is a significant source of both counterfeit and legitimate medicines in Africa, making it crucial for us to collaborate with pharmaceutical companies and Chinese technology subcontractors. One of our key contributions is helping manufacturing companies apply unique identifiers, such as RFID, EMID or serialized security labels, to track products as they move through the supply chain. A significant portion of these track and trace technologies is produced in China, and India. We procure part of our supply of these tagging devices from our partners in China and provide them to our pharmaceutical, agro-input and other clients in India, China and elsewhere who apply them on the packaging of products for onward shipping to Africa.
Additionally, we work closely with some large American pharmaceutical companies, but more predominantly with European companies in the pharmaceutical industry, such as Sanofi, F. Hoffmann-La Roche, and Novartis. We integrate our solutions with their production processes in various locations, including Morocco, India, South Africa, Europe, and the U.S. In the agricultural sector, we collaborate with companies like Bayer and Syngenta to track and trace food products in Africa and South Asia. These collaborations involve applying specialised markings or tags to the outer packaging, allowing customers to interact with them and providing valuable supply chain data.
Working with Western companies, especially in the area of intellectual property (IP) protection, has presented challenges. While we've tried partnerships with companies like Hewlett Packard (HP) and Xerox, the complexities of IP joint leverage and market deployment sometimes hindered the full flow of collaboration. For example, HP was keen on working with us in India but not very much so in China due to concerns of intellectual property leakage. In contrast, we found working with Asian companies more favourable due to their experience with strategic IT alliances and a history of signing agreements that constrain their actions—a strategy I could term as “strategic humility”. Europe remains an important market for us, particularly serving European pharmaceutical companies that emphasise quality assurance and inspections in Indian and Chinese factories. But big European companies are not very used to IP partnerships with African companies.
We had to arbitrate between the various conformance expectations between our Asian and European partners. For instance, while the Asians have their own internal standards, they also subscribe to ISO, GS1 and other similar supply chain impacting standards. However, based on our experience, when it comes to the practical implementation of these standards, they are not always as harmonious as they may initially appear. The interpretation of ISO standards can vary based on the environment in which they are implemented. As a result, we have had to navigate these mediation issues between European companies and Indian manufacturers, as well as between Chinese and American manufacturers. This experience demonstrated to us that so-called global standards for traceability and supply chain management like ISO or GS1 can often exhibit Western-leaning hegemonic tendencies and may need updating to stay relevant. Implementing these standards in Africa sometimes faces scrutiny from American consultants and advisors who question deviations from the standard. Moreover, we have come to believe that Africa has been at the forefront of traceability since 2010, evident from our systems enabling tracking of pharmaceutical products all the way from factories to patients in Nigeria. This achievement surpasses what has so far been attained in the U.S. or the UK due to a more streamlined coordination process and a willingness to experiment and learn. Standards have emerged agilely from the ground up. It is in this light that sometimes, GS1's overbearing presence can pose challenges as local systems, developed independently, struggle to align with Western-centric models. This issue is apparent in India, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia, where efforts to impose Western-biased standards and supply chain systems frequently clash with prevailing local realities and capacities. The geopolitics of standards significantly impact these dynamics, despite the progress made in African and Indian contexts. The influence of so-called global best practices, which tend to be imposed through raw commercial power, and often from a Western-centric standpoint, whilst being marketed as self-evidently superior, perpetuates the struggle.
In simple terms, the geopolitics of standards play a significant role in how innovation-focused organisations like ours can have agency in developing appropriate solutions in local markets for local problems. The hegemony of Western-centric models, particularly in global compliance systems, can hinder local innovations and impede progress. With billions of dollars in grants and other resources from international development agencies that pay lip-service to “localization”, whilst handing over 90% of money supposedly earmarked for “African development” to western consultants and contractors, the “ideas hegemony of development” becomes ever more entrenched. Africa and India have made strides in traceability and supply chain innovation, for instance, yet such progress is routinely ignored by the purse-holders in the development landscape who prefer to treat the Global South as a barren landscape for cultivation of Northern ideas and “standards”.
Considering the clash between international standards and local standards that are developing independently, are there any avenues for African tech companies to benefit from this situation? How can they seize these opportunities, and what precautions should private sector actors take, based on your experience?
Let's focus on the discussion about fintech and innovation in Africa. Fintech is the fastest growing segment of digital innovation on the continent. In terms of the payment ecosystem, there are big players like MasterCard and Visa, which are heavily influenced by Western, predominantly American, standards and regulations, particularly regarding anti-money laundering and counterterrorism measures. These standards are designed in the West and therefore gravitate towards Western-centric interests on what is considered risky for the financial system. International watchdogs such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) operate on these standards.
The FATF’s grey listing of Nigeria and South Africa, just to cite one recent incident, introduced an array of complexities for African fintech startups, who are frantically trying to balance agile, locally deft, responses with cookie-cutter risk management templates from elsewhere. When entrepreneurs in Africa try to build fintech startups, they naturally face challenges when connecting to the global systems dominated by these big players. Furthermore, since the databases and risk management systems are designed based on Western standards, local startups without significant investment struggle to operate. Without a robust venture capital ecosystem in Africa, many early stage fintech companies struggle to scale and compete with well-funded players.
To overcome these challenges, African startups have two options. They can focus on areas that are not easily platform-able, such as healthcare, agriculture, education, and national security. By building local platforms that cater to specific needs and contexts, they can operate more efficiently and at lower costs. Alternatively, they can embed themselves in global practices and seek investment from Western venture capitalists who understand the Western-centric risk-reward functions in highly platform-able areas like payments and financial services. While embedding in global structures can lead to rapid scaling, global marketing and fundraising challenges are often a barrier only a few elite entrepreneurs in Africa can handle. Not surprisingly, the funded venture-backed innovation ecosystem on the continent has now merely reproduced the worst forms of elitism found in places like Silicon Valley. Soon, a cottage industry in “inclusiveness” will spring up to correct what, perhaps, could have been avoided from the start.
Meanwhile, the global landscape itself continues to evolve. As digital platforms become more dominant, there is a growing tension between global platforms and local solutions. The introduction of standardised taxation and regulatory systems, driven by organisations like the OECD, may level the playing field and make it easier for global platforms like Facebook or Google to enter local markets and outcompete smaller players in various industries, such as fintech. Therefore, African startups need to consider the evolving landscape and find the right balance between local innovation and global integration.
Another side of this clash between local and international standards, and the resultant opportunities for African startups has to do with the role of the public sector in platformisation efforts. In areas such as social media and digital connectivity, the public sector is increasingly regulating these platforms due to concerns like addiction, cyberbullying, and illegal content. The question remains as to whether regulation may slow down the degree of platformisation in these areas. What we have done at my company is that we have found ways to work with the government and embed regulatory measures into their architecture from the beginning.
For example, we developed a platform for agricultural practice and data management called AgroTrack in collaboration with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), a large regional bloc made up of 21 African member states. Our aim was to establish a regional platform that enables seamless digital data flow and analysis to address concerns like food security and quality assurance across borders. After a successful trial in Kenya, COMESA requested for the platform to be extended across the bloc. By working with strategic partners to integrate seed regulators like the Kenyan Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) and the Malawian Seed Services Unit (SSU) into the system, a platform emerges to ensure that agricultural products meet regulatory standards right at the start. These governmental authorities issue the certificates of seed quality through the platform and in a format that farmers can verify using their mobile phones. This approach, which I would refer to as “oversolving”, reduces friction that we might have encountered if we had opted to do it alone, focusing on the most profitable segment of the problem (industry needs) and navigating regulatory obstacles as they emerged. My view is that social innovation platforms often need to oversolve from the beginning, anticipating regulatory pressures and incorporating public sector elements into their models. AgroTrack further creates a feedback loop between farmers, regulators, and the platform, reducing issues such as low-quality products slipping through inspections and improving issue tracking. The oversolving approach may initially be slower but offers more stability and reduces fluctuations as the platform scales.
By contrast, traditional, global platforms aim to “undersolve” problems and maximize returns. It is a limitation of global platforms that African entrepreneurs must be aware of and seek opportunities to arbitrage. This involves identifying areas where oversolving can provide unique benefits and creating digital extensions or specialised services that exploit this undersolving tendencies of global platforms. African entrepreneurs with a deep understanding and mastery of the specific needs and challenges of local contexts can bridge gaps between local and global networks and create opportunities for collaboration between the public and private sectors.
In the context of geopolitical rivalry, efforts have been made to convince major global players to partner with local entrepreneurs in extending their services. Management approaches to oversolve or undersolve can be seen in the Chinese-American dynamic in terms of how American investors interested in China’s tech landscape routinely find that only local operators can “solve across” the unique constraints imposed by the communist system. Then there is the issue of “transmediation”, how deep local relationships and insights allow a category of ecosystem enabler to emerge who doesn’t merely connect local to global but also create the conditions for local to become global and global to become local. Take the payments industry for example, to avoid direct involvement in highly domestic and sensitive mobile money markets, firms like MasterCard and Visa strike agreements with local entrepreneurs who create digital extensions to bridge the local mobile money system to their global platforms. Increasingly, however, these entrepreneurs are realising that the unique value they bring can manifest in the form of “translocal corridors” between Global North and South countries that only they can create and sustain. From another perspective, consider the case of Alibaba in e-commerce. This Asian giant has demonstrated over many years that the success of their approach in Africa lies in their ability to oversolve issues specific to African commerce operators, rather than relying on the overstandardization of platforms like it happens with Amazon. By designing around risk, developing escrow mechanisms, and providing innovative logistical management approaches, Alibaba found earlier success in Africa than the Global North platforms. African entrepreneurs can also identify arbitrage opportunities that align with the specific needs of their region, become transmediators and oversolve where necessary to develop unique value-add. I think that opportunities to do so will increase as we go forward.
Regarding the outcomes of African government negotiations with local and international partners on large-scale digital projects (e.g., in Ghana: national addressing system, Ghana.gov, Ghana Card system, SIM-registration, GhanaPostGPS) what are African governments doing right and what is not working in your opinion?
Well, because I'm an activist, I'm often more inclined to focus on what is not going right, because only then can I mobilise citizens to act. So, I appreciate the fact that you started off with what is going right, which is a brilliant way of getting me to reconsider my routines and think differently. I think what is going right is, first of all, the focus on quality. If we consider the Ghana card system, it is widely regarded as the highest quality card we've had in a very long time in terms of its features. They have globalised their standards and adopted best practices in every department. Various companies, including CryptoVision, were brought together to create the best-in-class PKI (Public Key Infrastructure) and other necessary components. This reflects the growing allure of global standards and worldwide collaboration even in local problem-solving.
However, it's worth mentioning a contrasting example from India. The former Infosys boss Nandan Nilekani, who conceived and architected Aadhaar, emphasized the need to build something specifically for the Indian market, rather than replicating ID card systems from around the world. He aimed to address the unique challenges faced in India, rather than focusing solely on standardisation. In Ghana's case, it seems that we have overinvested in the solution, partly due to a lack of understanding. Entrepreneur Moses Baiden and his Margins Group [The [Ghana Card ID system] is run through a public-private partnership between Ghana’s National Identification Authority and subsidiaries of Margins ID Group, Intelligent Card Production Systems (ICPS) and Identity Management Systems (IMS) - (Moses Baiden Jr, CEO of Margins ID Group)] were very persuasive in convincing the government to pursue a particular approach of high dependence on international contractors to attain so-called global standards, resulting in a project lifecycle cost of $1.2 billion. However, there are concerns that this amount may even double due to ongoing cost inflation. Crafted as a public-private partnership, the Ghana Card project is now expected to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the private investors even though there is virtually no civil identification project of this nature anywhere in the world that has such a high expectation of financial return. In recent months, the private contractor has literally disrupted timelines for certain public programs because they were owed tens of millions of dollars.
One of the issues we face in Ghana's policymaking is the lack of proper documentation and understanding. Parliament has not thoroughly reviewed the matter, and there is a potential for a significant problem in the future. Cost inflation may lead to tensions between the government and the private partner. For example, the private partner claims that the government owes them $170 million, and they have withheld 3.5 million ID cards to prevent their use. They have also demanded millions of dollars in fees from state organisations that were forced to mesh their identification systems with the Ghana Card network. This situation demonstrates a classic and intensifying vendor lock-in problem, where the system cannot be operated despite large previous payments to the vendor. Not only does the problem highlight the complexities of the public-private partnership model and the heavily outsourced nature of the system, especially considering the security, privacy, and data protection concerns involved, but it also sheds more light on how the monetisation of proprietary “global standards” can disrupt local agency.
Some analysts also worry about the fact that of the data generated by the Ghana Card program was heavily controlled by the contractor, whose infrastructure was heavily dependent on licenses from overseas corporations. Although the contractor may be brilliant, they played a mostly integrator role and many of the capacities, especially in software and cryptography, was entirely dependent on proprietary systems owned by overseas companies due to the need to align completely with global standards. One great irony of the global standards regime is that though many of the actual standards are said to be open, they are developed in such an arcane manner that most systems considered to be compliant tend to be proprietary to Global North corporations. The ownership of critical IP (Intellectual Property) thus attain a geopolitical character. Ghana's attempt to build value-added layers on top of the Ghana Card stack has faced resistance from various quarters. For instance, the Ministry of Communications has opposed using the system for mobile SIM card registration due to an inability to align the interests of its preferred vendor and those behind the Ghana Card. The ironic consequence is that even though the government frequently touts the consolidating power of the Ghana Card, and even embarked on a hilarious attempt to have it supplant the Ghanaian passport for international travel purposes, Ghana's digital space is becoming more fragmented in certain vital respects, as different government departments learn from the Ghana Card experience in onboarding private contractors keen on maximising profit by building public-private stacks on proprietary engines.
While private sector involvement in building the country's digital infrastructure and ecosystem is not inherently bad, it requires careful governance and clear policies. In the US, for example, the defence industry is private, but laws and policies ensure that in technical matters they are subservient to the state, and that, when it comes to risk management and critical decision-making, a public interest override mechanism exists. In Ghana's case, such control and oversight seem to be thoroughly lacking, even more so because vendors hide behind so-called “international standards” to architect solutions beyond the jurisdictional scope of local regulatory power. Consequently, there is a lack of strategic flexibility on the part of the government, and issues of system abuse and policy vacuum keep emerging. Access control policies, as well as rules and regulations for data access, are not properly established or documented, leading to challenges in enforcing proper testing and accountability, such as determining who has access to certain data or call records.
In summary, while there are positive aspects to these projects, such as a growing focus on quality and global standards, there are very significant challenges and shortcomings in the implementation of the PPP model for the Ghana card system, and a thorough misunderstanding of the nuances of “global standards capitalism”. The lack of documentation, strategic oversight, and clear policies that collectively undermine local agency, resulting in potential mission-critical failures and vulnerabilities, are merely symptoms of a deeper malaise of overdependency on foreign design thinking and proprietary “solution norms” masquerading as “global standards”. It is essential to properly understand the underlying cognitive gaps if Global South countries like Ghana are to ensure effective governance, protection of data, and proper functioning of such civil infrastructure.
What new ways of thinking about institutions and the role of ecosystem actors are needed to address intractable governance issues in some of the areas we have been discussing? What are the stakes at hand in your view?
I wrote an article recently in which I discussed a concept called transmediation. However, I admit that I haven't defined or operationalized it well. Transmediation refers to a valuable concept that challenges the traditional understanding of the sufficient role of intermediaries in creating viable ecosystems, in socioeconomic terms. While most people perceive the role of intermediaries that bridge the key actors in any ecosystem as sufficient for maintaining stability, this is in fact rarely the case. Ecosystems often require another class of enablers, those that I call “transmediaries”, to go beyond mere intermediation in order to agilely facilitate the emergence of adaptive norms accepted by other actors. The critical need for transmediaries become very apparent in public-private-civil systems where government agencies, private corporations and civil society/non-profit groups are equal stakeholders in ensuring the legitimacy, viability and stability within the ecosystem. Transmediaries do not only find transactional incentives to allow one actor, say a government agency, to do business with another, say a private corporation, as most intermediaries do. Often they are central to the emergence of the normative toolkit that shapes what transactions are possible and desirable in the first place.
As a social entrepreneurial activist, I have often played the transmediary role in the systems I've been part of, such as in Malawi, where I worked with the likes of Traction to immerse deeply in policy design and prioritizing the common good over immediate private sector interests within the agro-inputs sector. In the early years of the last decade, a similar role was played in generating a whole new framework for how to deal with low quality medicines in Nigeria. It was not an easy position, as it required shifting focus and dealing with conflicting priorities. Increasingly, nonprofits are being called upon in ecosystems to provide the rubric for “new ways of doing business” but if such non-profits cannot provide financially self-sustaining systems then the problem of “maintenance” can lead to atrophy. There are many such cross-industry initiatives convened by non-profits that have withered and become zombies. Consulting companies also get involved but fee structures can be hard to figure out. I find that as social entrepreneurial transmediary systems builders have a certain advantage as they can directly capture some of the value that accrete in the new ecosystem due to the interlocking synergies. And, of course, there is more accountability this way too, as without consistent value-creation the transmediary cannot even persist in that role.
Transmediaries are crucial and can be exemplified by organizations like GS1, Marine Stewardship Council, and Soil Association, all international NGOs, that act as custodians of “solution norms” and uses standard-settingstrategies to bring together private and public actors to find solutions that benefit everyone, thus entrenching ecosystems. With the rise of platforms and the need for intense interconnectivity across very heterogenous actors, transmediaries become super essential, especially in areas like agriculture and health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we witnessed collaborations between MasterCard, Africa CDC, Afreximbank, and the creation of the African Medicine Supply Platform (AMSP), which aimed to address healthcare supply shortages. Although MasterCard played a catalytic role, it couldn't fully transition from an intermediary to a transmediary-type entity due to the constraints of its mandate and limited influence over other parts of the system. Nevertheless, the platform highlighted the need to extend platform logic to bridge existing divides.<?p>
The new “digital divide” we are seeing in the world today encompasses aspects of our lives that cannot be fully addressed by platforms but still require platform plasticization to increase efficiency, transaction efficiency, and reduce costs. For instance, the African Medicine Supply Platform had the potential to cut healthcare delivery costs by allowing continent-wide procurement and the leveraging of bargaining power to reduce medicine prices. However, achieving this requires more than just intermediaries like MasterCard and Jango. Transmediaries are necessary to maintain system stability by actively engaging governments and lobbying for collaborative efforts, in the process of crafting wholly novel incentive structures. The difficulties of doing this through the traditional catalytic and intermediary approaches was well demonstrated by the challenges faced in Nigeria's political landscape by AMSP. Ultimately, the absence of large countries like Nigeria from the platform as active participants has slowed its growth.
To solve these complex problems, a polycentric and multi-stakeholder approach is crucial, but there must be actors whose primary motivation, incentive payoff and competence area, lie in the task of connecting the stakeholders and evolving the mechanisms of collaboration. These so-named transmediaries are instrumental in maintaining system stability and addressing gaps. Societal groups need to recognize and embrace the role of transmediation, similar to how organizations like the ICANN operated at birth as transmediary entities in the highly specialized domain of the internet where new norms were both vital and hard to attribute. That a system as complex as the modern internet, fraught with so much geopolitical and “global standards” rivalries, is managed by a private entity functioning as a transmediary, although in a highly contained context, is not a fact that is widely appreciated. But it should be. Acknowledging and leveraging the power of transmediaries can significantly contribute to addressing many of the wicked problems that defy the moribund multilateral institutions inherited from the post-world war II grand settlement. Problems such as ecological collapse (including climate), illicit trade & trafficking, and deepening economic inequality in various contexts.
This interview is part of the Negotiating Africa’s digital partnerships: interview series led by Dr Folashade Soule with African senior policymakers, ministers, private and civic actors to shed a light on how African actors build, negotiate and manage strategic partnerships in the digital sector in a context of geopolitical rivalry. The series is part of the Negotiating Africa’s digital partnerships policy research project hosted at the Global Economic Governance programme (University of Oxford) and supported by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).