The Contraband Economy and Counterfeit Medicine

counterfeit medicines in Africa are a problem
Empty bottles of medicine. It is estimated that up to 30 percent of all medicines available in Sub-Saharan Africa are counterfeit. Photo: U.S. Navy.

This work forms part of our work on the Stable Seas Maritime Security Index.

The scale of the global trade in counterfeit and pirated goods makes it stand out as one of the most lucrative illicit trade sectors. Estimates put this trade between $923 billion and $1.3 trillion in annual revenue. Counterfeit pharmaceuticals and medicines account for approximately 25 percent of this market and are valued at $70 to $200 billion annually.

To understand the scale of illicit trade in Africa, East Africa’s largest economy, Kenya, offers a useful illustration. According to 2011 estimates, Kenya’s illicit economy was worth $913.8 million. This figure rivals those of its well-established tourism, coffee, or tea sectors. The range of contraband includes vehicles and mobile phones as well as consumables such as foodstuffs and medicines.

On average, it is estimated that up to 30 percent of all medicines available in Sub-Saharan Africa are counterfeit. In the period 2002 to 2010, 59 percent of the anti-malarial medication monitored in Burkina Faso, Chad, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Senegal failed chemical analysis.

Much of this contraband is thought to emanate from China, Russia, and India. However, evidence also points to the growing importance of domestic production and supply markets. In Nigeria the problem is especially acute; recent reports indicate it is not uncommon for patients to wake up during surgery due to the proliferation of counterfeit anesthetics.


Sub-Saharan African countries and international development agencies are working to address the counterfeit-medicine challenge. And they have had some success.  Four law enforcement operations led by the World Customs Organization and the international Institute of Research Against Counterfeit Medicines in partnership with African countries have yielded significant successes – 78 percent of containers inspected were found to contain counterfeit medicines.

The seized counterfeit medicines included antibiotics and painkillers as well as anti-malarial, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and diabetes medications that posed a direct threat to human health. From 2012 to date, 869 million counterfeit medicine products have been seized in the four operations – worth an estimated $569 million at market prices.

Some critics argue that the challenge posed by counterfeit medicines should be viewed as a threat to a country’s national security. Only through improved governance, especially concerning the scaling up of maritime enforcement and port-side security capacity, will this challenge be effectively addressed.