‘Local footprint’ is key to success tackling anti-counterfeiting in Africa
Forward Global’s head of illicit trade risk management on the unique challenges of combatting counterfeiters on the African continent
Counterfeiters are smart and can adapt to an evolving world with remarkable speed and agility, says Forward Global’s head of illicit trade risk management Vincent Helluy.
He was speaking to GLP ahead of the Anti-Counterfeiting World Law Summit on 18 October in London where he will be speaking on content and brand protection field operations in Africa.
Helluy has been working at the risk management company for almost 15 years, and heads Forward Global’s illicit trade division, providing clients with services to tackle piracy, counterfeiting and illicit trafficking.
Some 350-strong, Forward Global is mostly based in France, Brussels and Washington DC, it also has presence elsewhere including London, Geneva and Abidjan in the Côte d’Ivoire, in West Africa.
Helluy says its clients are not only in the ‘classic’ counterfeit target sectors of pharma and luxury, but also companies in, for example, the agrimaterials sector, impacted by the illicit trade in raw materials for things like wood and oil.
In some cases, Forward Global works solely with brands or their intellectual property (IP) counsel. In other instances, it collaborates with law enforcement agencies to support its clients’ cases. This may involve being present during operations upon request from law enforcement, assisting with forensic analysis on seized materials, or providing training on technical issues.
He points out that public authorities can also be clients. “For example, we’ve been tasked with preparing recommendations for the Innovation by Law Enforcement Agencies Networking (ILEAnet) initiative, which is funded by the EU with the aim of streamlining information-sharing among EU law enforcement agencies to enhance operational cooperation in combatting organised crime.”
He continues: “Additionally, we can serve as facilitators, helping brands connect with the appropriate enforcement bodies. We also contribute to the sharing of best practices within the industry through events we organise in Europe, North America and Africa.”
One such event is the InCyberForum on digital trust, which Forward Global coordinates in cooperation with law enforcement agencies.
To help clients fight counterfeits, Forward Global assembles an investigative team that contains a diverse skill set. Helluy says one team will focus on open source intelligence, this includes conducting digital research on social media, the internet and so on.
Cyber experts look at technical clues and conduct investigations around servers and devices while human intelligence – reaching out to people to gather information – is undertaken by a network of local investigators who conduct analysis “on the ground”. This could be to confirm whether a target resides at a specific address or whether a product is a fake or not.
Elaborating on the characteristics of counterfeiters, Helluy says they frequently use small parcels to evade detection by customs officials. They will also exploit geopolitics using regions of the world where it is more difficult for law enforcement to act, and use borders that are more porous.
“They are the most creative in the online world,” he notes, moving more swiftly than the law. He says it is an “open secret within the industry” that e-commerce platforms and social media serve as primary vehicles for infringers to sell their products. Consequently, these platforms are implementing measures to counter such malpractices. Nonetheless, infringers continue to devise new tactics to circumvent these safeguards.
“Many brands are reluctant to initiate brand protection operations [in Africa] because they believe it will be very complex or because they don’t really know what is going on,” he says.
To counter this, he believes the key to success in Africa is to have a “local footprint”. He stresses the area’s agility given the ease in which businesses can be established, with a lot less paperwork. It is also easier to cross borders compared to other parts of the world.
These characteristics have positive aspects too, he notes, but it makes it more difficult to access information when investigating counterfeiters. Routes used by counterfeits can change quickly, “they adapt and are very flexible”.
“You have to fight this flexibility, this agility, which is very good for legitimate business but it is very challenging when it comes to fighting criminals,” he explains.
Another quality that is unique to Africa is that most business decisions and transaction are done offline and not online. You can perform an investigation based in Europe from your desk in Paris or in London. In Africa, he says, you can do some things from Paris or London but “most of the work has to be done on the ground, especially in Francophone countries because there is an oral tradition and not a written tradition”. Most deals are done verbally, he points out.
There are also many places in Africa that do not have street names or have houses with no number, or registries that are not kept up to date. This makes finding information from a desk very difficult.
Many individuals will also exploit poverty there to recruit and corrupt people. So that is a big challenge, he adds.
How do businesses address these challenges? “What is really key is to have a local approach when it comes to tackling counterfeits in Africa,” Helluy says.
It means not just having local field investigators, but a broad network, not just in towns but also in the countryside, composed of not only decision-makers but also lawyers, merchants, NGOs, academics, researchers, and so on. They have a lot of information as they know a lot of people on the ground. It is also important to develop relationships with the police and regulatory bodies.
“Every layer of society is important, this is not so true in North America and Europe,” where you can do your job without knowing people on the street, he argues. He adds: “We know brands that are having great success in Africa fighting counterfeits and have better results than in Europe.” That, he concludes, is because of adopting this more local approach, he concludes.