What's at stake in the fake?

Indian pharmaceuticals, African markets and global health

Gujaratis, pharma and African markets: Ethnographies of authenticity from the outside in

Nishpriha Thakur

My name is Dr Nishpriha Thakur. I am a cultural anthropologist of Indian markets, marketplaces and merchants. Within the ‘what’s at stake in the fake’ project, my research examines Gujarati merchants, markets and marketplaces within India’s international pharma trade—particularly in East and Southern Africa. 

I will conduct transnational, multi-sited ethnographic research across Gujarat and East and South Africa at pharmaceutical manufacturing and distribution hubs and businesses as well as at retail medicine shops. Through this research, I seek to understand how value, trust, fakeness, authenticity and suspicion materialise through practices of how medicines are produced, distributed, sold and consumed. 

This ethnographic research on authenticity and fakeness will also pay close attention to how, if and for whom pharmaceutical traders and pharmaceutical merchandise come to have national or ethnic identities. Much of the existing work on Indian pharma in African markets focuses on the international political economy of Indian pharmaceuticals through regulatory frameworks –particularly in terms of policing drugs quality. These frameworks are meant to regulate how medicines are produced and what these medicines end up creating and where. This research—and these regulatory frameworks—matter for me because they seek to understand pharmaceutical authenticity from the inside-out. That is to say, they conceptualise authenticity—or fakeness—as an intrinsic quality of the product per se.

In contrast, my ethnographic research investigates the value of drugs from the outside in. By attending closely to questions of practice, I will be able to understand how drugs’ value—their respective authenticity or fakeness—is created in global market nodes and marketplaces. In other words, I will be able to understand the circulation of them as authentic or fake as social, rather than pharmacological, facts.

Finally, because the best ethnographic research relies so heavily on language and nuances, I will soon begin to learn KiSwahili, along with the other relevant languages I am already able to use in my research: English, Gujarati, Hindi, Bhojpuri and Maithili.