Words by The Urban Popular Economies Collective | 14 Apr 2024

It is not just the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic that has become a global emergency; related outbreaks of fakes, frauds and counterfeits have prompted widespread concern. “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” lamented the World Health Organisation’s director general, Tedros Ghebreyesus, in reference to the explosion of Covid-related fake news. All manner of dubious stories about Covid-19 have been circulating around the world, along with fake cures, fake testing kits, imitation drugs and rising reports of Covid-related scams, fake companies and accusations of fraud along transnational chains of medical suppliers and subcontractors.

The popular economy of fakes long pre-dates the pandemic. In African contexts, public concern with the proliferation of fakes, counterfeits, imitations and simulations has been widely noted, from fake foods and fake medicines to fake money and fake pastors. As this literature by Robert Blunt, Kristin Peterson and Jane Battersby and Gareth Haysom acknowledges, counterfeits or fakes do not necessarily exist in opposition to the real: fake goods may be known to be less durable or of poorer quality, but consumers may choose such items for cost or convenience.

In Kenya, fake has become a term to identify not anything that is counterfeit or substandard, but the intention of which might be dubious. In recent years, a supposedly charitable family foundation was outed as fake; contaminated sugar was repackaged and sold as well-known Kenyan brands; even fake beggars were arrested in Nairobi’s streets.

Even where quality control or standardisation marks exist, they are not necessarily to be trusted. A syndicate within the Kenya Bureau of Standards––a body meant to uphold official quality standards, approve imported goods before sale, and root out counterfeits—has recently been revealed to be running a counterfeiting scam of its own, faking the certification mark that authorises an imported item for sale. Goods from cement and roofing materials to sugar and cooking fat have all been certified with faked versions of the bureau’s official sticker.

“The market is awash with these fake stickers and we cannot tell which product is genuine and which one is not,” said Mugambi Imanyara, the chair of the bureau. Fakeness here does not imply the items are inoperative or broken, in fact, in the absence of alternatives, fakes can generate vital popular economies, as demonstrated by the centrality of fake-branded clothing and knock-off electronics transacted in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighbourhood.

Fakes, then, have very real effects, animating speculative and accumulative practices, but they are not necessarily the same—or intended to be the same—as those of the original. In a 2013 letter to The Standard newspaper, Dennis Otieno noted that while buying land in Nairobi “you must be very cautious, lest you pay a fake owner”. Whole supply chains can thus be entangled in processes of faking, where everything is opaque and potentially counterfeit, but nevertheless relies on symbols of formality and authenticity. Under-the-counter trade in shady documentation has accompanied a trade in fake goods and dubiously acquired property: for a fee, officials may amend documentation, such as minutes of meetings about land allocations or even land title deeds themselves.

The international response to the Covid-related epidemic of fakes has tended to call for government crackdowns and better regulation. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has issued a policy brief stating, “Governments need to ensure the legitimate and safe provenance of pharmaceutical products, both online and in pharmacies, so that citizens can trust the medicines they use.” Similarly, a BBC News investigation reported that “the circulation of fake and dangerous medicines would only increase unless governments around the world present a united front”.

These assertions presume that there is a trustworthy state system in place for monitoring the quality of goods and products. And yet state agencies in various countries, not just in Kenya, are linked to allegations about unknown provenance, including in the United Kingdom where medical supplies contracts have been issued to dormant companiesthat seem not to exist.

The fake economy thus reaches far and wide. It encompasses not just the man on the street pretending to be a beggar, but officials at the highest level. It raises fundamental questions about trust, vested interests, abuses of power and what might be going on below the surface. This concern with “the underneath of things” evokes anxieties about doubling, as anthropologist Mariane C. Ferme put it, or the slippery relationship between a sign and its referent.

Writing in On the Postcolony (2001), Achille Mbembe develops the idea of the double as a motif for understanding the politics of structural adjustment and neoliberal reform in Africa, arguing that the implementation of supposedly democratic and transparent systems in fact increased opportunities for opacity, profiteering and the extraction of resources. He proposes that while on the surface, the significance of democracy, authenticity or transparency—symbolised by election results, procurement contracts or audit trails—increased, in fact trust in their efficacy was hollowed out.

A fake, like an image, imitates that which it represents, while this act of representation masks its capacity for distortion, simulacrum, and opacity. A surface veneer of compliance became detached from meaningful action, leaving a space for all kinds of fraudulent and counterfeiting activities to take shape. In such circumstances, to identify a fake is not to dismiss it as unreal, but to try to identify its doubleness; that its surface claims might be enabling other kinds of actions to occur underneath.