Think Africa Press’s James Wan has a stunning bit of reporting on TIENS – a Chinese company making a killing (literally, alas) by peddling transparent medical quackery to desperate, sick Ugandans.
TIENS gets props for the brazenness of the scam: I mean, this is a quack version of something that was already quack science to begin with:
“Whatever this is, it is not Chinese medicine,” says the Chinese-trained doctor with a combination of amusement and incredulity. He chuckles as he reads how TIENS medicines are supposed to treat about a dozen different conditions each, from preventing cancer to reversing impotence to promoting “the growth of children’s reproductive organs.”
The doctor’s amusement soon turns to horror as he reaches the section of the booklet advising distributors on what steps to take when patients are suffering from different diseases. TIENS customers are typically encouraged to undergo diagnostic tests in store, but most who go to TIENS have previously been to hospital and know some of the conditions from which they are suffering. The company guide offers clear and easy instructions on what they should be prescribed.
Of the few hundred conditions listed − which span from AIDS to Yellow Fever − a handful include the recommendation to ‘see a doctor’. But the rest just list a few products to be taken.
“This is a death sentence,” mutters the doctor, falling silent.
And if you thought the patient interface is bad, never fear: the way the company treats the people it recruits to run the scam on the ground manages to be even worse somehow.
Sitting behind his desk at the TIENS-Uganda headquarters, located at the top of King Fahd Plaza on a busy street in Kampala, Kibuuka Mazinga Ambrose is delighted to explain how the business model works in more detail.
“Anyone can join,” says the company chairperson, wearing a bright yellow TIENS-branded cap. “All you need to do is pay a small initial fee of $20.” Once you have done this, you can buy products at wholesale prices and sell them on at a profit. However, this is just the start, he says. You don’t get rich by selling a few bottles of herbal supplements. Under TIENS’ model, there are eight ranks and you need to move up the levels to really start enjoying the benefits.
The first few levels can be reached simply by buying more products, which essentially brings with it a small discount on goods. However, to get to the bigger rewards, you need to start recruiting others. This way, you receive a commission whenever they make purchases and also get rewarded if they recruit their own followers.
TIENS is, in other words, a giant pyramid scheme. How literally? This literally:
So why doesn’t anybody do anything to shut down this evidently exploitative, patently predatory company? Have a guess. Go on.
Not only does TIENS advertise on the Health Ministry’s calendar, but according to Wasswa, around ten MPs are members of the company and at the Iganga seminar, Stephen Wante, the mayor of Bugembe, made a guest appearance. In 2011 meanwhile, Vice-President Edward Ssekandi officiated a ceremony in which a distributor was awarded a car and organised for TIENS to donate some of its products to a government health centre. A photograph of the Ssekandi shaking hands with TIENS’ president also has pride of place on the company website.
Ah, Limited Access Order, thine homes are many…