I was destined to be a pharmacist – Akinkugbe
Chief Oludolapo Ibukun Akinkugbe is a veteran pharmacist of high repute. Aside from being the oldest former president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN), he is also the founding director of Palm Chemists and was a pioneer general secretary of the defunct Nigerian Union of Pharmacists (NUP) in the 1950s. Born in Ondo town, on 5 December, 1928, Akinkugbe’s father was a renowned druggist who qualified as a chemist and druggist in 1919. In this no-holds-barred interview with Adebayo Folorunsho-Francis, the pharmacist-turned-businessman spoke on why he still cherishes pharmacy practice, the NUP face-off with the colonial government and the major challenges facing the practice today. Excerpts:
Give us a glimpse of your background in Pharmacy
I went through primary and secondary education in Ondo town and finished at Ondo Boys High School in December 1945 with a good Grade 1 Cambridge School Certificate, which qualified me for exemption from London Matriculation Examination. It was after this in the middle of 1946 that I took the entrance examination to the School of Pharmacy in Yaba, qualifying as a pharmacist in 1949. That was before my 21st birthday.
Tell us a bit about the experience of your first job
My first job was at the General Hospital on Broad Street, Lagos, which was the only teaching hospital for medical doctors in Nigeria as at that time. Medical students who shared the same premises with Pharmacy students in Yaba also went to the General Hospital in Lagos for their clinical courses.
After one year of working in the dispensary, I was drafted to the central medical stores with headquarters adjacent to the General Hospital. This central medical store held buffer stock for medical hospitals in Lagos area and also for drugs which required special storage and sometimes high net worth, sensitive and scheduled drugs. In addition to this, there was the main central medical store situated in Oshodi where bulk items were held. This was not only for the hospitals in Lagos but for government-owned hospitals throughout the country.
How did you manage all these positions?
At that time, there was only one central government in the country and this was during the colonial days. I shuttled between the central medical store in Lagos and the one in Oshodi and my duties included coordinating the required mix for medical stores all over the country, indexing them, and forwarding them to the crown agents in the UK who were the central buying agency of the Nigerian government. It was when I was at this job that my colleagues requested me to accept the position of general secretary of the Nigerian Union of Pharmacists (NUP) which was a trade union of pharmacists in the civil service.
Were you not considered too young to be a secretary of the union?
What happened then was that my senior colleague, Mr M. C. Okwudili was asked to be president and I was to be the secretary. I considered this request an honour particularly since I had spent only less than two years when the call came. One of the first functions of the NUP at that time was to request the central government to review the remuneration and other conditions of service for pharmacists.
What was the central government’s reaction to this development?
There was the customary resistance from the government; but when pressure from the NUP intensified, the medical department which was the controlling body at that time constituted the Abayomi Committee to review the remuneration and conditions of service of pharmacists all over the country. The chairman of the committee was Sir Kofo Abayomi, one of the most respected citizens of the country at that time. I, along with my colleagues, believed that the NUP made a successful presentation of our case before the committee which lasted a couple of weeks, at the end of which the committee recommended substantial improvement in the remuneration and conditions of service for pharmacists.
How did you feel being a part of the revolution?
Well, the success of that endeavour brought me into the limelight early in my career. Soon after, I decided to leave the civil service for the private sector and was offered a job just being vacated by Prince Adeyinka Oyekan, a private pharmacist who, at that time, was competing for the stool of Oba of Lagos, which he got on a second attempt.
The company which offered me the job at that time was Morrison, Son and Jones West Africa Limited, which was the representative of Burrows Wellcome, Evans Medical, Ward Blenkinsop, Lederle Laboratories and a few others. It was my duty to act as medical representative, touring the country, particularly the South-Western zone, servicing doctors both in private and public service, as well as pharmacists in retail and wholesale.
Were those companies you mentioned also specialised in ethical products or just OTCs?
Back then, Burrows Wellcome was renowned for medical products for treatment of tropical diseases like malaria, filariasis, schistosomiasis and the likes. Ward Blenkinsop & Company Limited specialised in the production of sulphonamides. Evans Medical produced many non-branded generic products for both oral and parenteral administration. Lederle Laboratories (American Cyanamid) produced antibiotic products for oral and parenteral administration. This, to me, was a transit appointment as it was my intention to start my own independent retail pharmacy at the earliest opportunity.
When did you eventually start your dream pharmacy?
That was in February 1952. I registered it as Palm Chemists Ltd – an incorporated company with limited liability – but did not open for business until 1 October , 1952. It was my intention to find a location on the high street of Lagos (Victoria Street). This wasn’t easy as the whole of that portion and the surrounding areas had been billed for redevelopment by the Lagos State Development Board (LADB). I finally found a location on Agarawu Street which was just off Idumagbo Avenue at the junction of Tom Jones which was on Victoria Street.
What made you relocate the business to Ibadan?
After waiting for two years with limited success, I decided to move to Ibadan which, at that time, had become even more cosmopolitan than Lagos because of the siting of the University College, Ibadan (Nigeria’s first university campus, now University of Ibadan). Also, the seat of the Western Region government which then included Lagos had attracted many high fliers from Lagos and the surrounding towns in the Western Region.
I managed to find a suitable location on the high Street of Ibadan (New Court Road) close to the premises of many multinational companies at that time. This was an instant success as my approach was innovative both in presentation of premises, range of stock, the courtesy of staff and good managerial skills.
Was the idea of studying Pharmacy a personal decision or were you influenced?
Although my father was a pharmacist, he intended another career for me which was to go into the Holy Orders (priesthood) through the roots of a secondary school teacher. As a result, once through my secondary school, I was offered a teaching job in the same school with the hope that after the Cambridge Certificate result, I would start preparation for a teaching career. But soon after the results were out, three of my elder colleagues who were recruited as teachers at the same time travelled to Lagos in search of other opportunities. My own ambition at that time was to study Medicine.
Why did you drop the ambition?
The problem was that science was not taught in the school. Courses like Physics and Chemistry were not taught. The closest offered in the school was Botany, in addition to Mathematics and Geography. I knew it would be difficult for me to compete at that stage to qualify for admission into a medical school without good grounding in science subjects like Physics, Chemistry and Zoology.
While still in Lagos, we heard that entrance examination into the School of Pharmacy was being held and the four of us decided to take a chance. Our applications were nearly late and we just managed to be admitted for the exams. There were only 12 places for admission that year and I was the only one among my friends to be offered admission. The other three went further to take exams for admission into higher college three months later. Two out of the three were offered admission for teaching diploma, majoring in History or Geography. Those two were later swept from higher college into the University College of Ibadan as foundation students a year later. The fourth person who wasn’t offered admission eventually had a government scholarship to study Nuclear Physics in the University of Oxford.
I was lucky to be admitted into the School of Pharmacy as I thought it would give me the opportunity to study Physics and Chemistry which would enhance my prospects for admission into a medical school. I wasn’t wrong. After completing my first year at the School of Pharmacy, I was offered admission into Trinity College, Dublin, which was the only University I applied to for Medicine. But this turned out to be an offer that I could not accept because of family and financial reasons. It was at that point that I knew that I had to complete my training as a pharmacist. I was however lucky that this disappointment offered me another opportunity to remain in a career which I eventually enjoyed.
What was the profession like in your day compared to today’s practice?
The practice of Pharmacy in my time had features which are no more present today. The main destination after qualification was government and the practice in government hospitals at that time was compounding medicine on biological sources in liquid form and occasionally making them into pills. Chemotherapy was just beginning and dosage forms of tablet were not common. Parenteral administrations were still rudimentary and facilities of the preparation of sterile products were not easily available. Today, the national formulary is different in many hospitals and access to branded and generic products is much easier. Things have changed.
How did you later emerge as PSN secretary?
Soon after I left public service and the NUP which wasn’t existing anymore, I became a member of the PSN which is an umbrella body for both pharmacists in public and private sectors. Just about a year after I left government service, I was asked to be secretary of the PSN in 1953. I was still under 25 at that time. The essential function at that time was to bring pharmacists together, socially and professionally, and also to ensure that pharmacists were kept abreast of developments in the profession.
What were the major controversies surrounding the pharmacy profession in your time?
At that time, the problems we had majorly were with patent medicine dealers. They were recognised by the Pharmacy Board because they gave them licence to sell over-the-counter products. However they were not allowed to stock scheduled products. But with time we found out that they were over-stepping their boundary and started to encroach on the practice of Pharmacy, like venturing into the acquisition of scheduled products which, at times, were smuggled into the country.
The problem was more pronounced with patent medicine dealers who received the backing of politicians, maybe because most of them were on their level. The struggle was with these charlatans. The fact that they were so few didn’t make it look too serious. When I was admitted to the School of Pharmacy, we were just 12 in number. We all came from different schools – some from Government Colleges (Ibadan and Umuahia), King’s College, St Dennis Memorial Grammar School, Christ the King College, Methodist College, etc. Occasionally, we had some from the Baptist Academy, too. But I presume the number of pharmacists that qualified today is in thousands, all from different universities like ABU, UNN, UNILAG, OOU, UNIBEN etc.
What is your view about pharmacists venturing into politics?
Politicians come from various backgrounds and have their own contributions to make. You don’t need a particular qualification to go to the House. Once you are moved to serve your people, there is no reason why you shouldn’t go. And once you are there, you cannot look at things from just a parochial perspective. You need to have a broad horizon. A successful politician is one who is not too highly specialised to the exclusion of other forms of knowledge.
How best do you think the issue of fake drugs and counterfeit medicine can be curbed?
We used to have only a few importers of drugs into the country. Most of them were associates or subsidiaries of the major ones in the UK. We had Pfizer (US-owned company), Evans, Boots, May & Baker, Burrows Welcome, Ward Blekinsop and others from the continent, like Roche and Sandoz. All of them brought in quality products from their home countries.
The incidence of fake drugs didn’t spring up until the last 30 years or so. Tackling it demands serious work. NAFDAC is doing well in the control of imported and locally manufactured drugs. But the more we manufacture locally under the control of NAFDAC, the less we have smuggled fake and substandard medicines. There is no reason why Nigeria cannot have many more pharmaceutical manufacturing companies than we presently have. This has to be driven, of course, by government procurement policy. It also follows that all hospitals will only use those drugs manufactured. NAFDAC will ensure that the standards are good. Several companies and people can benefit from there. I suppose the market is growing. Once there is proper regulatory administration and more inspectors, we are likely to have a sort of control.
What were your major involvements in pharmaceutical activities?
I worked as a hospital pharmacist, representative of retail and wholesale pharmacy and in manufacturing. I started with Vitalinks Pharmaceuticals which produced cough medicines (liquid and drops), Vicks Inhaler, Aspirin, Calamine Lotion, Dusting Powder, Anti-Malarias and Analgesics (assets now taken over by Procter and Gamble Nigeria Plc of which I was the first Chairman). I was also the Chairman of Beecham (now GlaxoSmithKline). I have also been involved in Vitabiotics Nigeria.
In academics, I was a member of council of University of Ife. I was on the faculty board of pharmacy. It is important to say that I was the fourth President of the PSN and brought international recognition to the society by being invited to serve on the Council and Executive Committee of Commonwealth Pharmaceutical Association (CPA). I was also a member of the Pharmacy Board which was then a regulatory body for the profession.
My contribution to the country is not limited only to Pharmacy but also in the field of both economy (banking, industry and communication) and education (assisted in founding institutions from primary to tertiary, serving on board of governors or as pro chancellor and chancellor of leading universities in the country with honorary degrees in Law, Science and Business Administration). I also received honours from both Great Britain and The Netherlands.
Beyond all that, I have headed many other companies. I have been a director of Barclays Bank in Nigeria and Chairman of Stanbic IBTC. I was a founding president of the Nigeria Chambers of Commerce in Ibadan and I also brought the chambers of commerce in the commonwealth.
I have served on many commissions and committees at both federal and state levels dealing with matters of national interest and development. To this end, the Nigerian government has also deemed it fit to honour me with CON and now CFR, which I believe is still one of the highest available to citizens of the country who are not ex-officio.