In February 2013, the federal government launched the new National Drug Distribution Guidelines (NDDG), with the aim of improving the chaotic drug distribution situation in the country. A year and almost two months after, a review of the progress made thus far towards implementing the guidelines is timely.

Some cardinal features of the guidelines include: (a) The starting date of July 2014, which is expected to mark the end of open drug markets in Nigeria; (b) the emergence of Mega Drug Distribution Centres (MDDCs) and State Drug Distribution Centres (SDDCs) as the primary service centres through which manufactured and imported drugs can be accessed by wholesale operators and national health programmes. The wholesalers will, in turn,  feed the retail premises; (c) the limit on the operations of each operational level which stipulates that importers cannot sell directly to wholesalers and wholesalers cannot do retail; (d) the experience requirements of pharmacists that will be in charge of the distribution centres. The guidelines stipulate five years for retail and ten years for wholesale.

In our evaluation of these stipulations, it must be stated that though the pharmaceutical industry may not be fully ready to accommodate the changes, it is very important that the implementation of the guidelines begins in July as projected. Depending on prevailing circumstances, it may be necessary that the implementation process be phased such that the SDDCs can begin to play more prominent roles and pharmaceutical manufacturers and importers find alternative routes of distribution other than the open market.

To achieve this objective, there is need to deploy technology and abundant human resources. A lot of strategic thinking is also required, part of which is the understanding that a Mega Drug Distribution Centre is more of a logistics facility than a market.

The MDDCs should basically provide facilities that accommodate representatives of the relevant stakeholders, thereby offering a common platform for wholesalers and national health programmes to access pharmaceutical products from manufacturers and importers. A robust website can provide the interface of such facilities, considering that they are not open to the public and the operators are few. In addition to that, a call-in order service station could supplement the website.

The latest PCN publication has it that there are about 800 registered wholesalers in Nigeria. An e-commerce website that has the products of each importer and manufacturer and their prices and which allows registered wholesale operators to place orders either electronically, by phone or by physical visit, would significantly help to facilitate this revolution. The benefits are immense as product-tracking and barcoding can be done along the value chain from the manufacturer/importer to the retailer. Also, price stability can be achieved and counterfeiting reduced to the barest minimum.

We believe that organising such a structure where the 800 registered wholesale premises and others that would join their ranks can trade with registered importers/manufacturers is not beyond the capabilities of the pharmaceutical industry. The success of online retail outlets is a sufficient demonstration that our industry can indeed solve her logistics challenges.

While it is true that the primary focus now should be doing all that is necessary to ensure the successful implementation of the guidelines at the stipulated time, we believe that creating such an alternative platform as the one highlighted above is key to ensuring that we rid ourselves of the menace of open drug markets. Before the month of July, the onus is on the industry to play its part; thereafter, the government could be engaged to keep to its word.

We are aware that concerted efforts are already being made by concerned stakeholders in the industry to mobilise resources and achieve a consensus. We owe it to ourselves and to posterity that these efforts achieve the intended goals. We call on these champions of change to persist in their laudable goal, while looking beyond personal interests and other parochial concerns as they strive to help the Nigerian pharmaceutical industry chart a new path in its troubled history.

It must also be emphasised that the stipulation on the experience level of pharmacists to serve as superintendent pharmacists in retail and wholesale operations is not absolutely necessary. Considering the present population of pharmacists, such a stringent condition will only serve as an impediment to the successful implementation of the guidelines.  We expect that this will be adjusted to accommodate the younger pharmacists who form the bulk of personnel in the premises.