By Pharm. Nelson Okwona
The initial title of this article was “Endearing African Innovation: The Impossible is Possible”, for want of space, we have chosen the catch phrase above.
The phrase, “the impossible is possible” was meant to highlight my conviction and present disposition that Africa is ready and the time is now. We are ready for innovation, for break-through research, for development and for value creation. Against the backdrop of a dysfunctional system and an apathetic populace, Africa is indeed ready.
There are many reasons for this optimistic posture, my sojourn in the well-trodden pathof research and development in Nigeria is not a long one but has been quite revealing. It is said that ignorance breeds a certain level of optimism that is annoying, so I wish to state that my optimism is not borne from ignorance but rather from stark realism.
I believe my journey began with meeting Dr. Hadiza Nuhu, as a student at Ahmadu Bello University Zaria. She is a noble and dedicated lecturer with unparalleled commitment to herbal product development. From her, I learnt first-hand that the hurdles against product development from indigenous raw materials are enormous and that a certain level of commitment was required. Her work with Herb 25, an antimalarial herbal, product left a permanent impression on me. It left the impression that some things are worth doing and that responsibility is chosen.
The question then was how? How many individuals are willing and capable of making such commitments to pharmaceutical research and development? It was a commitment that is not sufficiently attractive when one weighs the risks and the opportunity costs of doing so, the level of intellectual, emotional and financial commitments required were also daunting.The decision to join the ranks of individuals that would commit to research development and management was not a hasty one, it was one born from a certain knowing that this is the right thing to do. It certainly feels right to be the difference, though not necessarily easy.
Years later, on graduation from pharmacy school and after one year at the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development, certain things became rather obvious– thatwe have the technical capacity, the human resource and the will to develop effective products from indigenous research. What we needed was a very good strategy, a strategy that would integrate the stakeholders in a win-win manner for a sufficient duration of time.
We needed to set up a chemical reaction, a reaction that was self-sustaining, one in which the products of the reaction could be taken away to allow for new ones, some catalysts that would reduce the barriers to change and ensure that useful outcomes emerge – outcomes whose demand must be sustained so as to achieve a self-sustaining reaction.
This strategy would channel the flexibility and the means of the private sector and the subsidised technical capacity of public research organisations. By public research organisations, I am referring to institutions like the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD) and universities. The strategy would rely on the persistent actions of certain individuals that could sustain the passion for value creation.
Prof. Ramesh Pandey exemplifies the need for such individuals, especially bio-entrepreneurs who understand the language of research and industry. His role as the CEO of Xechem in NIPRD’s work with NICOSAN demonstrates the need for a multidisciplinary approach to research and development. I have met enough gallant researchers in Nigeria who have great potential products sitting on their shelves, as research publications. Sincerely, they have done great work. Given the circumstances, the missing link lies in aligning their interests with those of the industry. Though this may not be a total alignment, most research breakthroughs are borne from a deliberate alignment of interests.
I have written extensively on this and other issues in my book, “The Heart and Art of Innovation”. Other considerations like intellectual property protection and the development of robust financial structures underlie the need for a good team for any worthwhile development project to be successful.
I was very privileged to have met Prof. Charles Wambebe, the former Director General of NIPRD. His passion and commitment demonstrates that only a certain level of dogged commitment would create the results we desire.
I am optimistic because such commitment now exists and in sufficient quantity in the research, industry and public sector organisations. The journey may be rough and tough but the impossible is indeed possible. Africa can develop the cure for HIV and for malaria. It is not because we would suddenly achieve overwhelming technological advancement, though this is not impossible too, but rather because we have committed to a deliberate search – because certain men and women would continue to advance the cause of value creation, for innovation and for indigenous research.
I have always believed that discovery needs not be complex. Drugs like Quinine, the Fluoro Quinolones, Metformin, Digoxin and Paracetamol are mainstay that therapies could have been developed by indigenous researchers. The development of Nicosan demonstrates this sufficiently – thatthough the gifts of God are not always too apparent, as they are often hidden and do demand certain research commitments, the search is such that they are within the means of the seeker. The solutions can and would be found by us.
The rate of uptake of indigenous research by the Nigerian pharmaceutical industry has not been satisfactory and this has been attributed to many reasons, one of which is their perceived immaturity – most players in the Nigerian industry are content to market and produce generics. Well, not all are immature; some key industry leaders, some of whom I have met in person are very much keen on the infusion of indigenous derived pharmaceutical products. In some quarters, this has become a matter of necessity. These industry players have the motivation and the means to make things happen.
A new project, the West African Pharmaceutical Innovation Project (WAPIP) seeks to harness these optimisms and potentials to create a pool of indigenous research capacity in Nigeria and beyond.
WAPIP is a joint venture private sector driven initiative that is geared towards the development of active and effective linkages between the pharmaceutical industry and research organisations within the West African region. One of the goals of this project is to drive pharmaceutical research-industry partnerships in West Africa, via an issue based approach that will create ownership for Innovation among stakeholders and provide sufficient guidelines and motivation to engage in the much needed collaborative arrangements required for product development.
Led by champions of change in the pharmaceutical industry comprising leaders of industry, public research organisations, media, management consultants and authorities in intellectual property acquisition and commercialisation; this catalyst wouldchampion a project that would create a nexus for pharmaceutical development management and promotion.
It is from such an understanding and participation that I bear this overwhelming conviction that the impossible is indeed possible. This understanding that synergy is key; that passion exists; that potentials abound; that there are men who will not give up; that there are immense opportunities; that the challenges are not obstacles and that the whole is more than the sum of the individual parts; this understanding is that with the right mix of collaboration we could indeed create a miracle.