At 71, Pharm. (Dr) John Nwaiwu sits at the helm of affairs of Lagos-based JB Pharmaceuticals Limited, a fast-growing pharmaceutical company he founded after a very successful career at the Nigerian Customs Service, where he retired as an assistant comptroller-general of customs. In this exclusive interview, Nwaiwu, who was also a former pharmacy lecturer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), recounts his early years, his professional exploits in public and private spheres, and his views about the COVID-19 pandemic. Excerpts:
It is our pleasure to feature you in this edition of our “Senior Citizen of the Month” interview series. Kindly tell us about your background and early life?
I am from Onichi in Ikeduru Local Government Area of Imo State. I started my elementary school at Christ the King School, Aba, Abia State. So I am an Aba man. From there, I went to Trinity High School, Oguta, for my secondary education. I did my A levels at St Patrick’s College, Calabar – although the war disrupted our studies. I travelled abroad after the war because the conditions in the then Biafra were not conducive enough for anyone to study, as the universities had been destroyed. So I left the country and went to the Philippines where I studied at the University of Philippines and obtained my first degree in Pharmacy.
After this, I proceeded to London, and soon obtained my doctorate degree in Pharmacognosy at the University of London. On coming back, I was employed at the University of Nigeria (UNN), Nsukka, in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences. I rose from the position of lecturer 2 to senior lecturer. From there, I found myself at the Nigerian Customs Service.
What factors or personalities would you say helped to shape your values and principles in life?
In our early days, around the early 1960s, our parents were strict disciplinarians. They were so strict. Aba in those days used to be a closed society and parents used to compete among themselves trying to see whose child was doing better and all that. This helped to influence us as children those days and educational competition was healthy. There was no rancour at all. That made all of us come close together and we knew ourselves. We shared a lot together and each person influenced the other. There was competition in the areas of mathematics, sciences and in fact, football. The peer group had a great influence on us.
How did you come about the choice of Pharmacy as a profession and how has this choice affected your personality? Did you have role models who influenced your choice?
As I said before, Aba was a closed society in those days and there was healthy academic rivalry among young chaps. There was one Rufus Obi Pharmacy in Aba in those days. He was the only pharmacist around, apart from Klinkland Chemist in Aba, and we admired him a lot. This shaped our thinking towards Medicine and healthcare delivery.
If you were playing football for example and sustained injury, the person would be taken to the local pharmacy shop or medicine shop to be attended to. They were the doctors we knew those days. So those things made us to aspire towards healthcare delivery. This motivated some of us to study Pharmacy, some Medicine, and some other medical sciences. We still relate even till today.
You had a very successful career at the Nigerian Customs Service. At what point did you veer from mainstream pharmacy practice and did your training as a pharmacist contribute to this enviable career in the customs service?
I was a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). Then, I used to move around and one day, I ran into a group of people and they were messing with this idea of drugs. At that time, the Nigerian Customs Service was in charge of drug interdiction. I fell into an argument with them about what hard drugs were. They didn’t know which one was which. I did Pharmacognosy and I was really pained that some people were just mixing up things.
To cut the long story short, somebody came and challenged me to join the Customs Service if I felt I knew better about drugs. I resisted the idea because, to me, joining the Customs Service was not part of my plans; but my in-law persisted that I should give it a trial. So, I took transfer of service to the Nigerian Customs Service on experimental basis. I came to the Ikeja training school after which I was sent to Defence College, Jaji, on leadership training.
At Jaji, the issue of discipline came up again. I didn’t know that the army was a highly disciplined unit, such that if you were just walking across the road close to the parade ground, you must march or get punished. That inculcated some extra discipline in us and it was very good. After my training, I came to join my colleagues in the customs service and because of my training as a pharmacist, I was in the department of drug interdiction.
Being in the department of drug interdiction at that time at the Nigerian Custom Service, took us to almost all parts of the world, discussing drug interdiction and the knowledge of drugs. At one of the conferences for heads of national drug agencies in Vienna, Austria, when the issue of Nigeria came up, Americans were disturbed and wanted to give some help to Nigeria in the fight against illicit drugs but they had issues with the Nigerian government’s agency to liaise with. They didn’t know whether to relate with the Ministry of Health or the Customs Service and so on. I was there representing Customs Service.
When I came back to Nigeria, the then head of state decided that Nigeria should have a drug enforcement agency. Eventually, the then Attorney General of the Federation was asked to put it down in a legal framework. He now drafted it as the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) and it was created under the Ministry of Justice. That was how NDLEA ended up in the Ministry of Justice. The Nigerian Police was there asking for it, the Nigerian Customs Service was there asking for it, the Ministry of Health was also asking for it. But the Attorney General was a legal man and was very influential those days.
That was how the NDLEA was created under the Ministry of Justice. It was justified and they have been doing very well since that time because whatever offence you commit, you still have to go through the law. However, when the agency was moved to the Ministry of Justice, I found out that my potentials and training as a pharmacist were no more fully utilised, so I got engaged in other areas.
What guided me while I was there is that discipline that the pharmacy profession inculcates in you. Every pharmacist is a disciplined person; and I need to make this point, if you are not disciplined, you cannot be a pharmacist. For example, if they ask you to add 30 grams of a particular molecule in drug formulation, if you add 35 grams, somebody is dead. If takes a lot of discipline to be a pharmacist and it is very important. Pharmacists are supposed to be highly disciplined people.
Not many pharmacists who rose to such an outstanding height in public service are able to also achieve giant strides in core pharmacy business like you have done. How were you able to manage these two rungs of the ladder?
When I retired from Nigerian Customs Service, I told myself that I couldn’t do any other thing apart from Pharmacy. That is my profession. A lot of people wanted me to go into politics. So I stayed focused on what I wanted to do and stayed away from politics. So, when I started pharmaceutical business, I brought that same discipline to bear on our operations. That is responsible for the modest achievements we have recorded so far in our business
With your experience at JB Pharmaceuticals Limited, what would you say are the core issues affecting the pharmaceutical industry in Nigeria and how can these issues be sorted out?
Thank you for this question. Pharmacy practice, whether you are into manufacturing, importation or wholesale, has something to do with importation. If you are manufacturing, you will have to import the machineries, the raw materials and so on. If you are into wholesale, you still have to import the finished products and when the exchange rate continues to dance like a yoyo, you are finished as a businessman.
That is the problem we have in Pharmacy today. Here, the exchange rate is constantly changing, without reasons. It is difficult to practise effectively as a result of these fluctuations. It’s difficult to make business decisions and projections. So, irrespective of whether you are importing or manufacturing, the exchange rate is a very important thing. The inconsistency in government fiscal policy is a problem. Today, they tell you this product has a 10 per cent waiver, tomorrow they tell you it’s now 20 per cent and so on.
An entrepreneur must have, at least, a five-year development plan and when government policy is not steady, it’s difficult to make business decisions and plans. Some people believe that this era of COVID-19 is really favouring the pharmaceutical industry, but it’s not true. This is because seaports are closed at this time. Although, the curfew is relaxed now and people are being allowed to move around, the seaports are closed. Meanwhile people’s goods are there accumulating demurrage. There are lot of inconsistencies in such things as import adjustment tax, import duty and other import related policies.
Again, we must speak with one voice in our profession, whether you are an importer, manufacturer, academic pharmacist, community pharmacist and so on. All of us must be together, if we must forge ahead. Once we begin to have disparity and misunderstanding, problems will come in.
We are able to achieve the much we are achieving now because we have a united front and we speak to government with one voice.
Kindly tell us about some of your positions of service to the pharmacy profession and which of these do you consider most challenging?
You got me there (laughs). Let me go through. I was chairman, Board of Fellows of PSN. Currently I am chairman of the Pharmacy Tower Committee, responsible for the mobilisation of funds for the construction of the PSN Pharmacy Tower.
I was chairman of Lagos Property Committee. I was also chairman of the Election Committee. That was the committee that organised the election of the last PSN government. I was also chairman of the Privileges Committee. That is the committee that elects members of the PSN Board of Fellows. I was also a member of the disciplinary committee. I was at some point chairman of the Research Grant Committee and the Endowment Committee.
Out of all these, the most challenging one is being chairman of the Pharmacy Tower Committee. I was asked to build a house that will cost N1.89 billion and you know we don’t have money. So it’s most challenging trying to mobilise people to bring money. Unfortunately for us, it now came also up during the period of COVID-19. Some of those who had promised to give us money are now struggling through the challenges or burden that COVID-19 has placed on businesses worldwide. But we are not relenting. My team and I are poised to deliver on that assignment. The assignment is causing me sleepless nights.
I am always thinking of who to meet for funds. But luckily for us, we have been getting positive responses. Luckily also, the PSN president is a very God-fearing and prayerful person and he will never let you go unless you deliver. He also encourages you and gives you advice at every point in time. Above all, he is also a very experienced man. Unless that structure comes up to an appreciable level in at least the next two years, I will not have rest of mind.
We are also very grateful to Pharmanews for helping us to publicise this information. Some people have read it up from Pharmanews and have called us to request for the form. We thank Pharmanews for that.
What are your thoughts about COVID-19 and the various efforts aimed at finding a solution to the pandemic? How can government encourage research institutions and pharmaceutical companies towards finding a locally-driven cure?
The emergence of COVID-19 confused the whole world. It’s only about three or four months ago that people started having an idea of what the pandemic is all about. These days, more awareness and information have come out about COVID-19. Even though I studied Pharmacognosy and I know what drug information is all about, I am one of those people who will ask you questions about active ingredients if you claim a plant does this or that cure. If you don’t tell me the active ingredient, it means you are guessing. If it is not an active ingredient, it means it is a crude extract.
Crude is crude. Although some crude extracts are very active but you can’t pinpoint what exactly is responsible for what. Is it water or is it the alcohol that is used in extracting it? So you will need to do more analysis to know this. You also will need to carry out toxicity tests. Some of us actually doubt the use of medicines to cure COVID-19. People are laying claims to various discoveries of cure for COVID-19 but I have a feeling that COVID-19 is a viral disease and being a viral disease, it requires the antibodies to cure the disease and eventually that is what is going on now.
People are looking for vaccines. Anybody claiming to have a cure is merely curing the symptoms. The virologists will tell us that a virus is not something that you kill or kill its cell. Where do you see it in the first place? For me COVID-19 is real and if the vaccines come out, it will phase out like other viral diseases. It requires an anti-body to take care of it.
Government should encourage the production of vaccines. Government needs to support the pharmaceutical industry and fund researches. Research is not cheap. I can attest to this fact as a former university lecturer
Finally, what advice would you give to the younger generation of pharmacists on how to make the best use of their calling as healthcare professionals to impact humanity positively?
They should be disciplined. If you have self-discipline, you will not venture into what you cannot afford because that is what brings about greed. Young pharmacists should be patient and work diligently towards attaining their goals and aspirations which must add value to society and humanity in general.