Abbas Virji, chief executive officer of Shalina Healthcare Group, is not your regular, run-of-the-mill entrepreneur. A strategic and innovative thinker with nearly 20 years’ experience in the African pharmaceutical industry, Virji has successfully driven the growth of the multinational company to an unprecedented height in the course of six years. He oversees the company’s interests in Nigeria, the UAE, China, India, Congo DR, Angola, Ghana, Zambia, Sudan, Cameroon, CAR and Kenya. In this interview with Adebayo Folorunsho-Francis, Virji who was born in Kenya bares his mind on the multi-faceted challenge of investing in African pharmaceutical market and how local companies can attract foreign investors. Excerpts:
What is it like to run a dominant pharmaceutical company in Africa?
The rich diversity in culture, languages and people of the African continent makes a unique but exciting complex market environment. Our root in Africa dates back over 30 years, through our chairman and founder who was born and based here in Africa. His deep understanding of the needs of the people of Africa formed the founding principle on which the company was built – providing quality and affordable medications that are available to the common man/woman in Africa.
Where lies Shalina’s strength?
With focus on Africa, we have developed a very efficient production and integrated end-to-end supply chain system to deliver good quality products at very affordable prices. From inception, we have a strong practice of developing our people and encouraging their entrepreneurial and leadership skills. This has enabled us to have a large pool of well-trained and committed employees across Africa. Our strength therefore is in our workforce, our products quality and long years of existence on the continent.
How do you cope with challenges like absence of modern infrastructure, stable power, arbitrary government policies and the likes?
Shalina, as a business, was born African and so these challenges are not alien to us. The point is our ability to focus on what has to be done and not being discouraged by external influences. We feel it is part of our responsibility to be a part of the solution to see Africa fulfill her potentials.
Where can you place Shalina in the Nigerian Pharma market?
Shalina is a leader in the pain management category in Nigeria with our IBUCAP and Rufedol brands. We have developed strong brands in Nigeria driven by aggressive marketing and distribution expansion. We have brands like Polygel, Omeshal and Omeshal D in the GIT category; and Shal’Artem, in the anti-malarial category, which are doing very well and showing very good growth rates.
Tell us about some of the challenges facing foreign investors like you
Fakes and counterfeits still remain a major challenge in Nigeria and we believe that NAFDAC is taking steps in the right direction to rid the country of this menace. The collaboration of the pharmaceutical industrial sector is required to win this war against fakers.
The credit market and the difficulty in getting large distributors is also a major challenge. Currently, finance costs in the economy are high and do not encourage the distributors to borrow from the finance houses. As a result, we have to invest in distribution of the products at high risk and costs. The distribution business is still evolving in the country and we feel the government is taking positive steps with the mega distribution centres.
How does Shalina plan to take a larger chunk of the market?
As already mentioned we have launched a number of new products in the last two years and still plan to increase the range to improve our market share. The other area we are focusing on is the distribution expansion where we are not only adding distributors but also improving their ability to re-distribute.
What makes Shalina’s products (ethical and OTC) different from the others in the markets here in Africa?
We provide very good quality products and don’t compromise. We comply with all the rules and regulations of the country and ensure availability of our products at all times. We constantly strive to bring down product costs so that we can make it more affordable to the common man. Shalina’s product range has been developed keeping in mind the WHO list of essential medicines for tropical diseases in the whole of Africa.
What measures do you take to ensure Shalina’s products are not faked or cloned?
We work very closely with NAFDAC to ensure our products are not cloned. We continually engage our stakeholders and clients through awareness, advert placements, adopting difficult-to-clone packaging, reporting and prosecuting fakers, as well as bringing down our prices, where necessary, to ensure that original good quality products reach the consumers.
How best can the issue of drug counterfeiting be tackled in Nigeria?
Stronger scrutiny at the ports and land borders, severe and prompt action against those bringing in fake products, as well as regulating the sale of pharmaceutical products will go a long way in reducing this problem.
Steps taken by NAFDAC such as the Mobile Authentication Service (MAS) system will go a long way towards eradicating the menace of fake and counterfeit drugs in Nigeria. MAS has been suggested and made available as an anti-counterfeiting measure for drug manufacturers in Nigeria.
Unfortunately, many are reluctant to try it as only few pharmaceutical companies bought into the technology. What is your take on this?
Well, it has been made compulsory for anti-infectives and anti-malarials. That is a good step. Based on how successful it is, we should extend it to more categories.
From your perspective, which African country holds your largest investment?
Our largest investments are currently in the DR Congo, Nigeria and Angola. Nigeria is receiving the biggest chunk of our future investment funds over the next two years. We have several new products and projects in Nigeria that require large amounts of investment. We look forward to a big future in Nigeria.
In the face of stiff competition from other multinational companies, how do the likes of Shalina Healthcare manage to stay afloat?
Because of our efficiencies, quality, unique business model and knowledge as well as understanding of Africa, we can compete with any company on an equal footing. With good workforce, focus on integrity, encouragement of entrepreneurship and persistence, we continue to do well.
What lessons can local pharmaceutical companies learn from global brands like Shalina? Is there something multinational drug companies are doing that we are yet to get right in Nigeria?
Nigeria has some very good and respected local companies who are doing the right things. Focus on quality and affordability will be the main areas which will help future growth.