– Says Forex scarcity killing local drug manufacturers.
In this recent interview with Pharmanews, Pharm. Michael Oyebanjo Paul (popularly called M. O. Paul) founder and MD/CEO of Mopson Pharmaceuticals Limited, explains why he went into drug compounding and eventually to local drug manufacturing at a time many Nigerians seemed to prefer imported drugs or drugs produced by multinationals. He also speaks on challenges facing local drug manufacturers and how foreign exchange scarcity is forcing local drug companies to shut down operations. Excerpts:
You are a trailblazer as an indigenous local pharmaceutical manufacturer. What prompted your decision to venture into pharmaceutical manufacturing at a time most of your contemporaries were opting for other areas of pharmacy practice?
Right from my time at the pharmacy school in the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), I had always believed that Nigerian pharmacists could do whatever pharmacists from other parts of the world were doing. This was because we had the same quality training that pharmacists from Britain were having at that time.
Our lecturers, Prof. Becket – who wrote the book Becket and Sterling -, Prof. El-Said, and others had written books that were being acclaimed internationally on Pharmacy. So, having learnt from them, I believed anything that could be manufactured anywhere in the world could also be produced in Nigeria.
I must say that while we were at University of Ife as students, there was a great emphasis on compounding. One of our professors, Prof. Nasipuri, encouraged us to do compounding and even then we produced ointments, suspensions and powder. That experience as a student was great and when I got to General Hospital, Port Harcourt for my internship, the hospital also encouraged compounding. It is also interesting to note that most of the university teaching hospitals springing up around that time had compounding units.
Therefore, when I was doing my internship at the hospital in Port Harcourt, I decided to show serious interest in compounding (I didn’t like the task of dispensing at the counter). And because I showed interest in compounding, I was placed in charge of it at the hospital and I was able to see and learn about many preparations in the British Pharmaceutical Codex (BPC) and doctors liked what we compounded. They are called extemporaneous dispensing and the fact that doctors liked them was an encouragement.
While in Port Harcourt, I compounded products for the likes of Ahmed Toki the pharmacist and for Niger Bay Pharmacy of Sir Eradiri. Sir Eradiri would call me to come in the evening to do compounding and I always obliged.
So, after I finished my internship and returned to Lagos, I wanted to do compounding. It was easy for me to start the business because I did not require huge capital. I was working with May & Baker and once I returned from work, I would go to some chemists in the evening to do compounding for them. Most of them really did not have time, so they were always very happy to see me, knowing I had come to do compounding for them. I was doing compounding and making about 500 naira in a week when my salary was 500 naira in a month.
At what point did you decide to leave paid employment for full time compounding business?
I did not leave, really. I saw compounding as an opportunity to make extra money and since I could manage to do it without neglecting my job, I just continued. I was saving because I was making about two thousand naira extra monthly, after my salary. It was good for me.
I later got a shop at Ojuelegba at the back of my house. So, whenever I went out to see doctors for my company, at the end of the official business and my main purpose of visit, I would ask if they needed some compounding products. I would take their orders go to the shop and compound the products. It was just complimentary and not competing with the drugs I was marketing.
Later, they started asking me if I could compound certain products for them. I already knew where to buy what I needed for the compounding. I bought ingredients from ICI and I compounded mainly products in BPC. Anything in BPC, I could produce. I became popular as a compounder throughout Lagos in the 70s and even 80s.
I later left May & Baker and joined Vitabiotics around 1978. That was when Vitabiotics was just starting. It was a small unit and we were manufacturing in a flat. I learnt a lot from Vitabiotics because it was an industrial pharmaceutical manufacturer and industrial formulations are different from the extemporaneous compounding that I was doing. For the extemporaneous, you are only able to use them for only seven to ten days, but some industrial formulations can last for five years. The preservation is different, that is why the formulations last longer.
I was the superintendent pharmacist. I would look at the formulations they had and compare them to what we were taught in school on industrial production. But I did not have the practical experience of industrial production – though some universities like OAU have that now. I became more interested in industrial production. Sometimes when I got home in the evening, I would produce paracetamol and multivitamins from the ingredients that I had bought.
I was also involved in marketing of Vitabiotics products. I usually went out to market the products and thus developed a good relationship with the drug market. My boss then was happy with me because I was an aggressive marketer. I was the sole distributor of Omega H3.
I worked with Vitabiotics for about five years, before resigning to start Mopson. I already had customers to whom I could sell my own products. I started Mopson at that same shop in Ojuelegba.
Different eras have different challenges. What were the challenges you faced when you commenced local pharma manufacturing?
In those days, a major challenge was good formulations. I did not want to manufacture products and be accused of manufacturing substandard drugs; that was why I initially kept to my compounding business and started acquiring analytical equipment.
In those days, around 1983, I had already acquired HPSC single beam UV scan that can be used for analysis. In fact, University of Lagos was using my equipment for research analysis. I remember that we formed a club years back with Professor ‘Fola Tayo and Professor Coker of UNILAG and developed some products. One of such is the Abscorbion C 300 which has remained a reference product till date. Most of the Absorbion C we have in the market, I can tell you, don’t have anything in them after six months; but our Abscorbion C is very stable and still the best in the market.
We also developed Mismag and I can tell you that the Supermag developed by Nigerians here at Mopson pharmaceuticals is still a reference point till date and none imported from outside is better than this product. In terms of compliance, bioavailability and bio-compliance, our own is still the best.
We also have Micpol parecetamol suspension which is non-sedimenting and is even the official paracetamol for the Lagos State Government. Many companies have copied our formula to produce something similar.
Our products have been re-engineered and they are the best in the market.
So how has the journey been since then?
The company has grown and I am proud to say that most of our products are research-based. I have a research laboratory and we do thorough research before coming up with products.
What measures can government take to encourage local pharmaceutical manufacturers?
I think a major way to do this is to restrict importation of pharmaceutical products. When I started the vitamin C tablets, I had no competitor for about two years. Later, they took the product to India to produce and they started importing vitamin C and now the market is saturated with imported vitamin C. However, I can say that our own vitamin C was and is still better. No two women can cook the same soup with the same taste, even with the same ingredients. The personal touch always ensures there is a difference.
This mass importation of finished products is not good for Nigeria. We import raw materials, equipment for manufacturing, packaging materials. The only thing we have here is water which we even have to treat and purify for manufacturing purpose. Yet, for us to produce products from the imported raw materials using our local research on our peculiar conditions here, we are impeding that by encouraging importation of finished products. For me, that is not wise at all.
Those who are bringing in these products are very rich because it is a lucrative business. They know it is not easy to produce in Nigeria. To produce in Nigeria, you more or less have to become a government because you have to provide all your infrastructure. You will dig borehole for water and you will have to treat the water. You have to provide power for your facility. You sometimes have to fix the road to your factory. You have to also become a transporter to facilitate movement of your staff and the products.
The greatest evil right now is the financial situation in the country which has made sourcing of foreign exchange to buy raw materials super difficult. We are now at the mercy of the black market to get dollars to buy raw materials. This is frustrating and is right now killing local pharmaceutical production.
If we are serious as a nation, we should change this situation through policies. India did the same to transform India’s industrial sector. India restricted importation and compelled their people to look inward. Today, India is a major exporter in the world, aside satisfying the citizens of the country on what they need. India is now able to keep its people at work because its factories are open.
It is good for Nigeria to encourage industrialisation because it is the only way to fight unemployment. For instance, here at Mopson, I employ marketers, drivers, microbiologists, engineers, accountants and people from many other disciplines, aside Pharmacy. This is because I am running an industry, so there is a need for all these professionals. If I was importing, I would not need all these people. I might just get a warehouse and get people who would deliver the products to my customers. I could even tell my customers to come and pick their orders in my warehouse. If I did this, I would only be helping to keep the professionals I listed at their job in the countries I am importing from. So, I am more useful to this country as a manufacturer than an importer.
Local drug manufacturers also manufacture products that are compatible with our environment; whereas not all products manufactured outside Nigeria are compatible with this country because of our environment. We do research to ensure that what we produce are what is compatible with our environment.
The Nigerian government must see the drug manufacturers as special and ensure they get foreign exchange to buy what they need. Since the beginning of 2016, no bank in the land has given me one dollar as foreign exchange. I have had to patronise black market. This is serious. Right now companies are closing down because the margin to break even has disappeared. I have stopped manufacturing paracetamol tablets. I shut down the line because I cannot break even with it. Those who are bringing in finished paracetamol tablets are still making money from it.
However, we should be concerned about keeping our factories open to keep our people at work. Government must not only make foreign exchange available but must facilitate and encourage local production of raw materials for pharmaceuticals.