Pharm. (Sir) Ifeanyi Atueyi is the founder and publisher of Pharmanews. In this interview with Yusuff Moshood and Omolola Famodun, Atueyi reveals his unique strategies for laying the foundation of success for Pharmanews, as well as the various challenges that the publication has surmounted over the years to ensure uninterrupted monthly publication for 40 years.
Your decision to make Pharmanews an A3-sized journal, which is the size of most tabloid newspapers when you started in 1979 made the paper a unique health periodical. What prompted that decision and were you inspired by any health paper you had seen before?
I edited the PSN journal from 1974 to 1978 and when I planned to start Pharmanews in 1979, I wanted to make a difference. I didn’t want it to look like the PSN journal at all. So, I would say that God led me to that size to ensure it was unique.
As at that time, there were just about three national newspapers. However, I think it was Daily Times that I copied in terms of the size of what I wanted Pharmanews to be. So I can say that I decided the size of Pharmanews to be the size of Daily Times to make a difference from all existing health publications. It was also because I wanted it to be a pharmaceutical newspaper.
Also, because I wanted to ensure it was professional and unique, I decided to use hard, glossy paper instead of newsprint. So, the idea of Pharmanews health journal being that A3 size is actually from God. That size of health paper had never been seen anywhere before I started it in 1979.
I attended the FIP conference in Brighton, United Kingdom (UK), in September 1979, and I took 400 copies of Pharmanews there for distribution. That was the maximum exposure we had of any publication at the conference. In fact, everybody at the conference was looking at it. They had never seen a thing like that.
Even the World Health Organization (WHO) journal, World Health, came out in 1980 and it also had a large size, but Pharmanews came out before it. After Pharmanews, some other health papers of similar sizes started coming out but most of them disappeared after publishing some editions.
The first edition of Pharmanews published in May 1979 had some interesting columns, some of which are still relevant till this present time. Can you recall what informed those columns?
I was inspired to make the content unique, too. As I have said, I wanted it to be a pharmaceutical newspaper. I wanted it to be a newspaper for pharmacists. Therefore, I wanted it to contain news and general information. I didn’t want long articles. I wanted news from the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN) and news from universities, as well as news about pharmaceutical companies. One thing that was driving me was my desire to satisfy the needs of my pharmacists colleagues, in particular. I wanted Pharmanews to be their source of information.
Publishing of periodicals in general and health journals in particular is quite a challenging venture. Many publications with good ideas die after a few editions or, in some cases, after a few years, due to one challenge or the other. Surely, Pharmanews must have faced some tough times over the years. Can you recall some notable tough periods for the paper and how the paper overcame them?
I strongly believe it was God’s plan that there should be Pharmanews. I believe Pharmanews was in God’s mind before I was born and that God was just looking for who would run it. The reason is that as at when I obtained a diploma in Pharmacy in 1964, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I would do.
I worked after that, but I did not have any satisfaction in any area. In fact, within the first two years after I obtained a diploma in Pharmacy in 1964, I worked in four different organisations. I was looking for where to be have fulfilment. I first worked with Pfizer, I left. I then moved to West African Drug Company, but left again. After that, I worked for, HB & Sons, but I did not find it satisfying. I then joined the government to practise in the hospital which I had sworn I would never do. Even after obtaining my B.Pharm, the story remained the same.
This continued for years. So, I really did not enjoy the 15 years I spent working after becoming a pharmacist. I was in production for five years, and then marketing for three years. I also spent some time in retail pharmacy. I therefore believe that publishing of health journal is what God wants me to do.
I belive that when there is God’s hand in a business, He will provide for that business and make it succeed. This is the major reason we have enjoyed this success so far. Pharmanews is God’s plan and He made it the instrument I would use to provide services to people. It is also the instrument that made it possible for me to be known in the pharmaceutical industry.
I don’t think there is any other sector In which I would have been able to touch the lives of people, as I have been able to do through Pharmanews. Even if I had stayed in the university and retired as a professor, I do not think I would have been able to have as much influence as I have had through Pharmanews. It is a special area God designed for me to serve and influence people and then, in particular, have job satisfaction, which is very important.
That was why when in 1978 it became clear to me that publishing of health journal was what I should focus on, I burnt the bridges behind me. I was no more attracted to any other thing and I never envied any other person. I knew that what I was doing was best for me. I focused on it and I have concentrated on it up till today. I am neither distracted nor discouraged by any challenges because I know where I am going, which is where God says I should go.
In addition to that, God has provided me with the training I need. I had exposure that enabled me to cope with the technicalities of the work. As I said earlier, Pharmanews was exposed to the world in 1979 at the FIP conference where I distributed 400 copies. In fact, Pharmanews attracted the attention of the World Health Organization (WHO) and they invited me for training in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1984. That training opened my eyes to science editing. I met editors of international and local journals at the training and we discussed. It exposed me to the training and seminars of the European Association of Science editors (EASE).
So, I started attending the seminars which helped to broaden my knowledge. I got trained as a science editor.
So, if you were to pinpoint specific challenges that Pharmanews has faced, what would they be?
A common challenge facing busines has to do with the economy and the one that shook my confidence was during the period that the challenge of fake drugs was destroying the pharmaceutical sector. That was around the mid-90s. The incidence of fake drugs in Nigeria was so high that companies were closing down because they couldn’t cope. In fact, some foreign companies had to leave, while even the existing ones had to trim down. Many pharmaceutical manufacturing plants closed down and many people lost their jobs.
Some of the colleagues that lost their jobs in the pharmaceutical industry sustained themselves by getting engaged in the National Programme for Immunisation (NPI). That period was tough. Pharmanews dropped in pagination. We had to go back to the number of pages that we started with in 1979, which was 12 pages, just to stay afloat.
At a point, I started wondering if I could continue. In fact, at a time, I looked for a job but I was thinking and asking myself what work anyone could give to someone who was more than 60 years already. I kept asking God what I should do next.
At that time, the minister of health was Dr Tim Menakaya, an old boy of my school, DMGS Onitsha. I visited him twice in Abuja to see if he could help but nothing came from the visits. Also, because the economy was very bad, my wife got engaged in the National Programme on Immunisation (NPI) through Dr Dere Awosika. Even though it was strenuous work, I wanted to join her.
I went to Dr Awosika and told her I wanted the NPI job, too. She told me that it was not suitable for me and that I should wait till something better was available. She tried her best to fix me with some training programmes of USAID but things didn’t work out.
In fact, I started giving signals to my staff that it was all over. I had reliable and dedicated staff and told them to start looking for jobs somewhere else, because even I was looking for one. However, because God wanted this paper to continue, He changed the economic situation at a time when it looked like there was no way out.
What happened was that at the climax of the fake drugs problem in the country, specifically around 2000, Dora Akunyili was appointed the director genernal of NAFDAC. As soon as she started work, things began to change in the industry. She first tackled the pure water business sector. She organised training programmes for the operators. She then moved to the pharmaceutical sector. From 2002, things started improving in the pharmaceutical sector. That was what saved Pharmanews from collapse.
One other remarkable thing was the way God used people to keep us going. I was running Pharmanews but not into writing books. However, in 2002 my good friend, Pharm. Paul Enebeli, came and told me that he wanted me to write a book on fake drugs. He said he had looked around and that there was need for a book on subject and I was the best person to write it.
I thought about it and decided to take up the challange. At that time, Dora Akunyili was synonymous with drugs and fake drugs. Because we were related as in-laws and family friends, I went and told her that I wanted to write a book on fake drug. She was so excited about it and said she would support me. That encouraged me. She told her secretary to get me photographs and speeches she had made on fake drugs. The items were brought to my office here in Maryland. I was so happy for the encouragement.
Let me say that whenever I am working on anything, I usually concentrate on it to get the best result possible. That book gave me a tough time. I discovered I couldn’t do it alone, so I decided to make it open. I invited contributors and eventually selected only 11 of them. I wrote only one chapter. The other contributors included pharmacists, journalists, importers a medical doctor and others. We tackled the fake drug issue from different angles and had 12 chapters for the book.
I planned the launch for August 4, 2004 and paid for the Oranmiyan Hall of Airport Hotel. I then requested Prof. Akunyili to write a one page comment on the book because, her name would give it credibility.
That one-page comment was delayed. I called and called but couldn’t get her. At that time, she was living in both Abuja and Lagos. One afternoon, I eventually got her on phone and she told me to stop writing the book. It was the greatest shock that I ever got. I asked her why, and she said she was writing her own book on fake drugs and that I should stop. I didn’t want to continue the conversation on phone, so I asked her if she was in Abuja or Lagos. She said she was in Lagos. I asked if I could come to see her and she told me to come.
I decided to go with my wife and we received the greatest insult of our lives that day. She threatened that if I continued with the book she would deal with me. The reason she gave was that she was writing her own book and that Kofi Anan (who was then the secretary general of the United Nations) would be coming to launch it in December. I said, “Let me finish my own because it is just a small book and I can also help you with yours.” She said she didn’t need my help.
I knew at the end of the encounter that I couldn’t continue. I returned to my office that Friday and my staff were still there. I told them that all the documents pertaining to the fake drug book should be packed and taken to the store. I asked one staff to go to Airport Hotel and cancel the booking we had made for the hall and see if we could get a full or partial refund. We started using text messages and emails to cancel the invitation we had sent out.
The launching of that book was to coincide with our 30th anniversary; so that was a challenge. We lost money and prestige because I couldn’t even say why we cancelled the event. I just absorbed it and handed it over to God.
We however decided to carry on with our anniversary and to celebrate our anniversary without a book. We decided to hold it at Muson Centre, Onikan, Lagos on August 24. Then, a second thought came to me that we could still write a book and so I gathered my materials that made up 30 chapters for a new book. The title was “Your Best Pathway for Life”. I derived that title form Psalm 32:8. We worked on that book day and night and it came out just before that 24. So, we still had a book launch.
However, on that day at the venue, I presented a copy of the fake drugs book and told the audience that the book was not for launching because my colleague in authority had prevented from doing so. The following year, we wrote another book and by God’s grace we have been writing motivational books every year from that 2004 up till 2019. The one for 2019 has just been published and it is titled “Living on Purpose”.
I think everything that happened was for a reason. So, for me. as far as challenges are concerned, if God is with you, challenges cannot bring you down.
What are the key factors that have helped sustain the idea of Pharmanews?
I believe in consistency and perseverance. Nobody is created to do everything. You have to identify what you are created to do and do it well. We started as a 12-page newspaper, but today Pharmanews is one of the greatest thing that has happened to the Nigerian pharmaceutical and health sector in terms of information dissemination.
Like I said, consistency is important and I have always managed to be consistent by concentrating and focusing on what I believe is important.
I have attended the PSN conference for 45 uninterrupted years and by God’s grace, by November this year, when we go to Kaduna, it will be 46 years. I have not missed one. It is not because it has been convenient, but because I am determined to attend. I always find the money and time to attend.
I believe once you are committed to something, there will be success. Failure comes when you are not consistent and when you are not determined. I think this has kept Pharmanews going.
Also, in the Nigerian society, there is a lot of corruption in business. I noticed this early in my business and decided that dishonesty was not going to help in building a durable business that God will support.
So, I decided that in this business, we shall make integrity and honesty our watchword. Staff who come here, I tell them this is my philosophy. We have passed through generations in the industry and have maintained our integrity.
There are temptations, of course. There have been companies whose staff will ask you to give them something for them to give you advert but we never do that. We do not do such things and we like to tell the truth. We give our customers advert rate, and they know the discount we are giving them and that is all. They know the quantity we produce. We are transparent. There is nothing we hide.
This question of being honest is not always with journal publishers. Many won’t tell you the quantity they produce. They would be claiming that they make 10,000 copies, yet we that print 5,000 copies are circulating more than they do. I am always wondering why they are not telling the truth. They deceive advertisers and some of them believe them.
I refer again to the time of depression around 2000. Things were so bad. We were running 12 pages and, for our survival, we cut down our print-run to 1000 copies. We could have gone down to 500 copies, but it would not be cost-effective. In fact, that was preparation for winding down. And when people asked me what our print-run was, I told them it was 1000.
There was a remarkable incident at the 2002 PSN conference, held at the Metropolitan Hotel in Calabar. It was during the dinner that an Indian walked up to me and identified me as Pharmanews publisher. He asked me about the journal and how many copies we circulated monthly. I told him 1000 copies. He didn’t believe it and repeated the question. I told him 1000 copies. He then said we would meet in Lagos.
When we arrived Lagos, he invited me to a meeting at Newcastle Hotel, Anthony Village. The first question he asked me when we met again was how many copies we were circulating monthly and I told him 1000. After he had been convinced that I was telling him the truth, he asked me to get names of 1,200 doctors and put them on our mailing list. He said he would pay for the copies. I was very surprised. I had never seen that kind of windfall. Apart from that, he said he would advertise on the wrapper of Pharmanews and also advertise in the journal. Pharmanews business from that moment increased by a huge percentage and set us on the path of recovery.
It was when I visited his office in Lagos much later that he told me that he decided to advertise in Pharmanews because after spending several years in India and Nigeria, he had never seen a publisher who disclosed the number of copies that he produced truthfully like that. He said everybody often inflated the number of copies they printed. He told me that was the reason he was doing business with me and had asked his colleagues to do business with me.
So, people will patronise you when they know you are honest and have integrity. Integrity has kept Pharmanews going. When we make a promise, we never fail. If we promise we will bring you a copy, we will bring it. We never fail. That is why we have been succeeding for these 40 years. Nobody likes dashing out money. Subscribers and advertisers are paying for the value they get from Pharmanews and we are determined to continue improving our services so they keep getting the value.
You have been at the vanguard of providing health information to health professionals for 40 years through Pharmanews, NPD,and other publications. So, how crucial is health information to health professionals and by extension to quality healthcare delivery?
Information is key. Without information, there is no business. It is key to all we do. How else could professionals in the pharmaceutical sector reach out? You can do your manufacturing, you can do your retail, you can work in the hospital or do research but without passing the information, how would people know and benefit from what you are doing?
You can do a special research in the laboratory but if you don’t tell people how the research can help them, how would they know? Information is fundamental and that is what ties the world together. Without correct information, many things can go wrong. We are talking about right and timely information because wrong information can destroy, too.
Today, knowledge is going towards information technology. Information is now key to the growth of the economy. Thank God, we came into it very early and we are growing. Today, Pharmanews is online and it is read everywhere all over the world.