I was created to be a publisher, not pharmacist – Sir Atueyi

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Sir Ifeanyi Atueyi, an accomplished pharmacist and author, is the founder and publisher of Pharmanews. Despite the lure of material gains, Atueyi, who clocked 80 on 1 October, abandoned the lucrative profession of pharmacy for the field of journalism. In this interview with Deputy Editor Ayoola Olaoluwa and Correspondent Yusuf Mohammed, he spoke about some of the challenges of the pharmaceutical industry and other sundry issues. Excerpt:

How do you feel at 80? Are you fulfilled? Have you been able to achieve your dreams?

I haven’t achieved. I have not come to the end but I am on the way. I am achieving. It is continuing. It is not yet the end.

I was created to be a publisher, not pharmacist – Sir Atueyi
Pharm. (Sir) Ifeanyi Atueyi

To many, you have achieved a lot. Your credentials are intimidating…

To you not to me because I still have a lot to contribute. I used to think that a man of 80 is very old but I have seen that it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are very old because by the grace of God, you are still doing certain work and my own productivity has not reduced very much. I do my work, I do my writing. I think and I move around. I am still doing what I used to do before I turned 80 and I give God the glory for that.

You share the same date with Nigeria, October 1st 1960. How would you rate the country so far? Would you say Nigeria has done well? What was the Nigeria of your dreams growing up?

Nigeria has recorded some milestones but we are still not where we should be. Some of us my age know that we had better quality life in those years. The quality of life was much better than what it is today in most respects.

In the educational sector, we were much better because we had committed teachers in the secondary schools and committed lecturers in the universities. They were not businessmen. And they believed in developing students. And even students themselves were responsible people. Today what you find is that teachers, most of them are just doing what they like to do there. They are not committed. That is why we hear a lot of funny things about lecturers. And facilities are not compared with what we had before. For instance, in 1961 when I entered the University of Ife, we had surplus food to eat. When we entered the dining hall, stewards were there to serve us. And if ever you needed more, you ask the steward to bring you more. Each person occupied a room. Beddings were taken care of weekly. Now I don’t know how many people they cram into one room in higher institutions.

Talking about food, nowadays, students take care of themselves. Some don’t even eat three square meals.

Companies used to go to the universities then. By June when it is time for graduation companies go to institutions to recruit staff to work with them. They looked for graduates.

When I finished my exams on 30th of May, I started work on 15th of June. Today, people will finish in the university and they go about looking for work. One year, two years, they haven’t settled down.

Those years, there was clarity. I have been living in Lagos since 1964. And we used to have nightclubs. People were moving around in the night. Today, I don’t know what is happening. People are no longer secured at night.

We used to have people who were more honest. People had integrity. Today, to trust someone, you have to be selective because we find a lot of stealing, corruption and abuse of office, especially among youths and older ones. The society is not as interesting as it used to be in those days.

The roads were better. They were few but solid. But today’s roads don’t last long. There is poverty and degradation everywhere. We lived a quality life in the past. Those who are young should be happy with what they have because they have nothing to compare with what they have.

Then if you make a first class, you are a first class material; today in the university if you make a first class people will suspect you. If you are a lady, they will say we don’t even know how you got your first class, anything can happen.

What is your prognosis for the country? Is there hope that the country can recover?

Let us have hope. But the way we are going, it is not going to be immediate. You know, government dominates everything. I don’t understand what government is taking as priority. The government is not providing quality healthcare. Healthy people make a healthy nation. When you look at that sector which I am familiar with, I don’t see any effort to provide healthcare for people. It is not in budgeting that we provide. It is not in the provision of medical facilities. It is not even in the personnel. Doctors and nurses are exiting this country. And it is affecting healthcare. A lot has to be done in the educational sector, both in the secondary and tertiary sectors. I don’t want to be political, but giving special preferences to some tribes for them to prosper in Nigeria has become a priority, instead of taking the welfare of Nigerians into consideration.

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You trained as a pharmacist, but decided to abandon it for journalism. What made you take this bold decision?

When I went into pharmacy, I did not know what I wanted to do with my degree. I was a confused man. I loved that degree because it was the first in Nigeria. And I had good scholarship by Pfizer. But the practice of pharmacy did not appeal to me. After getting my qualifications, I was still asking myself that what I wanted to do with the degree. That is why if you see my career, I have worked in the manufacturing industry, I have worked in the hospital, I have worked in community practice, I did a lot in marketing and sales but I didn’t have any fulfillment.

Some of my colleagues were enjoying but I never enjoyed. But it is only God that led me to what I am doing today which has given me satisfaction. I am so relaxed and I am not envying any other person because I am fulfilled in pharmaceutical journalism. And the way God arranged it, in 1974 when we had Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN) Conference in Kano, I was persuaded by my very good friend, Prince Julius Adelusi Adeluyi to accept the position of editor in chief of the society journal. With reluctance, I accepted it because I had no experience of editing journals. But I found myself so in love with managing the journal. I made good changes, in fact, I modified the name. I increased the number of adverts and articles contained. I enjoyed doing it and stopped after four years. But it was such that God arranged for me that I should have that experience because when I was working in 1978, actually there was a program I wanted to attend in the US in Cambridge within the Boston area. I paid for the program because I was interested. I paid for tuition; I paid for boarding the aircraft. The company said they had no money to buy my ticket so I still bought it which was N560 in 1978 to take me from Amsterdam, to Boston and back. That was how my relationship broke down.

I was confused because I knew I had no prospect anymore in the company that treated me like that. Where would I go from there was the question. I had worked with government, Pfizer and several other places and I didn’t have any fulfillment. It was when God told me to go into the publishing of pharmaceutical journal the idea came to me in the last quarter of 1978. In fact, till date I still put down ideas that come to me. I still keep that note book dated 21st of December 1978. Some ideas were coming to me. It was like a business plan. When that one was concluded, I resigned my appointment in January 1979.

Since that time I have not looked back. That was why I studied pharmacy, to help me become a pharmaceutical journalist. Not to help me practice pharmacy. If you read the book I have published, you would see that my uncle persuaded me to study medicine. But I insisted on pharmacy and God did it for me. I am not looking around, I am not envying anybody. I am set for what I am doing. I have been running this journal from May 1979 and we have not missed any edition since that time which is by the Grace of God. If you check the national library, I don’t know any other monthly paper that survived for forty years without interruption.

The pharmaceutical industry is a multibillion dollar industry with tons of money to be made. Some of your friends, including Julius Adelusi, who owns Juli Pharmacy, made fortune from the industry. Looking back, do you have any regret abandoning it for journalism?

Well, I don’t know how much they are making. I have never compared myself to anybody. I have never envied any of them because I am where God has placed me. What I do is to use the resources I have to serve in this area. The people you are talking about can’t do what I am doing so I don’t regret it. I don’t envy anyone. I don’t compare notes. It is wrong to compare. We are unique individuals and we have different callings. You compare yourself with yourself not with any other person.

We would like you to share your experience with us in the publishing industry. Has it been a bed of roses throughout?

You know, you are in the newspaper industry and you know it is a risky industry when you are running a periodic newspaper and you want to be consistent. You have to be on your toes, whether it is quarterly, monthly or weekly. There are challenges which may come from anywhere. Sometimes there may be no advertisements. Sometimes the printer can disappoint you. Anything can happen. We have had experiences like that many times. There was a period there was serious fake drug problem in this country. Advertisements dried up for the company. It was a terrible time we passed through. In fact I was about to give up because I could not pay the staff. I could not even take care of my family because resources dried up. But you see, God’s hand has been in this business. Even during that time, I was still publishing Pharmanews, but it thinned down. I went from 5,000 in a month to 1,000 a month and I was still running. I didn’t miss any edition.

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I have also been consistent in writing books. I have been writing a book every year. This year, my book is titled ‘Living on Purpose’. And each of the books has life or living as part of the title. You see how God has directed me? I am happy that in our profession, there is one person who is committed to writing a book every year and it is me. People find it useful and give them out as gifts and sell to people. But that is how problem has led me into another dimension to serve people.

You talked about fake drugs. It seems the scourge is coming back. There is a widespread believe that the last two director generals that succeeded Prof. Dora Akunyili at NAFDAD did not do well?

If you want to compare performance, there are things you take into consideration. When you have a lot of rubbish to clear, when you sweep, you clear a lot of rubbish. But if the ground is clean you don’t get plenty of rubbish. It doesn’t mean you are not working. God sent Dr. Akunyili that time because some people put the percentage of fake drugs about 70percent at that time. So she came at a time when things reached a climax. There were many companies in the country making fake drugs. They depended on Nigeria for their market to sell fake drugs. So there was a lot to do and we thank God we tackled this problem.

Another person succeeded her and deepened on what Dora had done to keep it going. And now we have Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye who is very good and very determined to do something for this country.

Fake drugs are all over the world. And Nigeria’s porous system is not easy to control by air and road. Also corruption in the country is not easy to control because in some of these cases, law enforcement officers still look the other way and bring them in or when you pay them heavily they can allow you. The regulatory bodies in the country; NAFDAC, NDLEA and the Pharmacist Council are not very well equipped in terms of number of people, vehicle, training and equipment.

These things are affecting efficiency in controlling fake drugs. But technology is advancing too. Before, fake drug syndrome was local affair. It has now filtered everywhere, including the US. Before, drugs were not sold online. But now with the internet, you can deliver anywhere. Nobody is checking. It is being controlled but the problem is there. Law enforcement agencies are doing well to control it. And then people have to be educated. Some people do not mind buying fake drugs because it is cheaper.

Another major problem is that there are many places you can access drugs outside the pharmacy. There are drugs which we call Outside the Counter (OTC). We still have poison in some of the patent medicine stores. Sometimes, in remote areas, they are selling drugs. The situation is not encouraging in a country like Nigeria. Many people are not educated. They can’t read and they can’t write so they are being deceived by those who have knowledge. As I said, it is a process. We are growing and things will get better.

There have been many complaints about fake Paracetamol which people take mainly for headache. How can one differentiate between fake drugs and real drugs?

You cannot differentiate and no one will blame you because there are laborites you send your samples to and they are analyzed there. They must be properly analyzed by qualified people. For example, the paracetamol you are talking about, a normal tablet should contain 250 milligram but they can put 200 of the active ingredients. They can even put 100 milligram or just starch. But the packaging would be so beautiful and attractive. It is only a good lab that can do the analysis. Don’t blame anyone that doesn’t know. It is a laboratory that will prove it. Many people just assume that it is fake drugs. It is just assumptions not scientific.

Does a pharmacy have the right to sell drugs to a patient without that patient going through a doctor to test him or her to know the problem?

In a normal pharmacy, you have what we call the over the counter medicine (OTC). Those ones don’t require doctor’s prescription. Some require doctors to prescribe. For instance there are anti-worm expellers that can be recommended to you by a pharmacist. But there are some that needs doctor’s prescription because they have to examine the patient to know the causes of the problem and then use medicine to solve it. But you know, may people do not have access to doctors. That is when they want the easy way or short cut.

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One of the hallmarks of a good leader is the ability to build an enduring legacy. A day will come when you will grow so old that you may not be able to do what you are doing now. Are you thinking of it because one of the mistakes in this part of the world is not to build legacies? When you are gone what is going to be the fate of Pharma news?

When I am gone, there is nothing to worry about. You are gone, you are gone. No more worry, no more stress, no more work. One would be enjoying in heaven. But now that we are living, we think of continuity. As a matter of fact, when you have a vision for a business as I have, the ambition is to keep the business going so that people will benefit. As I said, God who started this business has already made plans for how it will end because God works till the end.

God doesn’t work like human beings. There are things people can’t control. They make plans but eventually, they leave it to God. If you are working in a company like this, we believe that your relations are the best to succeed you and carry on. Then they have other staff members who are equally capable. So, like we are now, what we are doing is delegating responsibilities to people who are around so that there will be continuity.

There was a time I will rush out if I am going for a conference and will later rush back because I need to do essential things and sign cheques. But gradually I started delegating duties. And even technology has improved. In fact I do more on holidays. I can write anything when I am outside this place and send to the office. The office is working because of technology. I don’t think there should be too much worries of what happens when you are dead. But as you are living, you know people who are capable and committed, and then you give them assignments to be doing. Somebody can go suddenly without notice at anytime.

When we make plans we commit them to God. You can be planning to retire in five years time, and the next week they say that man ‘oti ku o’ (he is dead). And you find things happening like that. You plan that your child would be there and you hear he is dead. What do you do? The Bible tells us as human beings we must make plans. But when you make plans, commit it to God because He is the one who will make it to work. When God starts a thing in your life he finishes it.

Has any of your children shown interest in your line of business?

Yes, I have my daughter who is very much interested. In fact, right now, she is a pharmacist in Dublin. But she is very much interested in what we are doing.

If you have the chance of coming to this world a second time, would you tread this path again?

I think if I don’t choose it, I would be making a mistake. This is why God created me. This is why he sent me to the world. This is the contribution he wants me to make. I was destined to do this. It is one of the things that make me happy. And I told you I don’t envy anybody. I am in the right place. The impact I am making, there is no other sector I will be that I will make that impact. No other place but this place. I am happy and fulfilled.

You are 80 years of age and by any standard you have lived a long and a fruitful life. Are there secrets you would like to share about your longevity?

You must take care of your health. Don’t depend on any other person. You have to be responsible for your health. Prevent illness. You have to mind what you eat and what you don’t eat. You have to control the mind and emotions because they can bring disaster to people’s health. Also make sure there is joy in what you are doing. If you are doing what doesn’t give you joy, it affects your health. Your work is important because that’s where you spend most of your life. If you aren’t happy there, it affects your health.

Interview first published by Business Hallmark

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