In Nigerian pharmacy circle, Pharm. Lekan Asuni needs no introduction. A colossus of sort, the pharmacist is the current president, Representatives of Overseas Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (NIROPHARM). In this interview with Adebayo Folorunsho-Francis, Asuni, who was appointed managing director of GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals (Anglophone West Africa) at a relatively young age of 40, bares his mind on how NIROPHARM’s cordial relationship with all regulatory agencies is aiding its progress; why people wrongly believe the body has a rift with PMG-MAN, as well as his choice of new PSN leadership. Excerpts:
As president of NIROPHARM, how would you describe the last three years in office?
Well, the journey has been good so far. Good but laced with challenges, if I can put it that way. When we came on board, the dynamics of the operating environment had quite changed. There were newer challenges – challenges with quality of representatives who work in the industry, as well as professionalism and capacity building for people who work in the factory. We also had issues relating largely to effects of government policies on the industry; policies in terms of tariffs, drug distribution system and others. Besides that, the operating environment was becoming more and more competitive. There was need for a level playing field for everybody so that companies could conduct themselves in an ethical manner. These were some of the challenges we met on ground and we began to look into how to address them.
How did you address them?
On capacity building, we ensured that capacity building programmes were conducted for our people who work in various factories in the industry, through our sister companies abroad or through some locally organised programmes. We did this so that majority of people who work with our member companies are able to operate at the same standard. We equally extended this capacity building to the regulatory agencies because we realised that they needed support in some areas of competence and capacity. We are in a position to leverage our local range to make those things available to them. For instance, we have done a lot of capacity building with NAFDAC.
What about the challenge with quality of representatives?
Yes, On the quality of representatives’ issue, this is an area we have done some work and we’ll continue to do more. Our member companies are now engaging with Pharmacy schools to dialogue about how training of pharmacists can be such that when they graduate, they can fit into the industry and all that.
On the professional conduct, this is one nut we have not been able to crack. We are still looking at a lot of things. For instance, we are looking at how we could have a database of all staff, especially medical reps in the industry and to ensure that we do share intelligence about these staff especially when they move from one company to another. We have found out situations where they actually work for more than one company. In some cases, some have unresolved issues at Company A and jumped to Company B. But, corporately, we are looking at a sustainable framework to make this confidential information available within the group. It will serve as deterrent to those moving from one company to the other without clearing up issues from where they are coming from.
Again, for our association, membership strength has grown from what it should used to be. We have an estimated 65 corporate members from barely 30 that we had before I took over. Now, with NAFDAC, if you have to renew your product licence or do any importation, we have an agreement with NAFDAC to demand for a membership certification from us. We want to be sure that they are dealing with the right people. It has been good progress so far when you look at where we were then and where we are now. Our aspiration for the future is to be the agent of change in the industry so that we can fully realise the potential.
Have you been able to meet the objectives you set out to achieve?
One of the set objectives was to follow through on the transformation of the industry which pillars we are working on. Part of it is to be a key stakeholder, being consulted and will being visible. When it comes to the industry, we have people who are highly intellectual there. We have been able to make our contributions to all the important discussions.
Another objective we set out to achieve was collaboration with different stakeholders. We have done it with regulatory agencies and even with organisations that share certain principles and objectives with us like the anti-counterfeit coalition. We do this across and have been very collaborative.
Another objective is to ensure that when we have issues in the health sector that are of high priority, we contribute our quota and expertise. Largely we have been delivering on the objectives we set for ourselves and we will continue to build on those successes.
How has NIROPHARM been coping with the issue of funding so far?
As you know, without funding, we cannot do all the activities I enumerated. But then we must appreciate all the corporate members. They have been very committed. Majority paid their annual subscription which has been the main source of revenue for us and they equally support us through other activities like meetings and workshops, in addition to the subscription. They still go the extra mile to ensure that we don’t deplete whatever we get for subscription.
They also do “part-sponsorship” of our various activities. We cannot claim that we have that revenue base, compared to some other associations because we deal with corporate membership not individuals. I think I should use this medium to thank NAFDAC for accepting that all companies that want to register products must present NIROPHARM membership certificate. Enforcement of this will go a long way to ensure that people come to NIROPHARM to register for their membership card and present to NAFDAC whenever they want to renew their licences or register new products.
In terms of attendance, how active are your members?
They are very active. I think we have three big events that bring us together. One of them is the CEOs Forum which is a gathering for chief executives to discuss strategic issues pertaining to the industry. We extend invitations to key stakeholders that we want to have dialogue with such, as regulatory agencies, customs or federal ministry of health. They do attend because they know that it is important to reach an agreement on some strategic decisions.
Secondly, we do have bi-monthly meetings where the CEOs too could attend. But it is more directed to the level below the CEOs. What we discuss there is a lot of operational issues and that excites members because all regulatory and operation details are deliberated. People do show up at those meetings because it is something that cuts across everybody. Sometimes we bring resource people to shed more lights on some contentious issues in the industry.
The last one is our signature meeting. We call it Networking Evening because we discuss contemporary issued. We even bring people from outside the industry and have serious panel discussions. So far, I can say attendance is fairly okay.
Many pharma observers have alleged that NIROPHARM has a frosty relationship with PMG-MAN. What is your reaction?
When you talk about PMG-MAN, I don’t think we have a frosty relationship. Maybe it is just people’s perception. Even when you have children from the same father, they sometimes have different views about certain issues. What may interest you is that PMG-MAN and NIROPHARM have what you can call a symbiotic relationship. There is nobody who is into 100 per cent importation or 100 per cent local manufacture. It is to what degree you have your portfolio.
When you look at members in NIROPHARM, some are doing either contract manufacturing or they are setting up factories or even owning those factories. Maybe the importation aspect of their business is little compared to the local manufacture. They will then say “Okay, I am in PMG-MAN but I am still a member of NIROPHARM, which means they could participate in the latter. Same thing also goes for NIROPHARM. But sometimes we do have difference in opinion on some issues. That is why some people feel there is a frosty relationship. No, there is nothing like that. We work fully together and are committed to same objective.
Although there could be occasional difference in opinion, I will say that I enjoy cordial relationship with PMGMAN executives. To be clear, I am also a member of PMG-MAN. Some PMG-MAN members also belong to NIROPHARM (laughs). I don’t want to start mentioning names here. But when you go to the names on the list, you will see GSK boldly written there. On NIROPHARM, you will see their name there (laughs again).
What about NIROPHARM’s position on West African Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (WAPMA)?
Well, let me say WAPMA is just evolving and we are happy to be part it. But when it started off, the window of participation by NIROPHARM was not very clear. It was looking more like it was only meant for manufacturers within the sub-region. But I think it should be all encompassing for both manufacturers and those who import because they are a West African pharmaceutical body. Once this grey area is clear, which I believe is in progress, we will all work together in the sub-region as one. And I think that is the way it should be. If we all work together to develop the industry, instead of trying to fragment everything, everybody will benefit.
How prepared is NIROPHARM for the 2015 PSN Conference?
NIROPHARM is well prepared. We are going to be there to showcase what we stand for and make people understand what values we contribute. We do so many things that sometimes go unnoticed. Member companies are busy one way or the other doing capacity building, transferring technology and doing so many great things with federal or state government as well as corporate organisations. We need to be able to showcase all these to the larger pharmacy community. We are looking forward to it and quite excited about it.
It is another election year. What are those qualities you hope to see in the new PSN president?
I think Olumide Akintayo has tried his best. He took over from Pharm. Azubike, who equally tried his best. Whoever is coming needs to build on the momentum on which we are now. We need dynamic and pragmatic leadership. We need leadership that will be able to drive a full grounding of the profession, such that Pharmacy can now be seen and perceived as a distinct profession; a profession that is well respected within the health sector. We need a brand identity and I think whoever is coming in should be able to drive that.
Thirdly, we need a leadership that would devise strategy to be more collaborative. We need ingenious ways to manage different stakeholders within the health sector, whether they are doctors, nurses, pathologists or other members. We really need an ingenious way to collaborate and been seen as collaborative.
Fourthly, there are quite a number of policy issues about some reforms that are being initiated. I am expecting that whoever is coming in must consider the fact that people have a vision about what Pharmacy is and how it should be practised. We need a committed person that would be able to push through some of these reforms; reforms in the education curriculum; reforms in pharmacy practice, reforms in distribution system of drugs and so many others on the way. He must have the ability to focus and be able to push and drive through these whole reforms so that we are not left behind some other climes.