In this recent interview with Pharmanews, managing director/CEO of Pemason Pharmaceuticals Limited and Green Hope Health Care Limited, Pharm. Patrick Okwudili Osele spoke on the unhealthy competition between local pharmaceutical manufacturers and importers of pharmaceutical products. The pharmacy graduate from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), with an MBA in management from the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU) Bauchi, also revealed how he built Pemason, a company that started in 1997 without a single product, to become a major player in the pharmaceutical industry. Excerpts:
What were your objectives for Pemason at inception and how far have they been achieved?
Pemason Pharmaceuticals Limited is more or less a company built on the belief that it is possible for members of a family to grow a business from nothing to success. The mindset was to start at a low level, learn as we grow and later become a global player. We believe that when you are able to maintain a certain level of integrity, credibility and quality that can be distinguished, it will not take much time for people to recognise your presence. The goal from day one in business must not just be making money, and of course for us, it was not just about making money.
The results we have seen today have shown to us that people who love whatever they are doing and do it very well will always excel. But people who love money more than whatever they are doing may not excel. So, we at Pemason love what we do and that is why we’ve reached where we are today.
When you commenced operation about 18 years ago, how many products did you start with and how many products are now on the stable of Pemason?
In 1997 when we started, we had no products. We were actually buying from other recognised organisations. Gradually, we got to a point where we realised that there was need for us to expand our business. First, we started with partnership with an Isreali company, Dexcel Limited. We started by buying three products from them and later increased it to five, to seven and today, we are bringing in 15 products from them alone.
As that process continued to grow, we realised that there must be a complimentary product range to fill the gap we noticed in the system. That was why we explored more opportunities in the Asian continent. And we have been able to bring in more products, including injectables, to fill the gaps we noticed. Today, we have a total of about 65 products registered with NAFDAC from Asian countries.
What made you opt for pharmaceutical marketing business and not any other area of pharmaceutical practice?
I believe the best way to start anything one wants to do in life is to start from the area you have some knowledge of. Where I had my initial experience after youth service was in business venture and it influenced me. Moreover, I feel that the academia which I also love is an area that one can still enter later on in life. That is why I went for an MSc in Pharmaceutical Chemistry in UNILAG last year. It was in preparation for the day I will be of help to share knowledge to the students, not necessarily to make money. The plan is to be able to share knowledge with students on what is going on in the field as well as from the academic environment.
So I decided to venture into pharmaceutical marketing and distribution business because of my early exposure and also because I observed there are certain gaps in the system that we can fill.
Today, our company has grown and we are expanding our operation beyond drug marketing and distribution. We have realised that we must begin to think about how to contribute more as an employer of labour in pharmaceutical manufacturing. We are already working on that.
We now have a sister company called Green Hope Health Care Limited and its specific mandate is to explore relationships and partnerships that will culminate in the setting up of a pharmaceutical and allied manufacturing facility. The company presently has registered about five products with NAFDAC and may still register more; but the definite mandate of the company is local manufacturing of products.
What are the challenges facing pharmaceutical marketing and distribution business in Nigeria and how can they be tackled?
First, let me say there has always been a lack of unity between pharmaceutical importers and local pharmaceutical manufacturers. This disunity stem from the fact that these two groups most of the time do not consider the patient as the centre-point of their efforts.
What we have always done is to see how we can grab as much as we can at any given opportunity. Therefore, one group may be busy advocating for some products to be banned, not because they have the capacity to provide them and help employ more people, while doing so to deepen the system, but to enable them sell a product that is supposed to go for 50 naira for 300 naira.
The other group, because they are importers, will be advocating that they should be the only one bringing in some products, giving the impression that the other group does not have the technical ability to produce the products.
But the truth is that, in other climes, where the government has the interest of the people at heart, the government takes the pain to stabilise some of these issues through policies. I can’t remember if I have ever seen allocation to the health sector being more than four per cent. This is so low, compared to globally acceptable WHO recommendation of a minimum of 10 per cent. That, in itself, has created a problem for the patient. Essentially, I know that there is no better way to deal with this issue than by making sure that there is some kind of control through pricing policy for drugs.
All over the world, there are standardised pricing policies. It is also possible in Nigeria, though it requires courage. This is because the final point for pharmaceutical products distribution still remains the retail dispensing pharmacy and the dispensing outlet in different hospitals. It is possible to enforce the policy at that point.
I see no reason why there will be no symbiotic relationship between pharmaceutical importers and the pharmaceutical manufacturers. If there is a good relationship, it will benefit the two groups and they will be able to speak to the government with one voice and will get a better bargain from government on all issues affecting the pharmaceutical sector.
There is absolute need, however, to make sure that things are put in place to allow people who are genuinely working hard to produce pharmaceutical products in Nigeria and reduce our dependence on imported products.
Last year, there was a serious effort to commence the implementation of the new National Drug Distribution Guidelines, but as a result of protests from some stakeholders, the implementation was postponed. First, how do you see the policy, and what is your take on the shifting of its date of implementation?
A decent drug distribution system for the country is something good and I believe everyone should want it and indeed should support it. However, there is always this challenge to us in this environment – we have not learnt to customise some programmes. People want us to practise as if we are in America or Europe. They don’t take the pain to wonder if the thing they are advocating for is suitable for the environment. What works in America may not work here because the environment is different. There are things they have been doing in America for more than 200 years, so they have become a way of life.
But that is not the main issue. The challenge is our mindset. First, it is out of place to bring mainly people who are from hospitals to discuss drug distribution system, because you will get a wrong answer. We can’t make a drug distribution policy an issue of who is more influential.
There are some countries where they even allow the open drug markets. I know it is in operation in some countries in the Far East. We should have some level of control of our drug distribution, as stipulated by the law; but we should be conscious of how we implement our policies so that we don’t create other problems. We need to recognise our peculiar environmental situation.