Pharmacy Practice in Nigeria Battling Image Problem, Says Ohuabunwa at 70

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– Enumerates success principles for young pharmacists

Distinguished pharmacist and president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN), Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, has called on young pharmacists to imbibe success principles that will make them exceptional in the profession. The former MD/CEO of Pfizer West Africa, made this call during an exclusive interview with Pharmanews in Lagos. For the former chairman of the Nigeria Economic Summit Group, there is an urgent need for the National Assembly to pass the PCN Bill, which he believes will strengthen regulation and empower the council to prosecute offenders in the pharmacy industry.

Ohuabunwa who turns 70 on 16 August, while reacting to sundry issues related to his eventful odyssey through the Pharmacy profession, bemoaned the identity crisis that has engulfed the industry in Nigeria.  He also decried the menace of fake drugs in the Nigerian pharmaceutical space, citing the pivotal role the PSN played in the promulgation of the NAFDAC decree.

An extraordinarily patriotic Nigerian, the ex-NECA boss described his life’s journey as very successful. He also singled out the God-factor as the ultimate decider of his destiny even though hard work, focus, passion and self-discipline played their due parts.

Mazi. Sam Ohuabunwa, president, Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN)

Read the full interview bellow:

By 16, August, you will be 70. Interestingly, about 48 years of your life have been in the pharma profession, starting from your undergraduate days in 1972. How would you describe your journey in the pharma profession so far?

I would describe it as a very successful journey because, how do you measure success? Success is measured by the ability to attain predetermined objectives. So, I went to Ife to study Pharmacy, graduated as a pharmacist and  came out with a very good second class upper degree. In fact, I narrowly missed a first class. Actually, I did not go there to make a first class. So, I did not miss my target as I graduated.

I joined the industry after my Youth Service. I wanted to spend five years to learn how pharmacists do business from a multinational background so that I could replicate it but, somewhere along the line, my vision changed and I determined that I had better run a career and end up as the CEO of a company.

God granted me that request and I became the CEO, Pfizer West Africa, in 1993, after what I would call a very successful rise (by due humility) from the first level of being a pharmaceutical representative for two years of a multinational company to becoming the chairman/CEO of Pfizer West Africa. It’s a rare grace of God that it happened so smoothly.

I had planned to spend only ten years as CEO but I couldn’t leave in 2003 because a new development came up. I was asked to lead a management buy-out, something I never had any experience about. God gave us the grace. We led the management buy-out of Pfizer in shares and then moved on to form a new company called Neimeth, which came with its own challenges. I determined I was going to transform Neimeth from a company dependent on Pfizer to a company totally independent. By 2010, I had accomplished that.  I retired in 2011.

I had thought I was done but in 2018, God brought me back to Pharmacy as president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN). I had earlier been chairman of the Board of Fellows. So, it’s been a wonderful opportunity to exert myself and fulfil my purpose in the industry.

Within this eventful sojourn in the profession, what would you describe as your most defining moment?

I think I had beautiful moments when I led the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Group at PMG-MAN (Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group of the Manufacturing Association of Nigeria); and when I was the founding president of the West African Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Association (WAPMA). Those were exciting moments but I think the most defining moment was when I was asked to lead the management buy-out of Pfizer, a multi-million dollar business – an experience I had never had.

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I was excited when I became chairman/CEO of Pfizer. It was like a dream. I dreamt it but God fulfilled it. But the most exciting was that, all of a sudden, I became an entrepreneur. That for me, is unforgettable. Going through that procedure and process and the immediate aftermath was life-changing. I ceased from being a lower employer to a business owner, an investor and at the same time, became an employer. It was a great transformation and I thank God for making it successful.

Sir, at a time, you were chairman, Nigeria Economic Summit Group. That position required someone with a sound and deep grasp of the economic realities of the nation. What did you bring to the table?

Well, I believe that I am a student of the world. I like to learn,  and I am still learning today. I think that, somehow, I had a passion for Economics. My secondary school education was disrupted by 1967. I was in my penultimate year to complete secondary school when we went to war.

So, when the war ended in 1970, I came back to school to take an exam at the end of the year. I was looking for the necessary subjects to offer and then I went to visit some of my friends from Rivers State. I mean, my friends who had moved on.

During our discussion, someone mentioned that he studied Economics. Then, I went and read what Economics was all about and in my Form 5, I registered for Economics and made an A1. I had not done Economics from my year one until that that time when I sat for the exam in Form 5. I became interested in Economics.

Even when I went to study Pharmacy, I was enamoured by issues relating to Economics because it talks about the pursuit of wealth, the creation of wealth, the operation of the market and how you can create sustainability in the world. I became interested and I began to learn.

So, when I got into the economic summit in 1992, then I was deputy managing director of Pfizer, my CEO began to send me to represent him at the different places he had belonged, as part of the succession process. So, when I came in in 1992, I had gone through the ranks of the Nigeria Economic Summit Group before I eventually became the chairman.

All through that time, I had a wonderful experience, through the process of acculturation, relating with great minds like Dick Kramer, Paschal Dozie, Ernest Shonekan, Felix Ohiwerei – so many leaders in the summit group – and my contemporaries, Mohammed Hayatudeen, Atedo Peterside, Folusho Phillips and so on.

In the process, I kept learning from other people and so, when I became chairman, it was easy. Beyond my contribution to the economic thought, I also brought my management and advocacy skills to enable us make the right impact in the major focus of our advocacy, which was the liberalisation of the economy and transparency in governance. This was to enable us grow Gross Domestic Product by inviting additional Public-Private Partnership in the evolution and development of infrastructure and running of the government and economy that was driven by knowledge and was also competitive. We were essentially looking at how to diversify the economy without depending on a mono-source.

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The work we did was responsible for so much liberalisation, privatisation and all other things. The work is still ongoing because we have not arrived at the kind of economy we dreamt of.

It was the Economic Summit Group that motivated the Vision 2010. We sold the idea and Abacha bought it, even though he did not live to implement it. Later on Yar ‘Adua and Jonathan started Vision 2020.

What would you say is the biggest challenge facing the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria and how do you think the body can be better positioned to achieve its main objectives in Nigeria?

If I want to summarise the problem with the PSN and pharmacy practice in Nigeria, it is the problem of identity. Within the concept of the healthcare team, from the public perspective, the pharmacist is not in his right place.

In the private or what you call non-governmental area, the pharmacist is being misunderstood or sometimes misrepresented or, as we say in medicine, misdiagnosed. There is still some difficulty in actually differentiating between a pharmacist and non-pharmacist in the drug business or pharmaceutical landscape.

Many Nigerians cannot differentiate between a patent medicine seller and a pharmacist. In government, sometimes they forget that we are part of the health team, maybe because they don’t see us every day or maybe because we don’t go on strike.

So, this is purely an identity issue. That is part of my focus as PSN president – to see how we can create the proper niche for Pharmacy that would become identifiable. First will be in the governmental or public space so that government and its agencies realise the role of Pharmacy as being central to healthcare and not secondary or dispensable. Without us, there is no medicine and medicines are fundamental to healthcare.

We are trying to ask our own colleagues to differentiate their practice in the way they operate and interact, so that the identity matter could be dealt with. It will also help the government in sanitizing the environment because the sanitisation of the environment will help deal with this identity issue.

What you can buy anywhere does not have value. If you can buy drugs in the bus, on the streets and in the train, then they don’t have value because people would think all of us are hawkers; but if you are able to get your medicine from a hospital pharmacy or from a community pharmacy only, as it is done elsewhere in the world, then, you would be able to differentiate between a pharmacist and a non-pharmacist.

The menace of fake drugs – what is the PSN doing about it?

When fake drugs came into this country, nobody knew what it meant. Luckily for me, I was one of the first to confront fake medicine. I was national sales manager in the early eighties when fake drugs started becoming an issue.

At that time, there was no law. It was just like any other infringement. When we got people arrested by the police, the DPPs would tell us that there was no crime there and that it was mainly a civil matter, meaning that they could only be sued to court by the appropriate bodies and not to be arrested by the police.

It was because of such issues that that the PSN became vocal and, through the instrumentality of the PSN, the NAFDAC decree was born. And the NAFDAC decree is the fundamental instrument for managing the pharmaceutical space, for arresting fake drugs and trying to bring it down.

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When Dora Akunyili came at the height of fake drugs, the incidence was so high but since then, NAFDAC has been working. The Pharmacists Council of Nigeria (PCN), the regulatory agency, has also been working. All the regulation PCN does is done through PSN which is indirectly involved in regulation. So, PSN has been a major driver in the battle against fake drugs, as well as malfeasance and malpractices in the pharmaceutical industry.

What will be the core benefit of the passage of the PCN Bill which is currently before the National Assembly?

The core benefit is that it will strengthen regulation. It will give PCN additional power and resources to achieve what we are all crying about. We are crying that the space is not properly regulated. There are too many interlopers, infringers and pretenders in the industry.

Unfortunately, as at today, the PCN is limited. Some other institutions can prosecute you if you violate their rules but the PCN has neither the power nor the resources to do same.

The passage of the PCN Bill will also give the institution a broader scope to regulate the pharmaceutical space because it would then have the constitutional backing to regulate, for instance, the patent medicine dealers, who claim they are not pharmacists and therefore are not within the PCN’s purview.

What are those principles young pharmacists should imbibe to enable them carve a niche for themselves?

I will give them four things which I call the four Ps. The first is to have a Purpose. It can also be interpreted as to have a Vision. You must have a purpose and vision for your life.

When I joined Pfizer in 1978, I had an uncle who had money. He wanted me to join him to start a pharmaceutical business in Aba. Ninety per cent of young people would have jumped at the offer because of the money involved but I had a different vision.

My story wouldn’t have been what it is today. Perhaps, I would have become one of those importers jumping from place to place without a sense of fulfillment in the real sense. I would have ended in buying and selling and you would not hear about me in NECA, NESG, PSN, PMG-MAN and so on.

The second P is Plan. Plan your life. If you have a vision and you are willing to plan how to achieve that vision, then you are most likely to succeed in achieving that vision.

The third is Passion. You must have passion for what you are doing. You cannot achieve your purpose if you don’t have passion for what you are doing because passion drives your work and gives you the fortitude to go the long run.

The fourth is Providence, which means God’s help. With providence, I was achieving wonderful results that were more than the efforts I put into my tasks. It can only be God.

Remember the scripture, “Come onto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Providence will take you to places and heights you have never imagined.

If young pharmacists can imbibe these four Ps into their lives, they will be amazed  by the level of success that would come their way.

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