Mr Joginder Lalvani, affectionately called “Baba” by his staff and admirers, is the chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of Therapeutic Laboratories Nigeria Limited. The nonagenarian who celebrated his 90th birthday on 15 February with a three-day event held in his country of birth, India, which was attended by family and friends is still very much active and goes to work every day, notwithstanding his age.
The Therapeutic founder recently hosted a Pharmanews team in his office in Lagos and spoke on a wide range of issues. He spoke on how Nigeria, a country he arrived in 45 years ago became his new home, how he is still able to run and manage the affairs of Therapeutic at his advanced age and why Nigeria should borrow a leaf from India in terms of policy formulation and implementation to transform her pharmaceutical industry. Excerpts:
When you arrived Nigeria about 45 years ago, did you actually plan to stay this long?
No. But this is home now. There is nobody back home in India now, as all my family, brothers and the rest are already here; so if I go back, who do I want to go and meet? This is home now.
How many times a week do you come to the office?
I come to the office every day, and I don’t close until late in the evening around 7.00 pm. I don’t come to the office early in the morning, though; I resume between 1 and 2 pm, but there is no day I don’t come to office. However, there is no time of the day that my phone will ring, especially if it’s a call from any of my staff, that I don’t pick and attend to them. I see my staff as my children and I don’t joke with them.
Apart from being very active with work to keep your brain alert, are there some specific lifestyle habits that have helped to keep you going?
Nobody should think he or she is too old to work, and should retire, because the day you retire from work, you gradually begin your journey to the grave. However, in terms of lifestyle, I drink one-and-a-half litres of water first thing every morning. I also eat fresh fruits and drink green tea a lot.
I also eat ginger, drink lemon juice and eat vegetables a lot. I know that drinking water early in the morning helps to flush the system. I also don’t eat fried things or drink sugary drinks. I don’t eat spiced food or junk foods, either. These are my consumption habits.
How many hours of sleep do you have in a day?
I sleep for eight hours every night, mostly from 10pm to 6am. I do my morning exercise for one hour and what I do basically is yoga. I also take afternoon nap very importantly as it helps the brain a lot.
Therapeutics has been around for a long time, can you tell us how this company evolved?
We started importing pharmaceutical products in 1984, but actually started pharmaceutical manufacturing in 1988, and my first product was Vitaphos Capsule. At a time, one of the directors in NAFDAC rejected the application for registration of one of our products, Diclomol, although he gave some reasons. However, I took the product to the then Director General of NAFDAC, Prof. Dora Akunyili, and told her that the product was very popular in India, to the extent that about 10 to 15 companies in India were selling it. I showed her some evidence, and she gave order for its approval.
Talking about Prof. Akunyili, how would you describe her contribution to the evolution of the present pharmaceutical industry. Are there similarities between the evolution of the Nigerian and Indian pharmaceutical industries?
In the 70s and 80s, if Nigeria had followed the procedure which India followed, this country wouldn’t have been where it is presently because Nigeria has enough potentials. During the time of the late Prof. Dora Akunyili, she connected Nigeria with India. Prof. Dora is no doubt the mother of the modern pharmaceutical industry in Nigeria because what pharma industry is today was as a result of her effort. It was when she became DG NAFDAC that she helped revive the pharmaceutical industry which was almost dead before her appointment. She was always open to new ideas.
Nigeria and India actually have a lot in common. Mahatma Gandhi was deported from South Africa back to India in 1915 and that action was a blessing in disguise for the Indian nation, because about 30 years after, precisely 1947, India gained independence and he helped to transform India. His coming back to India was a divine arrangement, because it was for a purpose.
On the similarities between the Nigerian and the Indian pharma sectors, before India gained independence, there were less than ten pharmaceutical companies in the country; but as a result of good government policy and conducive environment, Indian pharmaceutical industry has become a force to reckon with in the world today.
The challenge with the Nigerian government is that they only talk, but do not implement the talk. They have good policies on paper, but poor implementation has always been a major challenge. Unlike in India, when you produce in Nigeria, the cost of production is always high because the infrastructures are not there and aside from that, you import everything needed for production. You have to import the packaging materials, the raw materials and pay heavy duties on them.
Also, in India, public hospitals are compelled to procure drugs from only the local manufacturers; so there is no other product that can be used in Indian public hospitals aside from the locally manufactured ones. However, here in Nigeria, 80 to 90 per cent of the products used in our hospitals are imported. Therefore, it is government policy that determines everything.
So, I believe the local manufacturers in Nigeria are not encouraged and it is killing the pharmaceutical industry. These local manufacturers are the biggest employers of labour; importers only need four to five people to operate. For instance, in Therapeutic, we have over 200 people in our employment; so you can see that we really need government encouragement and patronage more than the pharmaceutical importers.
As the pioneer president of the Indian Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Importers in Nigeria (IPMI), what can you tell us about the association, especially its activities in recent times?
Although, I was the pioneer president, I am no longer very active in the group, so there is no way I would know what is happening to the association. Besides, age is really telling on me, so I limit my activities to what I do here only; and even here, I try to devote my time more to things that help mental reasoning because there is a saying that “The more you work and the more brain work you do, the sharper you become”. I do tell my staff, “You need your brain to work in real life, not in the university.”
Therapeutics has been manufacturing since 1988, which is 30 years ago, where do you see this company in 20 years’ time?
My first prayer is that I would be alive to witness that, because 20 years is a very long time. However, I would have reduced my activities and involvement in the running of the company, although as at today, my brain is alert, I am fully healthy and I have no traces of any ailment in my body. I have no liver problem, no diabetes and I climb the staircase and come down without the assistance of anybody. So, physically, I am fit and I hope to continue keeping myself active and alert always. This should be the goal of everybody as we should all know that in whatever we do, our brain and body must remain active.