Pharm. Lolu Ojo is the Managing Director, Merit Healthcare Limited and a former Chairman, Association of Industrial Pharmacists of Nigeria (NAIP). In this interview with GABRIEL IFINNWA he described the recent Government ban on the production and sales of codeine cough syrup as not the solution. He also shared his perspectives on contemporary issues in the sector; Excerpts.
What is your view on the ban by the Government on the production and import of cough syrups containing codeine?
First is to commend government for doing something swiftly to combat the menace of the drug abuse. This is not the usual action of this government known for dithering on issues requiring urgent action. However, the ban may not be the solution to the problem. On a short term basis, it will reduce the availability of these drugs and possibly reduce the rate at which they are consumed. In reality, what will happen is that codeine-containing syrup will become a ‘black market’ business and the abusers will still get it and surely, at higher prices.
What about other drugs that had been classified as illegal (Heroin, amphetamine, Desmethyl amphetamine, cannabis, etc) many years ago? Why are they still available in the ‘market’ as reported daily by the officials of the Nigeria Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA). I think the Government should have used the opportunity to look at drug issues holistically from research to manufacturing, importation, distribution, retailing, procurement, etc. and come up with something in line with world best practices to bring sanity into the system. I want to believe that this action will be reviewed soon and replaced with something more enduring.
Taking a look at the state of the pharmaceutical industry in Nigeria today, what would be your assessment?
First and foremost, it is not always a good thing for us to keep talking about the negative aspect of the sector. The truth of the matter is that we have achieved a lot in the last decade in the pharmaceutical sector. Today the pharmaceutical industry in Nigeria has evolved; we have seen some robust development in terms of increase in the number of local drug manufacturers, as well as human and infrastructural capabilities. Four pharmaceutical manufacturers in Nigeria have been certified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to produce drugs in accordance with its Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP); this is a positive thing. I must also state here that the industry is far away from where it should be. Nigeria is still a consuming nation; about 80 per cent of our drug consumption is still imported. I am an importer myself. So, this is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.
Why do you think local drug production is a challenge in Nigeria?
The answer is not farfetched. I must say to you that generally, manufacturing business is very tough in Nigeria. Take the issue of power; I cannot run my business without regular power. Whether I make sales or not I must fuel my generator. Besides power, another issue is that of the high interest rate in Nigeria – as much 33 percent. This does not encourage local manufacturing. Local manufacturers of drugs should have access to cheap funds. In a country like India, the government has put in place a number of initiatives designed to encourage the pharmaceutical sector. In the case of Nigeria, the case is different. Most pharmaceutical companies in Nigeria do not manufacture the active ingredients or raw materials.
Instead, they rely on imports from either China or India. If Nigeria is to become self-sufficient in drug production, then the country needs to go back to research. We need to empower our academics to be able to carry out research, particularly on pharmaceutical raw materials based on indigenous resources. Government must deliberately encourage local drug manufacturing by patronising local drug companies. This will go along way to boost their capacity, operations and enable them compete with their counterparts from China, India and others. Also, no investor will want to invest in a country where there are issues of insecurity. The country has to find a solution to all of these challenges. Overall, Nigeria needs to invest in the growth of the pharmaceutical sector.
What is your view on the drug distribution system in Nigeria?
We do not have a definable drug distribution system in the country. But, more importantly, I want to clarify this notion that pharmacists do not want non-pharmacists in the business; this is not true at all. Whether you are a pharmacist or a non-pharmacist, our general interest must be the man on the street. We need to ensure as stakeholders that drugs sold in retail shops are genuine. And that is how regulation comes in. In other parts of the world this is done; Nigeria cannot be an exemption. We cannot joke with drug regulation in Nigeria.
Only recently Nigerians are beginning to talk about the abuse of codeine syrup and tramadol. But, these issues have been with us for so long. The drug abusers have easy access to some of these drugs on the streets. The Government has come up with a new drug distribution guideline, for which I have been privileged to champion. The issue now is that of full implementation. I am aware that the implementation of the new guideline will take effect in 2019. I am hopeful that there will not be any set back.
Don’t you think, the delay in the implementation is not helpful to the industry?
Of course, the delay in implementation is not helpful. The industry cannot reach its full potential if there is a lack of an effective drug distribution system. We must ensure that when the system is put in place, it is devoid of adulteration.
How can Nigeria’s pharmaceutical industry compete globally?
I want to ask this question, what is the interest rate in India? It is about 6 to 9 percent. The interest rate is high in Nigeria. Government must deliberately decide to boost local drug manufacturing by reducing the high interest rate. While the ease of doing business agenda by the government is commendable, the high cost of doing business in Nigeria is financially unfriendly. If we must compete with India and China, then we must also return to pharmaceutical research.
The open drug market is an issue; how do you react to this?
This is simply an idealistic issue. We need to communicate with those operating in the system. We need to create a sane society. I have had meetings with some of these stakeholders in my office. Drug is not yam or plantain that you sell in unfavourable or unsafe environment/ conditions. I am also of the opinion that using the instruments of force may not necessarily be the solution. Do you know how much is passing through Idumota on a daily basis? We need to come to a workable solution through effective and constant dialogue.
About NAFDAC, what is your candid assessment especially the fight against fake drugs?
I will not sit down here and tell you that NAFDAC has not done anything. The fight against fake drugs – you have to be consistent and persistent. When the Late Dora Akunyuli was the Director General of NAFDAC a lot of Nigerians commended her efforts. But there is someone else at the helm of affairs of the agency. As major stakeholders in the industry, we should not leave the fight to NAFDAC alone. We must all be involved.
How do you see the relevance of the pharmaceutical sector in years to come?
Pharmacy profession will remain relevant for as long as there is need to promote health. What we should be asking is – how the pharmacy profession can reach its full potentials. The Pharmacist’s roles continue to expand and evolve beyond the traditional product oriented to patient centred practice. Pharmacists in Nigeria are very intelligent and versatile on sensitive drug issues like oncology drugs, invitro-fertilsation or drugs for transplant among others. We need to break those barriers that are hindering the profession.
Can you tell us briefly about yourself?
I am a registered Pharmacist, involved in the profession since 1984. I did my internship at the University of Ife. I worked at the Obafemi Awolowo Teaching hospital Complex in Ilesha for few months, joined the service of Roche Nigeria Limited after a brief stint in the academic and community Pharmacy Sector in 1988. I rose rapidly from a Medical Representative to Marketing Manager in 1997 with a track record of achievements at each of the 6 posts occupied during the 11 year period.
I joined Coca-Cola Nigeria Limited in March, 2000 as Area Manager and got promoted to an Operations Manager in January 2001. Another promotion came up in January 2002 as Market Development Manager. I was seconded to Femster & co Ltd (bottler of Limca and Gold spot) as Sales and Marketing Director in 2005. I resigned voluntarily from Coca-Cola Nigeria Limited in September, 2005 to establish Merit Healthcare Limited, a pharmaceutical importing and marketing company. I started my own business in 2005.