THE EMZOR THANKSGIVING
By Femi Olugbile
It is the first sign, for you, as usual, that Christmas is round the corner.
EMZOR, the largest indigenous pharmaceutical brand in Nigeria, is holding its annual Thanksgiving celebration, the seventeenth in the series.
EMZOR is that rare thing in the much-troubled Health Sector of Nigeria – a truly indigenous Nigerian success story, home-grown from scratch. The brand, which began as a modest pharmaceutical retail outlet in 1977, expanded to manufacturing in 1984, and introduced its first, and most iconic brand, Paracetamol into the market in 1988. Its first factory was commissioned at Aswani in 1993. By 2018, it had more than 200 products in its offering, and had expanded to four international class manufacturing facilities. Its products were to be found in more than twenty-five countries.
And now it is on the verge of breaking new grounds by commencing manufacture of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API), becoming the first company in sub-Saharan Africa to acquire that linchpin capability vital for growing the pharma ecosystem.
By all indices, this organisation, with one thousand five hundred employees – called ‘Wellocrats’ – in sync with the corporate focus on bringing ‘Wellness’ to society, is an icon in the Nigerian Healthcare space. There is a conspicuous human touch, and a firm belief in the future of Nigeria, irrespective of present tribulations.
As host at the gathering, Stella Okoli is invited to mount the rostrum in the ritzy conference room of the Marriott Hotel, Ikeja this evening to give a welcome address, after the national anthem and an opening prayer. You expect her immediately to go off script and begin to speak straight from the heart, as she is wont to do. She does not disappoint.
There have been worried discussions lately about the parlous state of the Nigerian Healthcare industry. The role played by the pharmaceutical industry in the general dysfunction is clear. Most drugs used for treatment of Nigerian citizens are not made in the country but imported from abroad. Many of the sources are dubious, and there is a high incidence of fake drugs which the regulatory agency – NAFDAC is perpetually seeking to fight down. The drug distribution system itself is warped, despite efforts by government and industry to streamline, standardize and control it. As in the rest of the healthcare space, access to drug treatment, for most citizens is not through Health Insurance but from out-of-pocket payment, meaning that many people are unable to buy the drugs they need, especially the expensive brand name ones that are used for treatment of such conditions as cancer.
It does not have to this way. The capacity to manufacture to meet the people’s health needs is a form of power, and is the bedrock of nationalism in any country that wants to be taken seriously by other nations, especially the nations of the Western World. This power was on display at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic when the pharmaceutical industries in India and Brazil threatened to ‘go rogue’ by copying and producing cheap versions of expensive anti-retroviral drugs that were still covered by patents in the Western world, in order to make them available to their nationals who were dying of AIDS. Conversely, the implication of lacking such production clout was brought home to Nigerians at the height of the COVID19 pandemic when vaccines and effective therapies were hoarded by the countries that produced them to service the needs of their own citizens, while stories, possibly apocryphal, circulated on social media that private jets scoured the world with vast troves of money, looking for drugs to purchase for Nigerian dignitaries who lay critically ill with COVID.
Even the Astra Zeneca vaccine that Nigerians are receiving today is manufactured under licence in India. The truth, similar to the situation with HIV, is that if matters got critical, and the nations whose multinational companies own the patents refused to budge, the Indians could simply ignore the patent and copy the drug, claiming the extenuating circumstance of a national health crisis. In addition, the Indians could put their own vaccine on the market, which they are trying to do now.
There is a politics of race, and of haves and have-nots, in Pharmaceuticals that is every bit as ugly and invidious as what plays out on the open political scene of the world every day. It is the reason why some countries’ citizens are already getting booster doses of COVID vaccination, while in some countries, there are very few vaccines for the citizens. Some people are designated producers, and the vast income from pharmaceutical production is part of the basis of their national wealth and power. Some nations, including most of Africa, are designated consumers, and it is assumed they will buy the products at any price, because they need them for survival. It is in the interest of some powerful forces to keep the relationship at that level in perpetuity.
Nigeria can only become a big, independent voice in the world of Healthcare, and Pharmaceuticals, when the government, and the industry, realise the national strategic imperative of thinking along the lines of a Stella Okoli. Within the vast complex of EMZOR factories in Sagamu, there is a plan shortly to start the production of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients, a crucial landmark in import substitution. EMZOR is in the process of securing WHO certification for its line. These two, among other developments, will give it a scale and reach that was previously the stuff of dreams for Nigerians, and the exclusive preserve of the international behemoths of the pharmaceutical industry. Nigeria could begin at last to get a handle on a strategic imperative to be independent in its pharmaceutical capabilities, a task it should have set itself many, many years ago, if only it were a thinking, visionary nation.
The evening proceeds with music. At a point, everybody is dancing.
The hotel reception is bedecked with Christmas trees and flashing decorations.
A good warm Lagos evening, you conclude, spent in the company of good people.