Pharmaceutical imports into East Africa have risen significantly in the last few years. The chairman of the Federation of East African Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Nazeem Mohamed, spoke to Patty Magubira.
Is there need for a sophisticated pharmaceutical firm in the region?
In profiling the population and its needs, it is clear that there is an opportunity for such a factory.
We are willing to fund and build something along with a partner, but who will our buyers be? Tanzanians, Kenyans and Ugandans need to agree that once we build such a factory, they guarantee to buy vaccines for say, 10 to 15 years to enable the investor recover the cost of investment.
We already serve more than a million children every year in Uganda and two million from Tanzania. All these children need vaccination, which they currently obtain from GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation). And every year these countries add one or other type of vaccine, meaning that the cost of buying the vaccines keeps increasing.
A market such as this is very attractive, but you really need to know exactly who/where your market is.
You might expend a lot of money to increase product quality to global standards but find that you have no takers. At the moment it is only governments or GAVI that buy vaccines.
How can the skills gap in the industry be bridged?
There are two ways. One, which we do now, is bring in people from outside the region for temporary periods. This is inevitable because they have experience in pharmacy.
Much as I hate it, it is necessary. But I think the long-term approach would be to develop an academic curriculum aligned with industry needs.
We have many able Ugandan pharmacists, but who lack experience. They may have studied everything theoretical in text books but have never seen or practised on the equipment.
You can not blame them, as sometimes there is only one piece of equipment at a university and the professor would be using it for research and students may not be allowed to use it.
That needs to change.
But universities have all along blamed your companies for not accepting students to practise in the factories?
That is not true about Uganda, but I cannot comment on other countries. All industries in Uganda take in a few students from the big universities all the time.
Criticism directed at us has been that the three weeks students spend at a factory is not long enough. While they might learn something, we get nothing out of it unless they spend about six months and get to be part of a special project.
Manufacturing tablets is like cooking; they have to be “cooked” very precisely. And when you mix ingredients in different ways and reverse engineer, you can get more efficient formula and up-to-standard products.
How useful is the transfer of knowledge given the restrictions some East African countries impose on the number of expatriates a firm can recruit?
These kinds of laws are restrictive, but it all depends on which industry you are in. In some you may need more expatriates but in others even fewer. In Tanzania you even need a work visa, but that is not the case in Uganda.
While local companies actually want more local people employed, you will not be able to promote something locally if the locals lack competence. Pharmaceuticals is a hi-tech industry and require people who are quite knowledgeable about what the trade.
As a result, we have continuous training of our local partners to raise their awareness. Also, the quality of our products is getting better, which is a consequence of global competition.
However, we aspire to stop 80 per cent of drugs coming from outside the region. GIZ is handling training of players in the industry towards this goal.
How far is your plan to create a pharmaceutical fund in the region?
Our association is talking with a lot of people, including UNIDO and the African Development Bank given that the cost of capital in most African countries is very high.
If you borrow say $15 million and pay 20 per cent interest, your company would not be viable. Nigeria is just about to start such a fund with funding from their government; we will be watching their progress keenly.
Does East Africa need investors in shelf or cold vaccines?
In reality there are very few vaccines that can be put straight on the self. Most of the vaccines needed in Africa them must be in the cold chain on account of diseases for which we prescribe vaccines. And since 99 per cent of them require a cold chain, this makes them expensive.
How do myths and beliefs around vaccines affect your business?
Some time back, some people believed that small pox vaccines infected their children with the disease and they failed to take their children for polio vaccination. This prompted the WHO to convene a meeting to dispel such myths and polio is almost eradicated today.