Pharm. Matthew Azoji, managing director of Neimeth International Pharmaceuticals Plc., is one man who turns challenges into success stories. A Fellow of the Nigeria Academy of Pharmacy (NAPharm) and recent recipient of the National Productivity Order of Merit (NPOM) Award, Azoji, alongside his management team at Neimeth, have transformed the company from a struggler to a highflier in the Nigerian pharmaceutical space. In this exclusive interview with Pharmanews’ duo of PATRICK IWELUNMOR and ADEBAYO OLADEJO, he shares his Neimeth experience, while also baring his mind on sundry issues affecting the Nigerian pharmaceutical sector. Excerpts:
What would you say have been the factors driving you to offer the kind of progressive leadership Neimeth is enjoying now?
When I joined Neimeth in February 2019, I took notice of two key issues. One, the company had had about three CEOs in less than eight years, prior to my taking over the leadership of the company. Two, for over a decade it had recorded predominantly huge losses, and low turnover and had not paid dividends to shareholders for nearly ten years. These were two potential worries for any fresh executive management. But instead of looking at these developments negatively, I saw them as key learning points around which our success would be assessed.
Again, whenever I join an organisation, my first step is always to review the strategic plan of the company. So, one of the first things we did as a new management was to review Neimeth’s corporate strategy. We organised a Board and Management retreat for that purpose. At the end of that exercise, we came up with a new 5-year strategic plan, which included a brand new vision, mission and core values. We are currently in the middle of the 5-year plan and we are seeing positive results.
Our current vision is “to be the leading innovative healthcare provider out of Africa”; while our mission is “to promote healthy confident living”. One of the ways we have carried on is to seek staff buy-in of the new vision and mission. You know that whatever goals you set out as Management, you must carry your staff along. So, we went ahead to develop a set of new core values for the company, aimed at remoulding the character of Management and staff towards the effective pursuit of the vision and mission. These are behaviours around the work environment and conduct of the company business which our workers must exhibit. These attitudes and behaviours are central to high productivity, efficiency and achievement of excellence at work. Our core values include customer delight, leadership, innovation, teamwork, God-consciousness, integrity and community.
After setting up this work framework, we began to implement key elements of our strategy. One major focus has been continuous productivity enhancement. We focused on achieving higher revenues and consistency in the growth of both turnover and profitability. Overall, we have had to put a lot of emphasis on how to delight all stakeholders of the business, building on the mindset of customer delight – in other words, looking at every stakeholder as a customer.
But we also noted that productivity could not be increased to achieve the targets we had set, using some of the aged machines and production facilities in our factory. So, with the approval of the Board, we decided to replace these machines and upgrade the entire production process. In 2020 we began a programme of factory upgrade of our Lagos plant. This is expected to be completed soon. At the end of the exercise, we hope to achieve a 300 per cent increase in production capacity.
So, using your words, we have progressively led Neimeth to attain heights in the last three years which have received commendations from various industry watchers, as evidenced by the various awards we have received since 2019.
Let me also say that whatever results we have achieved so far are the handiwork of the entire Neimeth team, which comprises the Board, Management, and staff, with the support and cooperation of other key stakeholders, such as customers, suppliers, regulatory bodies, relevant government agencies and our communities. But above all these, Neimeth believes in the God-factor. One of the core values of Neimeth is God-consciousness. We attribute whatever success we have achieved in the last three years to the grace of God and we give Him all the glory.
How would you rate the Nigerian pharmaceutical space in terms of innovation?
Innovation is key to the pharmaceutical industry. It is through innovation that key breakthroughs are made in the global pharmaceutical sector. You cannot develop a novel therapeutic agent to address any critical health need without innovation. On the other hand, innovation in the pharmaceutical industry is achieved mainly through Research and Development (R&D) and through consistent investment in infrastructural and technological development.
The African Union Study Project Report, titled “Strengthening Pharmaceutical Innovation in Africa” defined pharmaceutical innovation as “the discovery, development, production and delivery process that enhances the availability of medical products and people’s access to them”. “Medical products” in this context include diagnostics, drugs, vaccines and medical devices.
One key objective of pharmaceutical innovation established in this definition is access to medicines for people. Access to medicines is a well-established universal human right, but one that is far from being guaranteed for the majority of people in low-income countries, including Nigeria and the rest of Africa.
How does this reflect in the Nigerian pharma sector?
My answer is that, in consideration of the above definition and, particularly, in terms of modern medicines and the discovery of molecules and candidate medicines, the Nigerian pharmaceutical space still has a lot to do. We have not done enough as stakeholders in the Nigerian pharma space and the current outcome achieved is not satisfactory, especially if you consider that the Nigerian pharmaceutical space is nearly a century old.
Indeed, there have been efforts in various sectors of the Nigerian pharma space to discover and develop medicines that will address the unique health needs of Nigerians, especially relying on indigenous phytomedicines; but this has resulted in few successes of such discoveries getting to the stage of manufacturing and delivery to end-users. The reasons for this situation have been a combination of economic, infrastructural and technological constraints. The other challenge is the poor level of collaboration and partnership among researchers, policymakers and pharmaceutical manufacturers. There is a lot of communication gap among the various players in this space, leading to long lead times before effectively harnessing the benefits of work already successfully done; and, at the end of the day, the patient suffers. Yet the country houses a large stock of herbal and natural products that can be developed as medical commodities.
What is the way out of these lapses?
I think the solution to this will be multi-layered. First, the government must encourage investment in pharmaceutical R&D, through special grants and loans to universities, research institutes and pharma companies. But above all, there must be collaboration between the research institutes and manufacturers on one hand; and among the manufacturers themselves on the other.
While I admit that we need government support to make more progress in these areas, I also think we need more collaborations and organised partnerships among the local operators within the healthcare sector. Few pharmaceutical companies can team up to develop local medicaments working with local researchers for locally made remedies to health emergencies. Now, Neimeth is one of those companies in this country that are focused on developing quality medicines for Nigeria and Africa with an emphasis on Africa specific diseases.
With our new vision – “To be the leading innovative healthcare provider out of Africa” – Neimeth is reinvigorating its effort to build on past achievements and put safer, quality and efficacious remedies at the disposal of Africa and Nigeria; in particular, to effectively deal with the many healthcare challenges besetting the people.
Neimeth has committed a substantial amount of money to Research and Development (R&D) in the recent past. This flows from Neimeth’s vision statement, “To be a leading innovative healthcare provider out of Africa” as indigenous research is one of the key drivers of our innovation. Our innovation strategy includes working with medical and pharmaceutical scientists/researchers to develop new products, and conduct drug clinical trials and in-vitro drug studies. These drugs could be natural, and/or chemical (synthetic), oral, or parenteral.
To this end, we review research work in our indigenous universities and relevant government agencies, based on local raw materials, focusing on specific disease areas that are generally neglected by the global/multinational companies. We seek to provide new local health remedies in these areas at affordable costs.
Our first success in this area is Ciklavit, the first homegrown natural product for the effective management of sickle cell disorder. It is a product of research done at the University of Port Harcourt by late Prof. G.I. Ekeke. Neimeth took up that research and developed Ciklavit, which is one of the most important medicines for sickle cell disorder today. Prof Ekeke is late, but we are still paying his family royalties. There are still other projects going on like that – from our farms and gardens, to developing effective medicines.
Secondly, dependence on foreign Research & Development can be minimised by government funding. It is, therefore, heartwarming that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), with the advent of COVID-19, has floated the Health Sector Research and Development Intervention Scheme (HSRDIS), to help strengthen the public healthcare system with innovative financing of Research and Development (R&D) in new and improved drugs, vaccines and diagnostics of infectious diseases in Nigeria.
The scheme is expected to activate passionate national research and development activities that could lead to the development of Nigerian vaccines, drugs and herbal medicines against COVID-19 and any other communicable or non-communicable diseases through the provision of grants to eligible researchers and organisations. The limit of the grant is N50 million for research activities and N500 million for development/manufacturing activities.
Though the Government has demonstrated that something positive could be done in this area by floating the HSRDIS and finally approving grants to 5 researchers totaling about N234.5 million, but some experts in the pharma sector have opined that the amount offered per researcher and per development/manufacturing activity may not be adequate to achieve meaningful outcomes in terms of going from R&D to delivery of medical products to people.
However, the Government can build on this unprecedented gesture by CBN to do more to promote pharmaceutical innovation and by also releasing the grants to organizations for development and manufacturing activities. Besides new product innovation, a lot is also happening in the distributive and supply chain arm, aimed at delivering medicines; especially delivering life-saving medicines to hard-to-reach communities, in a timely manner, using drones, for instance. These kinds of innovation in pharma supply chain help to improve patient outcomes. All stakeholders in the Nigerian pharma space are encouraged to invest more resources in innovation to enhance access to medicine and thereby improve patient outcomes.