(Contd from last edition)
Pharm. (Dr) Obalolu Ojo is the managing director/CEO, Merit Healthcare Limited. In this exclusive interview with Pharmanews in his office in Lagos, Ojo, a former national chairman of Association of Industrial Pharmacists of Nigeria (NAIP) and incumbent chairman of the PSN Committee on Research, Documentation and Industrial Liaison, examines the impacts of the outbreak of coronavirus on the pharmaceutical industry and the lessons the Nigerian nation should learn from it. He also reveals what his committee has been doing since its inauguration, as well as his thoughts on other contentious pharmacy issues. Excerpts:
Two important pharmacy issues that have been hanging for some years now because they require government approval before they are implemented are the National Drug Distribution Guidelines (NDDGs) and the new Pharmacy Bill which is now back at the National Assembly. How really crucial are these issues and what more can be done to fast track their approval and implementation?
To answer your question on whether they are crucial, I will say they are highly crucial. This is because distribution problem is a major reason the pharmaceutical sector is prostrate in this country. We were talking about how much the government owes the industry, but I can also tell you that a lot is equally owed in the trading of this product. It is crazy. The trouble is distribution and I believe that if we can address distribution, we can change the entire profile of the pharmaceutical industry.
One thing I can say with confidence as regards the NDDG is that there are improvements. There are organisations that are coming up in this area. The fact is that NDDG, when implemented, will enable us to do audit trail of everything in the system.
The NDDG idea does not mean that the entire business operation must be run by pharmacists. A lot of people misunderstood the idea. As pharmacists, we understand the professional and mercantile nature of our profession, the two of them must be well taken care of. What we are saying is that anybody that wants to be in this business must be under regulatory control. That is all.
I was the chairman of the PSN NDDG committee and when we started, all the players responded. Including all the ones in Idumota and Onitsha. And we explained to them that we are not out to close anybody’s business but want them to come together and be under regulation and they understood.
That is what we were trying to achieve and majority of them understand it. However, not everyone agrees so we are not all pushing in the same direction. That is why it is still in limbo.
On what we are doing to fast track the implementation of NDDG, I’m aware the president has set up another committee and they are working on it. However, I must say that the PSN is just a professional body. It doesn’t have statutory power to say this thing must happen tomorrow. The best it can do is to let government know the benefit of it through advocacy. So, the PSN is doing all it can do.
This NDDG is not for the benefit of the PSN but for the benefit of the man who is sick and is in trouble because he is sick and needs a remedy. And instead of giving him a remedy of a quality medication that will help him, you give him a fake or substandard product. It is a double jeopardy. The message is as clear as that, and all stakeholders in this country must realise that and support the implementation of the NDDG because it will help us to guarantee the quality of the medicines in our system.
On the Pharmacy Bill, first, I honestly don’t know why the president did not sign it into law the last time it was passed. It must have been due to some opposition from other quarters. Nigeria is usually about who you know and vested interest.
Perhaps some people do not like the pharmacy profession. For instance, the name of the bills says “Pharmacy Council” instead of Pharmacists Council of Nigeria. This mean that everything about pharmacy falls under the laws. Certainly some people may not like that.
But there are many provisions in that bill that is good for the society. For instance, the bills seeks to see how we can serve the underserved in the society in terms of medicine supply. There are areas in this country where there are no registered pharmacies, yet people in the area are using medicines. How are they getting their drugs? Who is supplying them the drugs? Are we sure such a person is not giving them products that will kill their kidneys?
The bills seeks to see how we can help those people. We will continue to push for this bill and I hope that, one day, we will get there.
It is my hope that, one day, we shall get a leader who understands all we are pushing for. It doesn’t have to be the president. That leader may be the minister or even a special adviser. We just need somebody who realises that there are important things to be done. There are many leaders and many office holders who do not even know why they are holding the office. When you hold office as a minister, there are questions you should ask yourself. What is on ground? What can I do to improve it? Which level can I take it to? It is only when you have such clear goals that you can measure what you have achieved.
That is a major reason nothing is changing. We have been saying the same thing for years. Pharmanews has been publishing for over40 years and I know you guys have been writing about the same thing for several years because we still don’t have such leaders.
Your involvement in Ultra Logistics Company (ULCO) as the managing director some years back became a subject of a probe panel committee set up by the PSN last year. I learnt the committee has concluded its investigations and submitted its report. Can you tell us the reason ULCO was founded as the foundation MD and also your thoughts concerning the findings and recommendations of the PSN probe committee on ULCO?
The Ultra Logistics Company Limited (ULCL) was formed between 2014 and 2015 as a special purpose vehicle to address the problem of drug distribution in Nigeria. It was my idea and what prompted it was because I know that what individuals cannot do, groups can do it. Why is Dangote not in pharmaceutical business? Why are the big players in our economy not in this industry?
There was a time I spoke with Oba Otudeko when we invited him for a programme. I asked him why he was not in pharmaceutical business and his response was that there was little or no return on investment. However, I know this is our industry, we can’t run away from it. I know that our major problem is drug distribution and I know that we need to address it. That is one part of the problem ULCO was to help us solve.
The second part is that the NDDG made provision for Mega Drug Distribution Centres (MDDCs) and these MDDCs are the ones that will be buying directly from manufacturers and importers. No other person can set up MDDCs apart from government agencies and state distribution centres. So we were of the opinion that if we were not careful, we might be substituting the current, disorganised and chaotic system for a monopoly or oligopoly, where some people would just seize the entire process by the jugular. So we knew that we needed a buffer. We needed an organisation that would serve the interest of Pharmacy first and, by that, serve the interest of the public because Pharmacy is a service profession.
So we knew that we needed to protect that and ensure we protected professionalism. We also knew that it would help us to protect the interest of pharmacists too. This is because by pulling resources together under ULCO, we can serve the interest of the society and protect pharmacy and pharmacists. That was the well thought out idea. We wanted everybody in the value chain to be involved – the manufacturers, the importers, the distributors and the retailers – so everyone will see it as their own.
The ULCO engagement cost me four years from 2013 to 2016 and even my business partners were complaining that I was giving too much attention to the activities of the Society. They are still complaining till now but I have not stopped because this is my ministry, and I derive satisfaction in being of help to this profession.
We started very well and succeeded. For the first time in the history of the PSN, we were able to mobilise about 123 million naira from pharmacists. This was without any threat of your license not being renewed. It’s all about the power of persuasion and setting of a dream that people could relate with. But that figure was still below what was needed to set up the kind of company that we needed and we were looking for alternatives to get to where we needed to be and thankfully we got some ideas on how to do that.
However, as it is the case in this Society, some of my colleagues felt otherwise on the idea we were pursuing. They did not see the vision as we saw it. They did not understand what was behind the passion I had and they thought there were other things driving the passion. They started bringing all sorts of issues. I tried to convince them otherwise but they still refused to understand and did everything possible to frustrate it.
So, at a point, to make sure that the idea didn’t get thrown out, I realised I had to step aside and that was what I did. I was given the option to be the chairman of the company but I said no. My view was that if they wanted to really see what was not clear to them, they should go in there and manage the company. I was the founder, initiator and the pioneer MD of the company and I ensured that our finances were very transparent.
While waiting for the business to take off, we engaged the money in some venture partnership and in 10 months we made a profit of about 30 million naira. Even in the pharmaceutical business that we are running, we don’t make such profit. This happened in 2016 at a time the country was on its knees due to economic recession. At a time, we had a negative GDP growth and I think this perhaps further confused them.
I think the issue was further compounded by the political atmosphere in the Society because I was interested in the presidency of the PSN. So some people felt they could use it to taint me. They began to spread the story that Lolu Ojo stole or mismanaged money of ULCO. What I did at that time was to write an article to explain everything concerning the company. I titled it “Ultra Logistics – My Story”. I wrote and explained that history would vindicate the just and explain all the details of what we did. There were people that responded positively to my explanation but there were those who still carried on with the lies.
Nevertheless, the current PSN president set up an investigative probe panel and I went there to explain. The panelists asked me questions and I answered. I went there with all the documents, so I was happy that I was exonerated of all charges. Not one allegation was proved against me.