Highly passionate about standards and the international integrity of Nigerian products, the Director-General of the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), Pharm. Farouk Salim, remains optimistic that Nigerian products will continue to blaze the trail of quality in the global market. In this interview with PATRICK IWELUNMOR, he shares his thoughts on how his knowledge of Pharmacy has shaped his activities as one of Nigeria’s most important public officers, working collaboratively with relevant stakeholders to improve Nigeria-made products, including pharmaceuticals. He also explains why adherence to standards is sacrosanct, even in seemingly harsh economic conditions. Excerpts:
How has your knowledge of Pharmacy helped in the discharge of your duties at SON?
Pharmacy is a very precise profession, where a simple decision can produce either life or death for individuals. Accuracy is very important and that determines how and why people have confidence to make prescriptions.
Consistency is also very important – which is part of being standard. If you take a medicine in Nigeria, America, Russia or anywhere in the world, language may be different but the standards are the same. So, being a pharmacist, you are used to adhering to procedures and standards.
You spent quite some time working in the US. How would you compare the quality of standards in the US with what obtains here, especially in the pharmaceutical manufacturing sector?
The quality of standards is the same. The problem is the application. The people in the US worry about being sued – they worry about consequences; while, here in Nigeria, we rarely hear about somebody suing somebody for a mistake, either in a hospital or in any setup.
If a mechanic does not fix your tyre properly and you are involved in an accident and lose your family, the mechanic may not even be approached. But, in the US, if he is at fault, he will not only be sued, he will be locked up and then made to pay compensation. So, the standards are the same but approach and cultural understanding are totally different.
Are there ways your organisation is collaborating with NAFDAC in ensuring the quality of products, especially in the pharmaceutical manufacturing sector?
Way before I started working with SON, we had a committee that has been working with NAFDAC and we have areas of overlap. Even though NAFDAC regulates foods and drugs, we set the standards for that; and so we have to collaborate in setting the standards together with the stakeholders.
When it comes to regulation, NAFDAC goes to the facilities to investigate and inspect; while it is our responsibility to ensure that the GMP machines that are measuring the equipment are all standardised and calibrated. We have a lot of areas where we work together and then we have overlapping areas, like in chemicals. There are chemicals that we use in the building industry that are also used in the pharmaceutical industry.
There is also overlap of regulation – even though anything that is not used in food and drugs should not be viewed by NAFDAC as part of its responsibility. And that is why we have the committee to iron out such areas of confusion.
The recent fuel subsidy removal by the FG has skyrocketed production costs. Don’t you think this will compromise quality standards in the production of goods?
Theoretically, no industry should admit they are compromising quality standards because of costs. This is because standards, when compromised, destroy the integrity of a product. It is either you stop producing or you produce.
Standards are supposed to be the minimum requirements for any product. If you go below the minimum requirement, then your product becomes dangerous to the community. For example, if your aspirin is less than 325 milligrams, you have a chance that an individual will not get the benefit of that drug. It is even worse for antibiotics which can cause resistance and other issues.
I feel the pain of the industries with the fuel price hikes but that is no excuse to compromise standards. You can compromise prices but you can’t compromise standards.
Are there Nigerian products you can list among the best internationally, in terms of standards?
There are hundreds of them but our lubricants come to mind quickly. Oando, Amasco and so on. They are not just only up to standard but are exported as far as the Middle East, to the point where some people are actually faking them.
The same thing applies to our electrical cables, which are of world standards. Most of the construction works in this country by those who really want quality depend on Nigerian cables. The same thing is also happening in our cement industry. We have almost all our local cement manufacturers in most Western and Eastern African countries. We have high standard products in the country.
How does the concept of standardisation apply to products in the pharmaceutical industry?
The concept of standardisation is the basis for the pharmaceutical industry. It is also the basis for a practising pharmacist because if a doctor calls and says he has a person with an infection, what you do as a pharmacist is to recommend the appropriate antibiotic, in terms of grams and frequency, and the understanding is that the prescription will cure the problem. The dosage, strength and frequency are all important aspects of our activities.
Pharmacists in Nigeria, America and the UK do the same thing. If a doctor prescribes a medicine for you, the prescription is not based on the country he comes from. It is based on what the standards are. Standards are the bases for the pharmaceutical industry. They are also the bases for pharmacy practice and any medical practice essentially.
Can you tell us more about ISO certifications and their impact on the growth of international business?
International Standards Organisation certifications are important because they help guide the industry on how to measure and build things, how to keep things organised and how to be fair. For example, the ISO management 9001 and 2015 essentially give you the basis on how to run an organisation, management-wise. It is a basis for standards and a basis for people to fall back on to run an organisation and there are so many of them. We have environmental standards, managerial standards and quality standards. All these are parts of the basis. Everywhere you go in the world, they are the same thing. Different languages, notwithstanding; the standards are the same.
Standards-wise, what is Nigeria’s rating in Africa?
That rating does not exist because we don’t have a rating on the countries with the best-kept standards. One thing I want to call your attention to is the fact that Alvin Toffler, in one of his books, said for any country to be number one and progress or become a better country, it has to stick to standards.
For example, in the 80s, Chinese products were below standard but today China is the second best economy in the world because they stuck to standards and their products are of high quality. Any country of the world that advances, you will see that all their activities are based on standards.
Those guidelines make industries progress, make businesses and trade easy. Like the ISO, together with the African Standards Organisation – the Nigeria Standards Organisation and ECOWAS – we are working together and the bottom line is in this African free trade. Products have to cross borders without hindrances. If you have a product in Nigeria that is certified by SON, it should be easily accepted in Cotonou, Kigali and Johannesburg. Likewise their products that are up to standard and certified as such, they have easy ways to cross.
On the flip side, this is what other countries are using for trade barriers because if your products are not up to standard, then they can block them from coming into their market. With the WTO and Free Trade and all that, that is the only thing now available for countries to use to fight other countries from bringing substandard products into their territories. Standards are the bases for trade and actually the bases for life.