Pharm. Kenneth Onuegbu is the managing director/CEO, Tricare Pharma Limited, and national chairman, Association of Industrial Pharmacists of Nigeria (NAIP).
A Fellow of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN), he obtained his B.Pharm. in 1991, from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). He also bagged a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, with specialisation in Marketing from the same institution, as well as attending the Advanced Management Programme of the Lagos Business School (LBS).
Onuegbu has worked with Afrab-Chem Limited, Roche Nigeria Ltd (Now SWIPHA), Emzor Pharmaceuticals, ChanMedi Pharm Ltd/GTE, Maydon Pharma and Dafra Pharma Limited before starting Tricare, which commenced operations fully in 2011. In this interview with RANMILOWO OJALUMO, he shares his experiences on the realities of running a thriving pharmaceutical business in Nigeria, while also heading a key professional group like NAIP. Excerpts:
Tell us briefly about Tricare. How did it start and how is it faring now?
Tricare Pharma Limited was incorporated in 2009 but we entered into the market in 2011 with two products. Today, we are excited to have about 35 products in the Nigerian market. We have three key brands that are produced locally at a factory in Nekede, Owerri, Imo State. Another seven products are produced here in Lagos through a local contract manufacturing arrangement. This brings the number of products we make here to 10, as part of our contribution towards local content.
We are present in almost the 36 states of the country, making sure that our customers and, of course, the Nigerian masses have reasonable access to our essential medicines and by so doing contributing significantly to medicine security in Nigeria.
You were elected as the national chairman of NAIP in 2021. You are also the CEO of Tricare. How do you manage these two roles?
I must confess that it has been very challenging, very demanding and at times distracting. It is a huge task to manage a company like Tricare and also leading a vibrant and important professional association like NAIP. One thing l know for sure is that someone must do it and today l find myself saddled with those responsibilities. The grace of God has kept me going.
Another thing that has been helping me is the ability to put everything we learnt in management into practice. What are those things? The first one is effective planning and execution. I have also deployed the power of effective delegation, thereby tapping into the potentials that I see in the people around me. Everyone has an inherent strength; so it is important to tap into those strengths and join them with yours as a CEO and then get things done.
Despite the fact that I am not there most of the times, things are going on pretty well at both NAIP and Tricare Pharma levels. It is not easy, but somebody must do it. If all of us run away from this kind of responsibility, who will do it? Not running away from responsibilities makes you a stronger and smarter person.
Multi-tasking capability is also very important for the survival of every human being, especially during this period of economic crisis and global meltdown. Challenges, most of the time, brings out the best in you. If you take a look at my career, I started as a medical representative and later became a senior medical rep; from there to area manager, national sales manager and marketing manager and then as a country director. All these experiences prepared me for the challenges I undertake today. In fact, I can proudly say that if you add another task to what I have at hand today, I would still find a way around it to deliver excellent results.
God has blessed me with a good health condition and I thank God that I have the energy. God has also blessed me with good team members, which I think is also very important. With a good team, character, commitment and courage, you can go far.
As a CEO, how can you describe the Nigerian business environment?
The Nigerian business environment, as at today, is “crazy” and frustrating, to the extent that, a lot of us business-owners want to quit, except for the fact that we have been resolute, believing in the saying that quitters don’t win and winners don’t quit. So, we continue hanging around, believing that things will get better tomorrow.
The business environment today is extremely harsh and turbulent. Which area are we going to look at? One of the biggest problems today is lack of forex to manage our business. It is one thing to have your naira and another thing to secure the hard currencies to facilitate your business transactions with your foreign partners.
The banks have turned out to be mere visitation halls to exchange greetings and listen to stories on why Form Q or LC will not be made available to you in the next six months or thereabout. It has become a racketeering business. Virtually every key player is forced to buying the foreign currencies at the black market to pay our foreign partners. A very sad situation indeed.
You can see the free fall of the naira. Within a week, our naira depreciated by more than N50. Today one dollar has jumped to over N700. A litre of diesel is over N800 and steady power supply is not there. With this situation, what are you going to make out of the business? How can a manufacturing company recover from all these shocks? How can an importer of essential goods make a profit after going through this unprecedented high cost of doing business?
The sad thing is that the pharmaceutical market has refused to accept those sharp increases and devaluation of the currency. I can tell you that the prices of most of the products that we are selling today are still the same with what we sold some years ago. This is surely not the best of times for us in the pharma business.
We can only hope that things will get better. Quitting is not an option. Those of us who cannot run, should walk. Those who cannot walk, should crawl and those who cannot crawl should raise a voice. I am fully convinced that things will eventually turn out to be good at the end of the day.
The buying power of the consumer has reduced and the debt profiles of pharma companies are increasing astronomically. Most of the companies are just pilling up debts. Some of our direct or indirect customers have refused to pay. So many of our sales partners are owing; except maybe only a few big companies that have been able to carve a niche for themselves with some special brands, with which they can insist on a pay-first-before-getting- products. Unfortunately, most of the upcoming companies cannot do the same.
I think it is high time we sat down and come up with a policy for the industry, but currently, the business environment is frustrating and nauseating. Some key players have called it quit because they cannot cope with the current economic realities and because the business environment is poisonous. We cannot continue like this; something drastic must be done. A radical problem we are told requires a surgical excision.
You said there is need for a policy for the pharma industry. What should this policy look like?
The pharma industry is a unique one. Medicine is a security matter to the country and if you deny any nation of essential medicines, that nation will be in serious crisis. So, the Federal Government, possibly through the Central Bank, should come up with a policy that will ensure regular inflow of forex to key players in the pharma sector at a normal rate, so that Nigerians can have access to essential drugs at affordable prices.
Government should also come up with policies that will encourage key players to start setting up manufacturing companies in the country to boost local drug production. We have depended so much on importation. It is time to look inward. Let us create the enabling environment for our industries to thrive. Take a look at the price of diesel. As of today that we are having this interview, it is about N800 and we don’t know what it’s going to be by the time the paper is out in September.
Take a look at our erratic or epileptic power supply. Not to talk of insecurity and poor road networks. How can we attract investors with this assemblage of ugly situations at hand? Our government really needs to come up with policies that will encourage investors to invest in the country and start manufacturing.
Added to this is the fact that the government should improve the infrastructures across the country. Security is now a nightmare. Nobody is willing to travel by road anymore. The same thing is applicable to our sales reps. Reps that are supposed to cover Abuja, Kano, Kaduna and other states in the north are now afraid to travel because of the high insecurity in that axis; the situation is the same in the eastern and western parts of the country. It is terrible.
Government must do something urgently. If we must achieve self-sufficiency or medicine security in the country, we must grow beyond mere importation and start focusing on Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) production, excipients production, as well as supporting local contract manufacturing of essential medicines.
What would you consider as your biggest challenge as a CEO?
My biggest challenge is staff unpredictable behavioural pattern, especially for us who are in sales and marketing. Some of the staff are not prepared to work. We have been told that what makes a company great is not just people but the right people. A lot of us in the industry are struggling to get the right people on the job. This is a hard nut to crack by human resource experts and departments. It is always a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly; and it seems that the bad and the ugly are becoming increasingly overwhelming in our recruitments these days. You may have your way to handle the harsh operating environment but it is always tough handling the cases of bad staff with a poor attitude and negative perception to work ethics.
Other challenges include high cost of doing business, lack of power, high cost of diesel, forex scarcity and many others. But for me, bad staff attitude is the number one challenge. Attitude is everything. Your attitude determines your altitude. If you employ a staff that doesn’t have the right attitude on the job as CEO, you are finished.
Can you share with us the most exciting moment of your career?
I have created so many exciting moments in my career, thereby making it difficult for me to pinpoint exactly which one is the most exciting. It was an exciting moment for me leaving a multinational company, Dafra Pharma, to establish Tricare Pharma, with my two other business partners. Building the company and a dynamic and formidable team from two products in 2011 to about 35 as at today is exciting indeed. It can only get better.
It was an exciting moment for me winning the overall best medical rep of the year award for Afrab-Chem Ltd in 1994. It was awesome for me when l joined Roche in 1995 and won Product Champion award on core brands like Rocephin, Aurorix, Dormicum. It did not end there; l won the Best Area team award.
It was a continuation of the exciting moments when we launched Zolat (Albendazole) for Emzor with Child Care Trust Abuja (a pet project of the then First Lady, Late Chief Mrs Stella Obasanjo). It was one project that l started and completed with a good sense of achievement and fulfilment. Of course, l got a special letter of commendation from the GMD of Emzor.
I did not stop there. l won several awards like Best Area Manager award, Outstanding Performance award and Team Award, all in Emzor Pharmaceuticals . In 2008, l was invited to Dafra Pharma Headquarters in Belgium to share my good performance experience with all the affiliate countries where Dafra Pharma exists. It was an exciting moment for me.
The Maydon Pharma you know today was started by me as the first head of sales and marketing. Today, l do not think that you can completely write the history of Maydon Pharma without mentioning the footprints l left there. And the same thing goes for ChanMedi-Pharm Ltd/GTE, where l was supported by the erudite MD/CEO of the company, Pharm. Matthew Azoji, to lead a re-engineering and restructuring of the company that guaranteed its survival for many years. These are golden moments in my career and there are more to come. You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Do you think it is realistic for Nigeria as a country to achieve drug self-sufficiency and if you think so, how long do you think it will take to achieve it?
It is realistic. We can achieve it. If you can dream of it, you can achieve it. Rather, the difference will come from the point of taking off and when we eventually achieve it. There will be no affirmative answer to how long it will take us and this is because we are already at the down level. But honestly, if we are committed and are following the right pathway, I can tell you that in the next five to 10 years, we will begin to see results.
But it is not going to be a one-man job. Everybody must key into it; all key players must get involved – particularly the government – by creating the right enabling environment and support players. We have been talking about local contract manufacturing for sometimes now. We have about 120 local drug manufacturing companies in Nigeria that are responsible for manufacturing about 30 per cent of the drugs we are producing in the country today. That number can increase through two or three ways. Firstly, by direct building of more factories. Secondly, those who already have factories should support those that don’t have factories but have product to manufacture through local contract manufacturing. Those who already have factories should also make local contract manufacturing easy. Most of the factories today have idle capacities, whereas, those capacities can be converted to a fully utilised capacity.
Government should now come in and provide infrastructure. Power is key. You can’t be manufacturing and rely fully on diesel; it will not work. It will lead to frustration. We can’t be talking of increasing local capacity when the exchange rate is almost N1000 to one dollar. These are the areas government should come in. If countries like China, India and Malaysia can boast of producing up to 90 to 95 per cent of what they need, then Nigeria can at least produce 70 per cent; but government has to provide certain incentives.
There should also be a policy in place to encourage those that are manufacturing; to ensure that whatever they produce is being patronised. There should be a law that will compel general hospitals, teaching hospitals and health centres to patronise those locally made drugs. If all these policies are in place, investors will be encouraged to invest; but currently, there is nothing like that. Hence we still have a long way to go. We can achieve self-sufficiency in medicine as a country, but it requires government support.
What is your message to aspiring CEOs?
They should get themselves fully prepared. They should learn to conquer their fears. They should be bold, courageous and firm in decision-making. They should know that a tree doesn’t make a forest. To be a successful CEO, you need people to get to the top. Aspiring CEOs should also have the ability to harness human resources and manage a lot of people from different cultures and backgrounds; if not, there will be problem.
Tough time never lasts but tough people do. Aspiring CEOs therefore need to be tough. If not, they will run away when certain challenges com. Aspiring CEOs should prepare themselves for the worst time. Anybody that survives the present situation in Nigeria can survive any condition. But it is also important to study the industry you want to venture into first and seek advice.