How Manufacturing Umbilical Cord Gel brought Drugfield to global limelight – Ekundayo

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The Managing Director of Drugfield Pharmaceuticals Limited, Pharm. Olakunle Ekundayo, who recently clocked 70, took some time off his busy schedule to have a chat with Moses Dike. The eminent pharmaceutical industrialist went on memory lane about his upbringing, education and pharmaceutical career. He also spoke about the 30-year-old journey of Drugfield into the difficult terrain of local manufacturing, while offering valuable lessons to upcoming pharmaceutical entrepreneurs on how to build a successful career. Excerpts:

It is our pleasure to welcome you to our Senior Citizens’ column. Kindly tell us about yourself, your early childhood experiences, education and the events that have helped to shape your adult personality.

I was born in Akure, Ondo State, Southwest, Nigeria. I started my primary education in 1961, at St. David’s Anglican Primary school, which was one of the foremost primary schools in Akure in those days. From there, I proceeded to St Thomas Aquinas College for my secondary education. Thereafter, I attended Yaba College of Technology in 1973 for my diploma in Laboratory Science Technology, and later proceeded to Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, where I obtained the bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy in 1979, and a master’s degree in Pharmaceutics in 1981, from the same university.

I started my professional career in 1981 with Glaxo Nigeria Limited, as a production coordinator, before joining Pfizer Products Limited in 1982, as production supervisor. I later rose to become the production manager in 1986. I left Pfizer in 1989 and became the pioneer plant manager at Doyin Pharmaceuticals Limited, where I designed and installed the only pharmaceutical cleanroom facility in Nigeria at that time.

Having made technical inputs into many pharmaceutical manufacturing companies across Nigeria, I was motivated to set up Drugfield Pharmaceuticals Limited, which is a wholly indigenous pharmaceutical multi-drug manufacturing company; that was a little over 30 years ago.

I am a Fellow of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (FPSN), Fellow of the Nigeria Academy of Pharmacy (FNAPharm) and also an active member of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (PMG-MAN).

Hearty congratulations on your 70th birthday anniversary, which you marked recently. As you advance further in life, how has this affected your priorities and how are you adjusting to the realities of old age?

Thank you very much for congratulating me once more. Life is in stages and from my little understanding. The first stage is 0 to 25 years. That is when you grow from the time you were born, to childhood, to adolescence and then adulthood. Within this period, you go to school, graduate and possibly start a career at about 25 years of age.

One thing about me is that by the time I finished my first and second degrees in Pharmacy, I already knew which area of Pharmacy I was going to choose as a career path. That is the pharmaceutical industry and, specifically, manufacturing. I already made up my mind that I was going to go work in manufacturing. So, immediately I finished with school, I got my first job with Glaxo Nigeria Limited, as it was known in those days. It is now known as GSK after a lot of mergers and acquisitions.

After six months stay, I moved over to Pfizer. From there, my eventful career life started and that crossed into the second stage of life – I got married and started having children. From Pfizer, I moved again in 1989 to handle the project of helping to set up facilities at Doyin Pharmaceuticals Limited, having garnered quality experience at Pfizer. I actually went to Doyin on a three-year contract and I was there until they started manufacturing finished dosage forms. I had asked for a contract and not permanent job. So I left by December of 1992, when we finished setting up the factory to include other solid dosage forms aside from injectables.

Somewhere along the line, I started thinking of what to manufacture on my own. I worked on it and, by the grace of God, in 1993, Drugfield Pharmaceuticals started with one product, Penicillin Skin Ointment. It was from a small facility somewhere in Lagos. And last year 2023, Drugfield was 30 years old, even though we celebrated it with my 70th birthday in January this year.

It has been a wonderful business and career for me because from just one product, we now have close to 150 products over a period of 30 years. It is no mean achievement. It has been wonderfully made possible by the grace of God.

Earlier on, I mentioned that life is in stages. I think I am now at the start of the last quarter. The Scripture tells us that 70 is our age but also adds that maybe by reason of strength and grace, you may clock 80 or more. I am asking God to allow me live up to the 90s; and if God grants this, then I still have about 20 plus more years or so.

I believe I am still strong and I still have a lot to offer, in terms of the growth of the company. We however have some expansion work ongoing and they are all in advanced stages of completion. Maybe in another two or three years, most of those projects would have been completed.

However, I am already actually thinking of slowing down. Two of my children are working with me. One is a pharmacist and he is coming up very strongly. If God gives me the grace, by the time I clock 75 years, I don’t think I would have any business going to work every day. Maybe I will attend only board meetings, and show up only when they need my input or advice. And, if by God’s grace, I live to be 80 years, even board meetings rarely be my business. I hope you are able to figure out my trajectory and I hope things will play out like that.

Tell us more about the story of Drugfield Pharmaceuticals Limited. From its little beginnings, how have you have been able to keep the company moving, despite the difficult terrain of Nigerian pharmaceutical manufacturing?

Like I said earlier, the story of our company, Drugfield Pharmaceuticals Limited, is typical of small beginnings. A small starter that has grown into significance. God says “Despise not the days of small beginnings.” We started operations in 1993, with the manufacture of a simple antibiotic skin ointment to a broad range of products now in various therapeutic segments, such as tablets, capsules, liquid syrups and suspensions, gels, dry powders, sterile eye/ear preparations and a host of others.

The year 2014 marked a significant milestone in our history, as it saw our efforts at local manufacturing draw international attention and collaboration. You know chlorhexidine digluconate 7.1% gel is the WHO (World Health Organisation)’s product of choice in the prevention of umbilical cord infections of the new-born, and thereby reducing high mortality rate that is prevalent in mainly underdeveloped countries of the world. These countries have weak primary healthcare systems, as well as archaic cultural cord care practices that are extremely harmful to the most vulnerable. What happened is that our company rose to the challenge of developing local capacity for the manufacture of this product.

Drugfield’s brand of chlorhexidine digluconate 7.1% gel, known as Chlorxy-G, is manufactured locally and Nigeria became the second country in the world to have produced this WHO-approved product for umbilical cord care.

This singular achievement opened up our company to the rest of the world through regular interactions with development partners and international organisations, such as PATH, USAID, USP, UNICEF, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and a host of others.

With your experience in local pharmaceutical manufacturing, what are the key issues making it difficult for the sector to flourish and how can upcoming entrepreneurs navigate through these challenges?

This is a very great question. In economics you have what is business micro environment and the macro environment. Now, manufacturing – including pharmaceutical manufacturing in Nigeria – cannot begin to flourish outside the micro environment called Nigeria. So, what has been the plan of Nigeria for manufacturing? If you look at every sector, you will be convinced that, as a country, we don’t have a serious and progressive plan.

We have had the golden era of Nigeria’s manufacturing in the 70s, 80s and 90s, when all the sectors were booming, especially the textile companies and others. Pharmaceutical manufacturing was not an exception and all the major multinational companies were here and local pharmaceutical companies were also doing great. There was a healthy competition between local companies and foreign multinationals. Growth was assured and everybody was doing great.

But, soon, the multinationals began to leave due to the so-called Structural Adjustment Programme of government, and they no longer considered this environment profitable enough. In a country that had a plan, there would be serious effort by government to fill in the space by way of incentives to local manufacturers. There should have been incentives even to keep the multinationals from leaving, but there was little or none of such efforts.

Since nature does not support a vacuum, what we now have are traders all struggling to bring in products to fill in the spaces. That is what we have today and that is why there is so much chaos in the drug distribution system of the country.

The truth of the matter is that 70 per cent of the business of drug distribution today is in the hands of those who should not have anything to do with drugs. Drugs are being brought in from everywhere – China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and Bangladesh and so on. For local manufacturers, this became a headache that we needed to confront and this has been our plight. We have very little or no support from all levels of government.

For those – especially younger ones – who may still consider this industry worth the while, one enticement is the size of the market because of our huge population. So, for anyone who wishes to get involved in local manufacturing, you will need to factor in all of those challenges and then look out for how best to get engaged.

For example if you are setting up a factory, you will need to consider the kind of product you are going to manufacture. You will need to have undertaken a market survey. You will need to have real data. If you consider what it will take to acquire land, import equipment and set up a factory, it may even make more sense for you to go into contract manufacturing. That may be a reasonable way to start and once you start and the products are growing in real terms, you can then make projections on how to set up your factory in a gradual manner.

Recently, we have observed the exit of some major multinationals from the Nigerian business environment thus leaving some vacuum. As a stakeholder in the industry, how prepared do you think our local industries are to reduce or fill this vacuum? Are there measures that can be put in place to increase local capacity and ensure that these multinationals exit does not make the country a marketing hub for foreign products, especially those we have local capacity to produce?

Yes the multinational companies are leaving. In fact, most of them have left. Using Drugfield as an example, I know that most of us who are local manufacturers have a lot of installed capacity, a lot of idle capacity that we are not using presently because of the influx of imported competing products. As the multinationals are leaving, the truth is that there are a few Nigerian companies that have the facilities that can make the equivalent of some of their products. Drugfield is one of such.

The point is, a lot of initiative and incentives should come from government to the local companies. It is not only that some multinationals have left; the costs of procuring drugs, foods and other essentials have gone up. So, the issue of multinationals leaving is just to amplify what is happening on the ground.

How do you relax? Tell us about some of the pastime activities and lifestyle modifications you have adopted to stay fit and active.

The issue of relaxation for me is very subjective. If I, as an individual, know that I work 8 am to 6 pm, and when I leave work, I make sure I go home and have dinner. After that, I listen to the news and have a good sleep. If I do that on an everyday basis, I am, by the grace of God, living a normal life. I also know that there are a few other things that one can do in the form exercise to keep fit.

Some people continue with work after work hours but I don’t do that. I hardly call my managers after work to discuss work-related matters. It’s very rare. For me as a manufacturing person, I walk around a lot and walking is good exercise. Then on weekends, I also have some responsibilities in the house of God which I carry out.
I want to be faithful to my responsibilities and in doing so, you discover it’s also a form of exercise. I also attend a few social functions like wedding ceremonies once in a while. This is what I do and God has given me good health to date and I am grateful to Him

Can you briefly share with us some of the most memorable moments of your career?

I think the highest point of my career is my work experience at Pfizer. At Pfizer, it was a huge difference when it comes to manufacturing. My work experience at Pfizer was the highest point of my career. By the time I crossed over to help set up a factory from the scratch at Doyin Pharmaceuticals that manufactured sterile preparations such as injections and others dosage forms successfully, that was another high point. But without my years of experience at Pfizer, that would have been almost impossible for me to do.

There are also some other high points. For instance, I mentioned earlier that, here at Drugfield Pharmaceuticals, a few years ago we had an opportunity to participate in the manufacture of an international commodity; that is Chlorhexidine gluconate gel for umbilical cord care.

Tell us about your family. Did any of your children take after you to study Pharmacy or other health-related professions?

I have seven children, two of whom are pharmacists. One is working with me here, while the other pharmacist works in the United States. I have four children from my first wife, who passed away in 1996. I remarried and had three other children. I have seven children in all – five boys and two girls. Two of my children work with me here. The rest are in the US. The last three are still in the university. Two of them are into computer studies and one wants to go medical school. One of my daughters has Master degree in Public Health (MPH)

Finally, given your wealth of experience, what advice would you like to give to the younger generation of pharmacists on how to make the best use of their calling as healthcare professionals to impact humanity positively?

I want the younger ones to follow their hearts and go for areas of Pharmacy that they have passion for and are able to derive satisfaction from the services they would render. As I mentioned earlier, before I left pharmacy school, I had already decided that when I finished, I was going to work in manufacturing.

In those days when you graduated from pharmacy school, there were usually many companies that were ready to employ you as a medical/sales representative and give you a brand new air-conditioned car with a driver. But, in manufacturing, those aesthetics were not there because in marketing, those things that look glamorous, were actually tools for their work of sales and marketing. I was not attracted to this glamour and I was actually determined to go into manufacturing and, by the grace of God, I did and I am grateful.

This is very important. Know what you want to do; who you want to be like. Have a vision for yourself and from that vision, you will climb through the rungs of your career. Pharmacy is a career. Your career is your business, my career is my business. I am the managing director of my career and you are the managing director of yours. You have to plan it and have set goals to pursue. This is what the younger ones should do and not wait until they graduate before they start figuring out what to do.

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