Pharm. Osak Uwubanmwen is a versatile professional and founder/CEO of several companies locally and internationally. These include Bio-Generics Nigeria Limited; Zonlitch Sante Nigeria Limited; Mega Pharm. Limited, Canada; Eureka Prescriptions Inc., Canada; Mega Pharm Holding Corp, Canada; Eureka Prescriptions Holding Corp, Canada; and Globacitieats International. In this interesting interview with TEMITOPE OBAYENDO, he reveals the secrets of his success as a mega entrepreneur. He also highlights the critical roles of community pharmacists in improving the nation’s healthcare delivery system, while equally advocating the establishment of petrochemical factories for the attainment of medicine security in the country. Excerpts:
Tell us a little about yourself, particularly your professional background and area of practice.
Osak Uwubanmwen is my name. I am a pharmacist by training, and I live in Calgary, in the province of Alberta, in Canada. I have lived in Canada for 18 years. I have had an interesting career path. I did my internship at the University of Benin Teaching Hospital and was a locum pharmacist during my internship at the popular Oskajay Pharmacy, in Benin City. I was also a part-time lecturer of Pharmacology at the Post-Basic School of Nursing, at the University of Benin Teaching Hospital.
It was providence that changed my career path. I was supposed to be one of the first set of pharmacy graduates of the University of Benin that were selected to become graduate assistants to do internship with the university. But as fate would have it, the Senate of the university did not approve it for over three months and, after waiting that long, I went to the University of Benin Teaching Hospital to take my internship space, which was waiting.
I did my National Youth Service in the north of Nigeria, at the Hajiya Gambo Sawaba General Hospital, Kofan Gaya, Zaria. I cut my teeth in pharmaceutical marketing, working for Sandoz Pharmaceuticals. I was based in Kano, as a medical sales representative, and later joined Janssen, where I worked as a product manager for close to five years. It was at Janssen I learnt the ropes of how to run a successful pharmaceutical sales and marketing company, as I was virtually responsible for all the new products launched in Janssen in those five years.
I moved to Canada in 2005 and I got licenced to work as a community pharmacist within one year of moving to Canada. The practice of pharmacy in Canada, especially in my province of Alberta, is one of the most advanced in the world. I am also an industrial pharmacist, by virtue of running my Nigerian pharmaceutical enterprise, Bio-Generics Nigeria Limited, from Canada.
Bio-Generics was launched in Nigeria in 2011. Bio-Generics Nigeria provides Nigerians with high-value prescription medications across many diseases’ specialty areas. Our purpose is to always provide world-class quality medications that are very affordable to Nigerians.
Having been into community practice for a while, how would you describe the roles of community pharmacists in healthcare delivery system?
The community pharmacist is an indispensable partner in the healthcare delivery system of any nation. The community pharmacy is the first port of call for many citizens when they have a healthcare challenge; the reason is that the community pharmacist is very available and highly accessible. Any nation that refuses to recognise this role and its importance is losing out a great deal in providing quality healthcare opportunities to its citizens.
In Canada, where I practise as a community pharmacist, I prescribe prescription drugs for my patients in many disease areas and order lab tests for them. I have my injection certification; so, I do lots of vaccination against many diseases and can administer many injections, like vitamin B12, methotrexate injection, Depo-Provera, and some depot psychiatry medications, to my patients within my community.
During the COVID crisis, most of the COVID vaccinations that were given in Canada were administered by Canadian pharmacists. The government developed a robust system where COVID vaccines were shipped daily to the pharmacies to be administered by pharmacists. And they reported electronically daily on how many vaccines were used up and what supply they would need as replacement the next day.
In Canada, pharmacists have fully transitioned from being dispensers of medications to more clinical roles, by spending time with the patients to manage their clinical problems. The new compensation model, where pharmacists are paid for the clinical services they provide to the patient, is being supported by the government.
Pharmacists now provide point-of-care clinical services and help reduce the high healthcare wage bills. Some of the services provided by physicians can also be provided by pharmacists and may cost the government less.
From your experience in overseeing the West African pharmaceutical market, what do you perceive as the best means of combating the circulation of fake and substandard drugs in the region?
The counterfeit, fake, and substandard drug market is valued at over 200 billion dollars. It is an international problem and crisis that affects almost all the nations of the world. But the developed nations are better able to tackle it since they have more robust regulatory mechanisms in place and sophisticated technologies at their disposal.
There are many ways to help reduce this menace, like better regulation of pharmaceuticals manufacturing and deploying modern technologies in product manufacture and fake products detection. It would be almost impossible to eliminate the problem, as the criminal elements that thrive on these illegalities are also developing means daily to evade arrest and detection.
In Nigeria and West Africa, elimination of the open drug markets can help curb the distribution of fake and substandard medicines, since the manufacturers of such fake and substandard medicines rely on these open markets to easily distribute these bad medicines. These agents of death also rely on poor regulation in many West African countries to perpetrate their trade.
The ECOWAS regulators should attempt to have a more collaborative approach to this problem, as each market is easily accessible to citizens of the nations under this union. What this means is that once fake and substandard medications enter one nation, the other nations are also at a grave risk of the medications circulating in other countries.
Pharmacists can help develop supply chains that have integrity that can help counter the distribution chains of fake and substandard medicines. I think what the government of Kano State is trying to do now with their purpose-built drug distribution centre is close to this approach.
As a founder of many healthcare enterprises, what are the challenges peculiar to people in your category and how would you advise Nigerian pharmacists grappling with such to succeed?
There will always be challenges in anything you chose to do. That is the reason many people choose not to own a business. As many successful people would say, there is never a good time to start any enterprise, but the key is just to start, and you will begin to figure out things as the journey progresses. No one ever started an enterprise and could hazard a guess on all the challenges that they would encounter. Tenacity is one of the most important skills you need to develop, and you must decide to be focused and consistent.
The Nigerian environment can be a great challenge to do business, as you need to pay for or provide many things that are taken for granted in developed countries. The exchange rate instability and continued currency devaluation is one recurring decimal, as you rely on dollars or euros to source your products from the nations you buy from. So, you need to make the needed devaluation allowance in your pricing mechanism, since you cannot change your price all the time or probably charge a new price per import, as this would be very unprofessional.
The other common challenge is getting highly skilled staff to work with me, as the now japa syndrome has created some skill set drain in many enterprises like mine. It costs good money to get good staff and it also takes some time to train them to become productive. But once you get them productive, the next thing you get is a resignation letter, stating that they are moving to Canada or the UK. In my time, many of us migrated for a different reason but now migration has been driven by survival and this is becoming an increasing challenge to businesses in Nigeria.
Achieving medicine security has been a tall order for the Nigerian pharmaceutical industry over the years. With the new decision of the government to reduce drug importation from 60 to 40 per cent, do you see the nation actualising this dream?
No nation can become self-sufficient in medicine production without having a petrochemical factory to supply the ingredients to make the active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) and excipients used in making medicines. The Eleme petrochemical factory failed us in Nigeria in a big way. Now that we have the Dangote refinery, hopefully, he will also key into building a petrochemical facility. Then we can make basic ingredients needed for medicines manufacture.
Medicine security is a very important part of every nation’s security. Look at what happened during the COVID outbreak, when the entire world was closed and no movement or travel. If that had lasted more than a few years, many nations would have run out of prescription and basic medicines and people would die because they cannot get the medicines they need as they cannot be imported or locally manufactured.
Incentives should also be given to companies like ours to transition from importing to local manufacturing. In the last few years, we have written some proposals and made contacts on building a world-class GMP-certified local manufacturing facility in Nigeria. This is still top on my rolling plan, as we hope to overcome the major challenge of currency devaluation.
With the recent global recession which has crippled many businesses, how have you managed to sustain your companies nationally and internationally?
The person I admire the most in the African business cycle is Aliko Dangote. I try to understudy him and learn from him the way he does business and runs his many enterprises. I have never met him but maybe someday I will.
From him, I learnt to focus and dominate any market I choose to play in. So, when I launched Bio-Generics Nigeria, in 2011, we started with only five products, all in psychiatry. Many were surprised but within one year, we became the leading Nigerian pharmaceutical company in psychiatry, because our value proposition was based on the availability of world-class quality medicines and very affordable prices.
It was the psychiatric hospitals that were calling and asking us to come to do business with them because they trusted our products and were getting great results with them. From that success, we spread our wings to pain and ophthalmology.
Since I am responsible for the research and development of any new product selections to be launched in Nigeria, my focus is that our projected product entry must have clear-cut clinical advantages over the products that currently exist in that disease market segment in Nigeria, if any. If this is the case, price and utility become secondary considerations and can propel the product launch to an early success.
The other thing is that I have learnt to take money from Canada and invest it in Nigeria, thereby creating a win-win situation for both nations. The reason is simple, the Canadian banks loan their money at low, single-digit interest rates, compared to Nigeria where the interest rate is very high, double-digits. But the return on investment is far better in Nigeria. For every dollar I invest in the Nigerian economy, I can get about three dollars back, sometimes even after all expenses; whereas, in Canada, for every dollar I invest, I get only about 20 per cent back. Nonetheless, I still invest in Canada for the rainy day.
How would you advise younger pharmacists who wish to excel like you?
My advice to young pharmacists that aspire to be like me is to first find their purpose or calling. Once they find their purpose, their destination goal is to give it away to better the world. This is only when the reward can come and come in a good and consistent manner.
I am lucky I found my love and passion early in my career and, through this, I aligned to find my higher purpose or higher calling. As people say, if you do what you love, it never seems like work.
When recent graduates of Pharmacy just seek to finish their internship and then relocate through migration to Canada or the UK, I try to advise them to first get a few years of work experience in Nigeria, as it is easier to find your purpose in a nation like Nigeria than finding it in the West. It is not impossible in the West to find your purpose but just easier in Nigeria because of the way things work or are structured in Nigeria.
I tell you a secret, if I never worked in Janssen, there would never have been Bio-Generics Nigeria. Even if it was created, it would not have done as well as it is doing, dominating many disease segments market and growing an average of 25 per cent per, year in and out in the last five years in an industry where single-digit growth is the order of the day.
Many people are carried away just focusing on money. Once this is the target, you lose sight of your purpose, and work becomes a chore.