Stella Chinyelu Okoli – Extraordinary Titan of Pharma Manufacturing

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The story of Pharmacy and indeed the healthcare industry in Nigeria will never be complete without mentioning Dr Stella Chinyelu Okoli (MON, OON) founder and CEO of one of Nigeria’s leading pharmaceutical giants, Emzor Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. Her contributions to the healthcare industry in West Africa, spanning several decades of her career, are beyond measure. Evidently, from the 140 high-quality pharmaceuticals produced by her company, it would be almost impossible to find a household in Nigeria that has not used any of her products or does not know her brand, Emzor.

Dr Stella Chinyelu Okoli

Interestingly, like most other great businesses, Emzor had a humble beginning. Okoli started the business with the initial name, “Emzor Chemists Limited”, as a small pharmacy retail shop in Somolu, Lagos, in January 1977.  She eventually incorporated the company in 1984, and  with her prodigious vision and astute business acumen, she has grown it to become a multibillion naira manufacturing pharma-conglomerate, with several subsidiaries. She currently has over 1000 professional employees, three ultra-modern factories, as well as several warehouses and distributors across 25 African countries.

In an industry dominated by male business gladiators, Okoli stands tall as a colossus and, commanding profound respect and influence in the industry. It was in recognition of her achievements and contributions to the health sector in Nigeria, that she was bestowed with the Member of the Order of the Niger (MON) and the Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) awards by the Federal Government of Nigeria.

Background and education

Dr Okoli was born on 30 July, 1944 in Kano State, northern Nigeria, though her parents are from Nnewi, in Anambra State. She had her elementary education at All Saints Primary School, Onitsha, from 1954 to 1959, before proceeding for her secondary education at Ogidi Girls Secondary School, Ogidi, Anambra state, from 1959 to 1964. She had her A Levels/Higher School Certificate at Federal Science School, Lagos from 1964 to 1966. Thereafter, she relocated to the United Kingdom for tertiary education. She obtained her Bachelor of Pharmacy degree from Bradford University, UK, in 1969.

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In 1971, Okoli bagged a master’s degree in Biopharmaceuties from the University of London, Chelsea College. She also attended several courses across the world, to broaden her knowledge and sharpen her leadership skills. Some of these include executive management programmes for business owners at Harvard Business School, Boston (1997- 1999); Implementing Strategic and Organisational Change at I.E.S.E. Business School, Barcelona, Spain (1996); and the Chief Executive Programme of the Lagos Business School.

After completing her education in Britain, Okoli started her professional career as a ward/clinical pharmacist at Middlesex Hospital in London. She later worked briefly as a pharmacist at Boots Chemist, UK. After working for some years in the UK, she returned to Nigeria to work at Massey Children Hospital, Lagos, as a hospital pharmacist. After that, she joined Park Davies Nigeria Limited (now Pharma-Deko Plc) as a medical sales executive; she later rose to become a sales manager for the firm.

Path to entrepreneurial success

After working for about six years, Okoli ventured into retail pharmacy business with the establishment of Emzor Chemist Limited, Somolu, Lagos, in 1977. In 1981, she expanded the business to include importation and wholesale of ethical and OTC pharmaceutical products. Her goal was to provide drugs to meet the health needs of Nigerians, having noticed that some of the medicines needed by her customers were not available in the country.

In 1984, Okoli incorporated Emzor Chemist Ltd into Emzor Pharmaceuticals Limited, a full-fledged indigenous company. A year later, she decided to go into pharma manufacturing, after realising that some of the drugs being imported could be manufactured in the country with the readily available raw materials. The company commenced pilot production in 1985, with the introduction of its flagship brand, Emzor Paracetamol, which quickly became very popular in Nigeria and beyond.

Since then, Emzor has continuously expanded its product range to exceed 140 time-tested products today. Its product range includes vitamins, anti-malaria, antibiotics, antacid, analgesics, anti-histamine and many more.

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For over 35 years since Okoli ventured into the manufacturing business, she has shown extraordinary determination and brilliance to make a success of it. Even in the harsh manufacturing business climate in Nigeria – considering the challenges of unfavourable policies, infrastructural deficits, drug counterfeiting and competition from substandard imported drugs – Okoli has continued to demonstrate uncommon resilience to continue her work, even when many pharma manufacturers have either closed down or left the country.

Philanthropy and community service

In 2006, Okoli established the Chike Okoli Foundation (COF) in memory of her late son Chike Edward Okoli, who died five days to his 25th birthday from undetected coronary heart disease.  COF was set up to promote the passion of Chike Okoli – entrepreneurship – and to create awareness on cardiovascular disease among Nigerians. The organisation has reached out to millions of Nigerians on the importance of a healthy lifestyle in the prevention of heart disease and stroke.

COF also provides free healthcare services and has trained thousands of business owners and entrepreneurs. In 2011, COF built the Chike Okoli Centre for Entrepreneurial Studies at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. The centre provides entrepreneurial research, training and education for youths.

Awards and recognitions

Dr Okoli’s excellent leadership skills and sterling business ethics, as well as her immense contributions to the Nigerian health industry have earned her local and international recognitions. She is a recipient of many awards, from both government and private institutions.

Some of her awards include: Honorary Doctor of Business Administration by Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka (2011); International Women’s Entrepreneurial Challenge Award (2012); Women of Distinction and Lifetime Achievers (ThisDay Annual Awards, 2012), Nigeria Royalty Awards (2013); Businessperson of the Year (the Sun Newspaper Awards, 2016); Africa Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum (2017); Silverbird Lifetime Achievement Award (2018); and the ECOWAS International Gold Award (2015).

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Dr Okoli was married to Late Barrister Christopher Okoli. They had three children, Uzoma Okoli, Emeka Okoli and Chike Okoli (late).

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