The Pharmaceutical industry in Nigeria is oligopoly, being a multi-product industry, it faces lot of challenges concerning the prospects of the industry in contributing to national development, growth of the profession as well as promotion of self reliance, Pharmacist Bioku Rahman, the MD\CEO of Bioraj Pharmaceuticals Limited in this interview with Mutiat Olushola, assesses the challenges and intrigues of the industry ranging from fake drug syndrome to multiple taxations amongst other sundry issues. Rahman was born in December 4, 1959, and had his primary education in his hometown- Kisi, Oyo State, from where he proceeded for a 5-year Arabic education and tailoring in one breathe. He had his secondary education between 1977 and 1982 and thereafter studied Pharmacy at the Premier University, University of Ibadan and graduated in 1987. Excerpts:
Why the choice of pharmacy?
Yes, naturally the choice of pharmacy was by divine intervention because I knew nothing about pharmacy. My family believed I was brilliant and they wanted me to go into Medicine, but I hate the sight of blood. What I did was to pick three courses under the College of Medicine; Pharmacy, Physiology and Biochemistry, so I wrapped the three courses into pieces of papers, the first time I picked pharmacy, the second time I picked pharmacy and same thing the third time, that was how I filled the course. After my preliminary, my family still wanted me to change it to Medicine, but I refused. Having said that, I have no regrets whatsoever being a pharmacist because God has been so good to me. If I had known anything about pharmacy, it would have been much better.
Some industrialists believe in establishing their companies in their places of origin, why Kwara State?
One, Kwara is central and it is much easier to reach anywhere in Nigeria from Ilorin and you know in pharmaceuticals, we source our raw materials from Lagos and our finished products go back to Lagos and the north. Another thing is the security here is excellent, kudos to the government of Kwara State and it is very peaceful here in Ilorin too. Well, initially, I had wanted to establish my company in my hometown, Kisi, but there were lots of challenges, so I chose Ilorin. It was very difficult to get key staff to go to Kisi, but the staff such as pharmacists and microbiologists was ready to come to Ilorin to work. These are some of the reasons I came to establish here.
How would you describe Kwara as a commercial hub, especially as Bioraj is over 10 years in the state?
Kwara state is just coming up and in the real sense of it; Kwara is not yet a commercial hub. There are more industries coming up, but you see, more have closed shops, first probably because of economic downturn and secondly, the issue of electricity amongst other challenges. Like in Bioraj, we remain a municipal company by generating our own electricity, digging our own borehole and in fact, we control our own drainage, just name it. This is not only affecting Kwara State, but also other states of the federation. Like when we started in 2006, we were about 14 pharmaceutical companies in the whole of Ilorin, second to Lagos in terms of number, but Ogun state has taken over now, there are more pharmacies in Ogun than Ilorin. Today, many have closed shops and we have just 6 pharmaceutical companies left and out of these six, we have just three that are doing well. Kwara would have been better opened to investors, because of the peaceful environment. The state has the advantage of becoming an industrial hub, not only in the state, but also of the whole of Nigeria. It is peaceful, security is guaranteed, the population is there too, but the challenges earlier mentioned have been the major setback.
Today, there are lots of pharmaceutical industries springing up across Nigeria, what makes Bioraj different?
Yes, today we have about 124 registered pharmaceutical companies in Nigeria, and 95 % are owned by nonprofessionals and let’s say about 5 to 10% are owned by professionals, which I am lucky to be one of them. So, based on this background, you will expect a professional to perform better. You don’t expect a professional to cut corners. Right from the onset, my plan was to organise and run a pharmaceutical company of high standard. We have not deviated from that and based on that, we think we are different from a lot of them and our products are of high qualities. So, I as a professional, I love and cherish what I do and our focus was not premised on money. Money is not everything; money would definitely come. If I had wanted money, I would have gone into importation of finished products and I would have been better off by now, but my own objective was to establish a company of mine and see my own products. Today, we have about 50 products registered with NAFDAC and people love our products because when they take it, they get well.
What are the challenges facing the pharmaceutical industry today and how do you think the government can tackle them?
Electricity has been the major problem in the pharmaceutical industries. Like here, we spend an average of N200,000 weekly on diesel and that in itself is enough a huge profit if the electricity has been okay. Aside that, we have three boreholes that we source our water from, if there is public water, it would have been better for us. So, government has to work on electricity and water. Bad roads equally constitute another big problem. For instance, if my vehicles travel to the north, I have to do major repairs on them. If Nigeria has good roads, we don’t have to beg the Europeans to come and invest in Nigeria, because we have the population and there is huge market in Nigeria. If Nigeria gets its bearing very well, China, India and Europe will have problems. So, government must address these challenges. In Kwara state, there is issue of multiple taxations. As at today, major companies in the state pay up to 32 taxes. Apart from that, the pharmaceutical companies have lot of agencies regulating them today. There is NESREA and KWEPA, both of them would come and ask for money. So, I see NESREA and KWEPA as duplication of function. We also have to cope with NAFDAC and Pharmaceutical Council of Nigeria (PCN). At times, you will see the ‘wolewole’ that is the environmental agency personnel saying they want to inspect. That is funny, as professionals we don’t even allow them because we know those who are supposed to inspect us. So, the pharmaceutical company is over-regulated and needs to be properly regulated, let it just be NAFDAC and PCN.
So, what role is the Standard Organisation of Nigeria playing in regulating the pharmaceutical industries?
You see SON is to control standard, but most often when your goods are to be imported, they issue SON Cap and when it gets here, they don’t even bother to check the drugs. This is why we have lots of fake drugs in Nigeria today.
What then is your message to NAFDAC and SON on production and circulation of fake drugs in Nigeria?
NAFDAC has been doing very well, but I think of late, they have to do more. During the time of Akunyili of blessed memory, things were better, but today, most of these agencies cannot carry out their functions very well. When they have things to do, they often fund themselves. I think the problem is funding, so the government should adequately fund the agencies to perform their duties effectively and save more lives. If this is done, I think the fake drug syndrome will disappear. The punishment given to fakers of drug is too weak. There is need for the government of Nigeria to overhaul the pharmaceutical company. You cannot imagine what fake drugs have caused Nigeria. Just imagine someone is caught with fake drugs and he is asked to pay N5000 fine! Even if he is caught and asked to pay N5,000 000, he will pay and just continue with the production of the fake drugs. I think life jail without an option of fine will be much better and I will support that. Once someone is caught producing fake drugs, let him rot in jail so that that will serve as deterrent to others who want to tow the same path.
Intake of fake drugs can lead to death. That is how bad the situation is. A lot of people have died because of fake drugs. This is why the government should take it seriously. There are some efforts by the government and the Pharmaceutical Council of Nigeria recently, to streamline the distribution of drugs. We call it New Guidelines for the distribution of drugs. The guideline will help monitor drug distribution from the manufacturer or importer to distributor, to retailer and then to the end users. That proposal has been on for over six years, but just this year August, the minister of health has visited some centres to ensure the implementation of the guideline. If that is done, I think the problem will be solved.
Today there are lots of herbal industries and traders claiming they have cures for some diseases, as a pharmacist what is your stand on the consumption of these herbs and their producers?
Well unfortunately, the law is weak in some areas. By NAFDAC’s guideline, apart from health journal, if you want to advertise any drug, you need to obtain permit to do so. We do that as pharmacists and it takes some time to get the permit, but unfortunately, for whatever reasons, I don’t understand, most of these producers of herbs just go on air unchecked, claiming all sort of things, they even tell you where to get their products, which is against the law. I can’t just understand why this impunity lasts. The government should stop them.
But some foreign countries believe so much in herbs, are Nigerian herbs producers not getting it right?
I am not condemning the use of herbal products, but it must be checked. When you go to China and India, especially China, they value more of local herbs. In fact, you can go to a whole big shop in China and the only thing they sell there are herbs and they are very effective. I think we should encourage same thing here, but there is need to curb the excesses. Some of them are not honest to themselves. Most times, when they say they are producing herbs to cure diseases like Diabetes, what they do is to buy Diabetes drugs and put in their products. So, they are not really doing the research, which our forefathers were doing in those days. Our forefathers had cure for most of these ailments. Today, you will see an herb producer selling herbs to cure malaria and his products are mixed with aspirin. I think the regulatory agencies are handicapped in the sense that the regulation on herbal practices is not really entrenched now. Government should come up with a compendium to regulate them. People take excess of the herbs since there are no dosages for them. Naturally, they will tell you they are natural products, but excess of everything has side effects, even excessive intake of water has side effects. I would rather suggest that the government should regulate the herbal practices in Nigeria.
What is your high point in the profession?
My high point in this profession was when I exited bank loans for my business in 2015. I was not really making much when I was taking bank loans, but now I can sleep well.
And your low point?
When I was in the university, money was a big problem for me, so after my NYSC, I had to work for like two companies. It was however tougher for me when I decided to start my own company about 11years ago. Also in 2003, 2.5 million naira was whisked away by armed robbers from my workers on their way to the north and on their way back to Ilorin; another 800 thousand naira was carted away by armed robbers just in the same week interval. But I believed in God and I knew he would do it because we came out of it stronger and He has been merciful to me.
What is your advice to youths who want to venture into pharmacy?
Oh! There are tremendous opportunities for anyone who wants to become a pharmacist. Pharmacy is different from other professions; you can be in the industry, work in the teaching hospitals. Also in pharmacy unlike other professions, you sell your skills and products; you can even venture into commercials. And as long as you remain alive, you can continue to work as a pharmacist, the profession allows that. So, the profession is still green and we expect many young ones to come into it.