Prince Christopher Obuora Nebe, managing director of Phamatex Industries Limited, a leading pharmaceutical company, in this interview with Daily Sun, bares his mind on the challenges threatening the existence of the pharmaceutical industry and how government can rescue the industry.
He also spoke on the role of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and many more.
As the managing director, wjat is the story behind Phamatex?
Phamatex started as a single company, a pharmaceutical company, registered with the Pharmaceutical Council of Nigeria. We started with importation, for almost 20 years, before we diversified into local manufacturing of pharmaceuticals. We also create employment for Nigerians and pharmacists.
What will you say your challenges were when you started?
We faced a lot of challenges and the challenges are still there. The challenges are enormous. Let me start with scarcity of foreign exchange; it is terrible. And there is no arrangement whatsoever to help manufacturers, which is not too good. The government has to create some enabling environment for manufacturers because manufacturers pay a lot of taxes. So we should be considered and we create employment. In the area of foreign exchange, infrastructure and other things, maintenance of our roads, you saw how the road was when you were coming. We need access to foreign exchange; now, you cannot even get the foreign exchange you need to buy raw materials. How do you buy raw material when you cannot get the foreign exchange even if you have the local currency?
Is there no package from government?
Not at all, there is no package whatsoever.
What inspired you to go into manufacturing?
It’s unbelievable. If I had invested in hotel business, we would have set up a four-star hotel with this investment here. But because I was in the field already, I though, based on importation, manufacturing would be better, and also to create employment for people.
What do you think government can do to help the situation, as somebody in the system?
The thing they should do in the pharmaceutical industry is to identify who the real manufacturers are. It is not too difficult to identify who the real manufacturers are. They can visit their factories, note them, and then prepare packages for them. Let them know how they can source foreign exchange, that is the major issue here. You can’t source foreign exchange; if you give somebody money to transfer for you, supposing you fall into the hands of dupes, a lot of people have fallen victim. So, it’s a very big issue.
Government should try to organise the pharmaceutical industry, know how their system works and assist them. And let them make sure that anything they are doing for the companies get to the companies.
As it is now, what advice would you give to someone who wants to venture into manufacturing?
There is no way I can advise them to continue with such plans. The exchange rate is too high. Well, it depends on the business but, if it is pharmaceutical, it is too high. We are running at a loss. Even this plant, we are running at 15 per cent capacity utilisation.
There is no constant power supply, even when we have tried to get a plant that generates gas, we have a supply from gas link, but at the end of the day, they may not give you power. They are sharing the power. Initially, when we started, it was fine for one or two years but they started rationing power again. I don’t know why. And PHCN is not constant; you can’t rely on them to do manufacturing, it is not possible.
We still have a lot of staff to pay even though we run at a loss. What we do here is borrow from Peter to pay Paul. We use the little we gain from importation to make up for other things.
Does PHCN give estimated bills here also?
Yes, they do. Even though there is an industrial metre, they read it and estimate whatever they deem fit. It’s not completely automated like when you use card.
Talking of your product portfolio, how many products can Phamatex boast of?
We have about 30 manufactured products and, for imported, we have about 70.
That is enormous…
Yes. We’ve been here for about 30 years.
Are your products NAFDAC-registered?
Yes, they are completely NAFDAC-registered. In fact, we pioneered this registration process in Nigeria. We started saying that we should register our products when we started importation.
Also against counterfeit?
Yes, because we have good quality products and so what would you be afraid of? Many people came up later to start registering their products. We started first, more than 30 years ago with NAFDAC. It is a continuous exercise; we know the importance of registration.
What are your experiences dealing with drug counterfeiters?
Some of our imported products are faked. In fact, there is a case we just reported to NAFDAC but that is just one case, not all. Maybe one or two of them are faked and sometimes we catch them.
What is your view about open drug markets in Nigeria?
I think it should still exist but it should be organised. Government should come in and organise them. You know there was a time they closed all the open drug markets in Nigeria and scarcity of drugs followed, people could not see drugs to buy. They are also very important, just the issue of fake drugs. On this, government needs to organise and regulate them and ensure they are doing the right thing.
You mean they can be regulated?
Yes, they can be regulated, I think, somewhere in Lagos, they are building a drug mart there, I believe, by the time they are through, they will move Idumota to that place, I don’t know yet. I think plans are on for that.
Do you have any plans for expansion?
Not for now. Even my factory has expanded here without seeing much benefit due to lack of sales. We have done some expansion inside the factory but the issue is that we can’t be talking about expansion when we are underutilized.
Talking about the taxes you pay as a drug manufacturer, would you say you are overtaxed?
I believe there should be incentives for manufacturers. Go to India, and other countries, manufacturers are given incentives. There are some places in India that you can’t pay taxes, even lands are given free for a period of time; they may say don’t pay for power for a period of seven years.
So these are the kind of incentives you give to manufacturers to encourage them because a nation cannot grow without industrialization. You cannot only grow with buying and selling, it’s industrialization that will help the nation grow.
Do you think Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group of Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (PMG-MAN) has been doing enough to put forward your case?
Yes! They are trying but you know they are moving forward. I’m a member of PMG-MAN, we are making all efforts but the issue is, you can only try what you can try; at the end of the day, all depends on the authorities to perform.
Do you have any drug to help treat COVID-19?
We only have hand sanitizer but before we got to manufacture it, the thing has lessened so there is no big market for it again. Every dick and harry manufactures it now.
How do you see the industry? Do you see it getting better?
No, except something is quickly done. It’s not easy to assess these things. Even the thing they gave to pharmaceutical industry for relief, there was a package for pharmaceutical industry but how many got it? That’s the issue, vast majority didn’t get anything. So that’s the issue.
Like myself now, what I need is financing; I don’t need to go and set up a new factory when my present factory is underutilized. Why do I have to set it up for and the money they are giving is for you to go and set up a new one, not considering the old ones. They should also consider the old ones, how they are surviving, not just tell us to go and set up a new one. I don’t think any person can set up manufacturing company now, it’s not easy. How can you make it? How can you survive? Because the exchange rate is high, everything is bad.
What is your relationship with patent medicine dealers that are not pharmacists?
We are in good terms, we support them and we’re also working together; we’re okay.
You think they are organised enough to deal with companies like yours?
The issue is that they have limitations; the over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, that’s what they are entitle to buy. They are not supposed to buy ethical drugs.
If you are asked to assess NAFDAC now, would you say it is doing what it ought to do in terms of helping the Industry grow?
Well, they are trying even though I think they need to do more, but they are trying. Sometimes, the law of the land on certain areas poses restrictions to what they ought to do. For instance, if they nab somebody who has faked a drug, it’s not for them to convict. All the process will go according to the available law. The government should be able to enact a law that will deal with that; otherwise, there’s nothing NAFDAC can do.
Anyway, they listen to us, whenever we have issues, we approach them and they solve them for us.
Would you say fake drugs are increasing or decreasing in Nigeria?
Well, you know the problem is that I cannot see all the fake drugs that they bring into this country but they are still flourishing. They need to deal with them more.
Another thing is that, you can’t even know how they do it. They will bring it and hide it somewhere. They won’t even keep it in the market, that’s what they do now. So whoever wants, they’ll go and supply them from a private warehouse.
How do they go past our borders, is it that are borders are weak?
No. People still manipulate, otherwise, why should they come in, in the first instance?
What do you want from government as a manufacturer in terms of making the industry a better place?
As a manufacturer, someone who provides employment for people, my expectation is that government should come in and turn things around towards the directions earlier mentioned and make sure that the industry is well catered for. Once that is done, I think the problem solved to a large extent. This is because, I believe that there’s no nation that can survive without industrialization. Go and check the nations that have made it. Are you talking of Germany, China, India, it is industrilisation that made them.
All these things you consume from China are made in China industry. If you go to Germany too, there are a lot of industries too. It is what is helping their economy.
So, I still believe that a lot of work still needs to be done on the manufacturing sector particularly to make it flourish. Industries should be looked into and help them solve some of their problems.
Does it surprise you that up till now, Nigeria cannot make vaccines locally! Phamatex must be among the companies that are working to get WHO pre-qualification?
Yes, when they started it initially, we braced up for it. We started everything humanly possible to join but at the end of the day, it was stopped. Nobody is talking about it again after three companies were recognised.
They used to come from abroad to inspect; they had visited our company once, but nothing is being done about it again. I guess it’s because of the outbreak of COVID-19 because if everything were normal, they would have come again.
We were among the companies ready to be WHO pre-qualified. Our factory has been inspected and we were seriously warming up to embrace the new status.