Stella Okoli has come a long way and her contribution to national development in the area of health through her brainchild, Emzor Pharmaceutical, has not gone unnoticed with a national honour, Order of the Niger (OON) conferred on her. In this interview, the Amazon speaks about the economy, and issues affecting the pharmaceutical industry, particularly the controversial Common External Tariff.
As a top player in the real sector, how would rate the contribution of the sector to Nigeria’s economy?
Thank you for the concern you have about our dear country, especially in the area of bringing up Gross Domestic Product, GDP. GDP is very important in every nation. Last week, we hosted some Chinese in Nigeria and they told me that their GDP was low, and their Prime Minister sent them off to go and invest where they think their GDP potential is higher than their own, especially in Africa. Our GDP contribution in the manufacturing sector should be much more than it is, bearing in mind the potential that we have in Nigeria. You would all agree with me that Nigeria is a land of milk and honey. That is what God made Nigeria to be. It is for us to understand the time that we are in, and to make the best of what God has given us. We should not just wait for others to come and take what we have. There is a lot that can be done to improve the GDP through the manufacturing sector, which you know is the engine of growth in any country. But as a nation, have we realised it? As a nation, have we harnessed it? As leaders in the economy or in government, do we understand it? Because if we know what manufacturing stands for, we would give it our all, we would ensure that the manufacturing industry is well funded, and the manufacturers are encouraged. Because there are lower hanging fruits, like the oil industry where you can always make a lot of money, Nigerians seem to neglect manufacturing. And if the manufacturing industry is not developed, the GDP would be low.
Of what importance is the real sector to the economy?
The reason people go into manufacturing is to create jobs. It is so important to create jobs, and we are waiting for government to invite us, and rob mind, and see how we can further create jobs. One of the keys in job creation is to have youth skills acquisition and entrepreneurship, which you now that most of the universities now have departments of entrepreneurship where they teach students the art of entrepreneurship. If you are an entrepreneur, it does not necessarily means working for yourself but you understand how you can add value to any system. Why should we import skills from ECOWAS, and why should we as a nation not train our people to be patient? In Chike Okoli Centre for Entrepreneurial Studies in Nnamdi Azikwe University, which by the grace of God we established to inculcate 21st century skills, techniques and competencies in Nigerian youths, harnessing their untapped potentials and reduce unemployment by producing self employable graduates, am thankful to God that that centre with the vice chancellor is doing a lot, training people how to use their hands. We need hands-on people in Nigeria, so that we will stop importing everything because we have become such a wonderful dumping ground for everything. Our people need to understand that may be oil money is drying up.
What are the challenges facing the pharmaceutical industry which is your operational area?
We have so many things we are grappling with, among which are; multiple taxation and high tariff. It is unfortunate that in the era we are presently witnessing, imported products attract zero percent due to ECOWAS’ Common External Tariff, CET. The policy places zero import tariffs on finished drugs, and five to 20 percent import tariff on raw materials and packaging for the pharmaceutical industry. And you know also, that we are supposed to be building World Health Organisation factories. Some of the materials that are used are between 20 and 25 percent duty. So how are we going to build them? How are we going to contribute to the increase of GDP? A lot of issues have to be looked into and corrected. We talk of cluster, a hub where manufacturers will share a common facilities so that the cost of business will be less but the problem is with the land law. Am sure we will do that. For a nation to do well in manufacturing, we need lot of young people. manufacturing is not a dead end. There is a lot of chains in the manufacturing industry where the young people can come in. There is a value chain, and they need to tap into it because they are our future.
How would you rate pharmaceutical companies in Nigeria as against their foreign counterparts?
Our standard is okay as long as you are NAFDAC certified, which is World Health Organisation Nigeria(WHO Nigeria). However, if you want to be on the list of companies that global fund can buy drugs from, then you must attain WHO Geneva. Many companies and countries shun it because their people accepted what they are doing. It is about documentation and procedure, it is not that the drug you are making cannot measure up. What most of us are doing is that we are upgrading our factories to attain the WHO Geneva.
The CBN recently released a circular where some imported goods and services are on the list of items not valid for foreign exchange in the Nigerian Foreign Exchange Markets, what is your reaction to the policy?
I made a joke to my staff that Champaign should be number one on the list when i saw it. But they have only scratched the surface. Is like they wanted to start doing something but someone hurriedly released it. This is not what they want to put out to the public. It is deeper than that. We are earning much less from oil, and we can no longer service the import dependant industries. This country has become a dumping ground no matter how we look at it. I believe a lot of work need to be done.
To what level are pharmaceutical companies in Nigeria involved in research and development, which is key to the industry?
We should be doing much better than this. Some of us are not research-based but there is no way all manufacturing companies can be research-based. What happened is that we needed to upgrade to WHO Geneva standard, which is to me it is neither here nor there because we are serving Nigeria and the GMP that NAFDAC gives is enough. However, to access global fund, that is for the international committee to buy from you, you must have WHO Geneva factory. And it is only them that have it. So for us to access it, we must build WHO Geneva factory. And to build WHO Geneva standard factory everything must be imported including the wall, lights, tiles, etc. We do not have the quality they required available in Nigeria. And by the time these things are coming into the country, it is 20 to 25 percent duty. We all are striving to get the WHO certification, and once we have gotten it, we believe that we have a government that can fight for us, and say ‘if they have gone this far, those global fund should go to them’. That is what they do in South Africa, and that is what other countries do.
You have quite a number of contenders who are in the capital market, how come Emzor has not tapped into it?
We are not saying we are not going but when you are going to capital market you must be ready. If you go to capital market, and you are trying to do a capital project, they may not understand why you are not making money. Some years back, we were nearly going but i thank God we did not go because if you are drinking water, they say, ‘it is their money’. Capital market is good but may be when we finished our projects.
What are the real fears of pharmaceutical companies in Nigeria about CET. Is it that they are afraid to compete with their foreign counterparts?
We are not afraid to compete in a fair market. if you say ECOWAS’ market, who is producing drugs in Mali, cote d’ivoire and several other countries in West Africa? Is it the French man that is producing in his country, and passing it through to countries in the region including Nigeria. That is dumping. After all, we are the only one producing. In our case, imported finished goods enjoy zero percent tariff whereas there is between five to 20 percent import tariff on raw materials and packaging. That is not fair. May be we were sleeping when we signed it but we are now awake. Manufacturing Association of Nigeria has been battling with it for long. The beauty of civil society, the beauty of government, the beauty of the media is that they can look at it, and say we don’t want it. This is how, it is going to affect us, it is not going to help us. We must be sleeping when we agreed to it but now we are awake. We are power in Africa, and we cannot be power for nothing.
What is your view about speculation making the rounds that the new government is planning to remove oil subsidy, and in which way would the removal affect your business?
Am not in the oil industry but from what one sees and hears, it is ridiculous. If it is true that they are losing money with subsidy, and we, Nigerians agree that we can take increase in petrol, then let them remove it. You know the cost of doing business in Nigeria is very high, its removal will affect everyone. However, we need viable mass transit in Nigeria. Abroad not everybody takes his or her car to work even the prime minister. I don’t know why we are class conscious in Nigeria even those that brought life to us are not. I am happy to hop into a taxi.