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I am a team player — Mathew Azoji, Neimeth MD


The Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Neimeth International Pharmaceuticals Plc, Mathew Azoji, tells TOFARATI IGE about his experience running the company and other issues

Tell us about your background and how you became the MD/CEO of Neimeth?

I am from Imo State, and that was where I had my primary and secondary education. During my primary and secondary education, I had the privilege of being a leader in the schools I attended, as I held the positions of class captain in several classes, senior prefect of my secondary school and other positions in various school clubs such as President of the Science Club, President of the Senior Literary and Debating Society, Editor-in-Chief of the Press Club and others. I was also the valedictorian of my graduating class in secondary school. These helped to shape my leadership skills early in life.

I proceeded to the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) and graduated with a First Class honours degree in Pharmacy. Thereafter, I went into the pharmaceutical industry, where I have worked for over 30 years.

While working in the industry, I also improved on my education with some academic laurels. I obtained a Master of Business Administration in Marketing from the Enugu State University of Science and Technology, Enugu. I am also an alumnus of the Lagos Business School, having been a member of the Advanced Management Programme of the school. I also bagged a Master’s degree in Public Health from the University of London, as well as a Master’s degree in Pharmacy Administration and M.Phil, from the Obafemi Awolowo University. Thereafter, I received my certificate in Pharmaceutical Policy Analysis and Pharmacoeconomics from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, which is a World Health Organisation collaborating centre. I have also done several other academic programmes and specialised training both locally and internationally. I am currently working on my PhD programme, which will be completed soon.

Where were you before joining Neimeth?

Before joining Neimeth, I had worked with leading pharmaceutical companies such as May & Baker Nigeria Plc, CHAN Medi Pharm Limited/Gte (a not-for-profit pharmaceutical organisation located in Jos), and Biovaccines Nigeria Limited, as  an Executive Director/Chief Operating Officer.

How has your philosophy as the MD/CEO of Neimeth driven the company’s growth? (adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});

I believe if one wants to make progress in life, one must have a vision. Vision is critical in defining one’s goals and targets in life and to have a long range view of where one is going.

One major lesson I have learnt in life is that with foresight, well defined vision and a focused mind, one can achieve any worthwhile thing one sets out to do. Developing personal vision and vision for the organisation I work for is one of the critical areas I pay close attention to. Anywhere I get into, I firstly make enquiries if there is a strategic plan on ground, and if there is none, I would drive the team to ensure that there is one. In addition, I believe that determination, hard work, discipline, dedication to duty and most importantly diligence are critical to success in all of one’s endeavours.

Above all, being a Christian, I trust in the invisible hand of God in the affairs of men.  I believe that God directs the affairs of men and helps us to achieve our set goals and targets, provided they do not contravene His provisions for us.  But we must set our goals before we ask God to direct us to attain them.  I depend on Him always for support to make progress. That is the philosophy I brought into Neimeth and I believe this has greatly impacted the achievements we have so far attained.

One of the first things Neimeth accomplished early in my tenure was the adoption of a new corporate vision, which is ‘to be a leading innovative healthcare provider out of Africa’. We shall vigorously pursue this vision as we have mapped out plans for our staff and stakeholders to internalise this vision with a seven-point core values that will enable us live our new vision.

Talking of achievements, you may wish to note that Neimeth, for the first time in a decade, paid dividends to shareholders last month (March) for the 2020 business year.  We ended the loss regime which handicapped the company for many years and prevented her from meeting the expectations of shareholders. Then, we followed it through with capital restructuring in 2020, which enabled us to pay dividends in 2021.  This did not just happen; it was the product of strategic planning, hard work and a clear direction.

What are some of the challenges you face in the course of discharging your duties?

As MD/CEO, one faces numerous internal and external challenges. Some of these are within one’s control and some are outside one’s immediate control.  One could try to contain those outside one’s control such as challenges of the general economy, environmental issues and infrastructure. As for internal challenges such as technical issues, working capital, human factors and sales drive, one must take them on headlong. We have already taken full control and are able to reduce them to the barest minimum.

Like every other manufacturer in Nigeria, our company has had to tackle all the challenges of the economy, such as poor infrastructure, interest and exchange rates fluctuations and difficulties in obtaining  foreign exchange to pay for imported raw materials. Local pharmaceutical manufacturers depend over 90 per cent on imported inputs, and exchange rate fluctuations and/or lack of it can bring the sector to its knees.

One of the greatest challenges since I came to Neimeth was the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which created a new normal we are still adjusting to. The pandemic  and subsequent lockdown measures to curtail it happened in the second quarter of our business year.

Like most companies, by the time we were putting our budgets together for the 2020 business year, no provision was made for the kind of disruption that COVID-19 brought to society and the economy.  Everyone was caught unawares. Bringing it home to us as a business, I can tell you that so far, the impact of COVID-19 and consequent lockdown of the economy has not been fully calculated. Major raw and packaging materials needed for our manufacturing operations could not be received due to supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 induced lockdown in China and India. Some of those essential materials were received only at the beginning of June 2020. In the same way, sales were sluggish because of the lockdown in Nigeria, which affected the purchasing power of the populace, disrupted banking operations and to some degree, distribution channels. Sales and marketing activities were initially hampered because access to healthcare practitioners to talk to them on our products was upset.

Though Neimeth, like other pharmaceutical companies, did not shut down, we could not operate fully because movement was generally hampered both for production and sales teams. As a responsible organisation, we could not expose our staff to the dangers of the ravaging disease, so we had to realign our operations to ensure social distancing which increased production costs. All these impacted our results for the 2020 business year such that we were unable to meet our target, though we grew both top and bottom lines.

What is the situation of research and development in the pharmaceutical industry in Nigeria because people say the country’s pharmaceutical companies should be able to develop a vaccine for COVID-19?

The African pharmaceutical manufacturing industry is largely dependent on foreign research and development results.  Most African pharmaceutical manufacturers are reproducers of foreign medicines, whose patents have expired. That is why what goes on in Africa as research and development is more or less product formulations of already existing medicines. This is because research is highly capital intensive, painstaking and time-consuming. Most manufacturers on the continent cannot afford this. For proper R&D which will enable us develop candidate medicines or new molecules, there must be deliberate efforts to fund research by the government. This can start with the research on herbal-based medications, of which the continent has the resources in abundance. Efforts in this regard must be coordinated and deliberate collaboration between research institutions and manufacturers encouraged. Manufacturers must also collaborate among themselves to fund research.

We are one of those companies that are focused on developing quality medicines for Nigeria and Africa, with emphasis on Africa specific diseases. We are also reinvigorating our effort to build on past achievements and put more safe, quality and efficacious remedies at the disposal of Africans to effectively deal with the many healthcare challenges besetting the people.

On whether we would be able to develop local COVID -19 vaccines, I believe that is possible.  I am aware that some Nigerian researchers submitted samples for accreditation as candidate vaccines to the WHO and these samples have been listed and are passing through appropriate investigation.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers are willing to contribute to the development of COVID-19 and any other vaccine. Neimeth is working on a number of possible collaborations towards contributing to the realisation of this dream in Nigeria.

In what ways do pharmaceutical companies contribute to the development of the economy?

Like other economic agents, pharmaceutical manufacturers play a key role in the nation’s economy. Because we play in the critical healthcare sector, the contributions of pharmaceutical manufacturers to the nation’s economy cannot be over emphasised.  Apart from supplying healthcare commodities for critical healthcare needs, we create jobs. Nigerian pharmaceutical manufacturers are currently responsible for about 40 per cent of the health commodity need of the country. However, this figure is low, considering the significance of the sector and need to put the healthcare needs of the country in local hands and secure health security. With proper encouragement, local manufacturers have the ability to supply up to 70 per cent of local medicine needs.

Neimeth has been around for quite a while. How has the company managed to stay relevant over the years?

The company came into being as a result of the Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa-led management’s buy-out of the 60 per cent equity Pfizer New York’s holding in Pfizer Products Plc. The company had already been operating in Nigeria for 40 years, manufacturing, marketing and distributing pharmaceutical and veterinary products under the Pfizer brand, including tablets, capsules, ointments, creams, powders, injectables, and oral liquid forms. During those first 40 years, the company that would become Neimeth, established Nigeria’s first pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in Aba, (Abia State), which was destroyed during the Nigerian Civil War. In 1976, the company established (what was then) the most modern pharmaceutical plant in the West African sub-region at Ikeja, Lagos.

Today, the company is focused on manufacturing essential family medicines, having become a trusted name in the area.

What are your primary responsibilities and how have you handled the pressure?

The responsibility of every MD/CEO is to attain the goals and objectives of the company and ensure that the interests of all stakeholders are protected within the laws of the land.  To that extent, we have tried to pursue the set goals of the company as enunciated by the Board of Directors, operating within a corporate governance structure that allows us to attain set business goals.

As the MD/CEO, I am responsible for the day-to-day running of the company, working with a management team that is versatile, experienced and highly knowledgeable.  My role is to articulate the various efforts and initiatives, and drive them in a way to achieve our goals.

This task is not easy because one is faced with numerous challenges. However, I have learnt to deal with it. This is not my first job as MD/CEO. I have gained some experience on how to deal with challenges and tasks associated with the job and we have been able to tackle issues as they emerge.

One thing that has paid off for me is that I have endeavoured to be proactive. I try to envisage issues and proffer solutions before they crop up. It is counter-productive to react to issues because the damage would have happened before the reaction.

One other thing that has helped me so far is team work. I have learnt to use the committee system to assign jobs to team members. These committees play vital roles and take far-reaching decisions. I try as much as possible not to overturn committee decisions. That way, one carries many people along and one is also able to ignite creativity and innovation.

Innovation is one of our core values and we have introduced various incentives to encourage innovation and creativity.

What key policy changes in the pharmaceutical sector could result in greater access to medicines for underprivileged Nigerians?

A major policy change that can turn the pharmaceutical sector around and make medicines available to Nigerians at affordable cost is to drastically reduce the current over-dependence on importation.

There are three levels of overdependence on importation.

Firstly, there is overdependence on importation of finished products in Nigeria, and secondly there is more than 90 per cent dependence on the importation of input raw materials, both active pharmaceutical ingredients and excipients. In addition, Nigeria is not into the development of novel products and as such, we, like many other African countries, are relying on foreign research and development for the development of new medicines for even peculiar African diseases. These are the three levels of dependence affecting the country.

The first National Drug Policy 1990 riding on the goals of the first National Health Policy 1988 proposed that by the year 2000, Nigeria should be producing at least 70 per cent of her essential medicine needs locally and importing only 30 per cent. As a result of the failure to achieve this laudable objective, the revised (second) National Drug Policy 2003 had a similar but slightly modified target. It states, “Increase in local production capacity to a level where 70 per cent of total output satisfies at least 60 per cent of national drug requirements of essential drugs while the balance is exported by 2008”. But, 20 years after the initial target ought to be realised and 12 years after the second chance Nigeria gave herself to accomplish her dream of self-sufficiency in local drug production, that 70 per cent is still on the negative side. Nigeria is still importing 70 per cent of her drug needs, while only about 30 per cent is produced locally. This leaves the supply of healthcare commodities, especially essential drugs, in foreign hands.  You can agree that this portends great health security danger for the nation.  We have seen part of this danger with the global outbreak of the coronavirus where the exporting nations locked down their borders and scarcity of products loomed large.

Also, even though the Nigerian pharmaceutical manufacturing industry is still supplying only 30 per cent of our drug requirements, many Nigerian manufacturers are still hovering around 40 per cent of installed capacity utilisation of their facilities. This means we have room to contribute more than we are doing now.

This is because of unhealthy competition with imported products as Nigeria’s macroeconomic indices and poor state of infrastructure puts the Nigerian manufacturers at a disadvantage when compared to foreign suppliers. Since local manufacturers are still competing with foreign suppliers, you would find that imported medicines are still taking a lot of the space needed to be occupied by Nigerian producers. This explains why the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group of Manufacturers Association of Nigeria has been clamouring for more space for local manufacturers and for government support to create a level playing ground, that enables us compete more favourably.

What can be done to improve the situation?

You can look at it from the three levels of dependence discussed earlier.

Firstly, in order to curtail the importation of finished pharmaceuticals, there must be a deliberate step to enable local producers utilise their existing capacity in those areas where capacity exists. Government can use fiscal measures to encourage more local production by listing more medicines in the essential drugs list that are not expected to be imported into the country, because they are in adequate supply locally, or apply more taxation on their imported equivalents. For instance, Nigeria should be able to produce enough anti-malaria drugs, certain types of analgesics and many other such medicines. That way, we can put more healthcare challenges in the competent hands of Nigerians.

At the second level, where local pharmaceutical manufacturers depend over 90 per cent on imported inputs, I see two key levels of action. The first will involve the development of the petrochemical industry. Substantial raw materials for synthetic medicines depend on the petrochemical industry. Nigeria is a petroleum exporting country, so all we need to do is to develop that industry by extracting the rich reservoir of chemicals contained in crude oil which can be used to synthesise many pharmaceuticals. This process is called ‘cracking the petroleum’,  to get substances to synthesise active pharmaceutical ingredients, excipients, and others for fertilisers, plastics  and other essential industrial chemicals.

In other words, the development of the petrol chemical industry in Nigeria is critical to industrial development in this country, and the pharmaceutical sector is one of those industries that will benefit immensely from that development. Even though it is a capital intensive project, if Nigeria prioritises industrial development, the nation can afford it. It is an investment that will positively impact on many sectors of the economy and has the potential to create millions of jobs.

In addition, we can also develop the agricultural sector, specifically focusing on developing pharmaceutical raw materials. For instance, pharmaceutical grade starch is still being imported in Nigeria. Nigeria is blessed with high-starch containing agricultural products like maize, rice and cassava.  Nigeria is Africa’s largest producer of maize with output estimated at over 33 million tonnes per annum, yet we are importing pharmaceutical grade starch. Also, Nigeria is regarded as the world’s largest producer of cassava and there is ongoing discussion on how to develop pharma-grade starch from cassava.

At the third level, focusing on the area of pharmaceutical R&D, there must be collaboration at different levels. Product reformulation, rather than R&D for candidate medicines or new molecules dominate technical research on the continent. Yet, the continent houses a large stock of herbal and natural products that can be developed as medical commodities.

I think the solution to this will be multi-layered. Firstly, the governments must encourage investment in pharmaceutical research and development through special grants and loans to universities, research institutes and pharmaceutical companies. But above all, there must be collaboration between the research institutes and manufacturers on one hand and between the manufacturers themselves on the other. While I admit that we need government support to make more progress in these areas, I also think we need more collaborations among the local operators within the healthcare sector. Few pharmaceutical companies can team up to develop local medicaments working with local researchers for locally made remedies to health emergencies.

The coronavirus pandemic only came to re-emphasise what pharmaceutical manufacturers have always called attention to, which is the need to put the healthcare needs of the country into the competent hands of Nigerians. To achieve national healthcare security, local operators must be enabled to step up above their current performance index. To do this, we need investments in local capacity for research and development, product formulation, manufacturing facilities and product distribution.  We need to be able to innovate and take leadership of our healthcare emergencies.

What personal traits have enabled you to become successful at what you do?

I am still on the driver’s seat and I may not yet be able to ‘count’ my successes. However, some personal attributes have helped to sustain me and take me to the position I currently hold.  The first of this is humility. I have learnt to accept tasks, achievements and responsibilities with a very humble disposition. I do this because of a conviction that makes me see success and position as privileges and blessings from God. I believe that whatever position I attain could equally be attained by many others. So, I do not attach any special thing to myself.

Secondly, I respect people’s opinions and perspectives. I do not hold on to my views but you must convince me with a superior argument. It is better to implement a superior opinion and achieve greatness than to persist on personal perspectives that will not move one forward.

Lastly but most importantly, I have faith in God. I believe in that invincible hand of God which guides the affairs of man. I trust the most High God to guide me and in taking decisions, after listening to the voice of reason which is human, I try as much as possible to listen to the voice of God. I commit every major decision I have to take to God in prayers.

What advice do you have for young ones on how to make a success of their careers?

One lesson I learnt early in life is that no man owes another man a living. The success or otherwise of every individual lies in his own hands.  You cannot hold any other person responsible for your failures; not even the government or your parents. You must define your goals in life by way of a clear vision and take steps to actualise them. Along the line, government or the people can assist you but you must begin the journey.

Then of course, when you have set your goal, work hard, be diligent and pray consistently for divine guidance and help.

How do you juggle the call of duty with family demands and relaxation?

To be candid, I am a family person. I try as much as possible to pay enough attention to my family.  You can describe me as a triangular person—the office, the home and the worship place. These are the key places you would find me. Whenever duty permits, I try as much as possible to spend time with my family and I take time out to observe religious obligations.

How do you like to dress?

I like to dress smart, whether I am in native, English or French attire. I try as much as possible to always look smart.

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