AIMING FOR 50% MARKET SHARE

Nigeria 2018 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Lekan Asuni, CEO of Lefas Pharmaceuticals, on expanding to Sub Saharan Africa, multinational companies, and research and development programs.

You worked at GSK for many years. What drove you to establish your own company?

I decided to operate outside of the multinationals space as I saw a number of opportunities beyond what multinationals consider priority in this clime at this moment. My partner and I decided to come together to fill some of those gaps. There are massive gaps in the pharmaceutical industry in capacity, local manufacturing capabilities, the types of products being locally manufactured, and even in the human capability. It was time to try to put my expertise beyond multinational companies to see how it could benefit the entire industry. We are currently looking at pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and vaccines. These are the three categories that we are playing in, and we are looking into how we can enter those areas.

What ambitions do you have about expanding beyond the Nigerian borders?

We are into cardio metabolic, which is related to things like diabetes. We have positioned it to go beyond the shores of Nigeria. Nigeria today accounts for close to 25% of the population in Sub Saharan Africa. Therefore, if we have a business proposition that can be successful in Nigeria, it is easier to increase our capacity and serve other African countries. For some of these projects Nigeria will serve as a hub for Africa.

What contribution do you want to play in the sector in Nigeria?

We want to significantly improve the country's health through a culture of self monitoring. Less than 20% of those with chronic conditions today are embedded in the culture of personally monitoring their situations. We intend to raise significant awareness about people taking control, so it is not only about the manufacturing of the products but also about ensuring that there is awareness to drive patients to take control. We want to ensure they have access because we will bring affordable access to these quality products. We want to ensure that we increase the pool of professionals who are knowledgeable enough to manage those conditions because if we only leave it to the specialists, the situation will be worse. The ratio of specialists to those with chronic conditions is extremely large, and we need to increase the pool of those who are not specialists but general practitioners and so on who will be involved in the management of those chronic conditions and are able to take decisions so that patients can get better care.

How does a local pharmaceutical company compete with the multinational drug providers in Nigeria?

One thing that is clear that we want to drive access but not compromise on quality. What we are trying to do with that space is ensure that we go for the highest GMP standards from the onset so that everything is done from a civil point of view and equipment, as we are here to achieve the highest possible GMP certification. The highest is US FDA, and we ensure we reach US FDA certification. However, beyond that, pricing is based on volume; therefore, we intend to use the model that we have done thus far to target volume that will enable us to have a great marginal cost. This will translate to affordable prices for patients. We will leverage the scale based on our forecast to ensure that these quality products are affordable to consumers.

Are you already producing within Nigeria?

We have not started production so far. The groundbreaking ceremony will take place later in 2018, and the entire construction will take roughly 10 months. Currently, one of the investors in the business is a market leader in the distribution of products, so we have existing commercial infrastructure to leverage and data to allow the scale that we seek to achieve when manufacturing goes live. We currently have 10% market share and aim aiming to move it to 45-50%.

What are the peculiarities of Nigeria when it comes to R&D, pharmaceutical products, and consumer trends?

On the R&D side, the big multinationals are focused on problems that affect developed countries, where affordability is not an issue. Therefore, for R&D, what is peculiar here is not the problem; in the case of Ebola, for instance, if it were not for the previous Ebola outbreak, we would not have been able to develop testing cases or vaccines, though this was small compared to international agencies that funded some of those companies. If we want to address local problems, then it is first necessary to ensure that our technical partner understands some of the local problems or local diseases that may be referred to as rare diseases and motivate them to see that there are big opportunities in that area. This has been weak in the past, because most players in Nigeria play in the distribution space and are just marketing companies; however, if a manufacturer has a long-term view of how to address the local peculiarities, then it is able to set aside part of its profit for R&D. There is no local R&D culture in Nigeria, and if we are able to seize the opportunity and get the right partners, the returns can be enormous. Second, in Nigeria there is not enough data that is crucial to making investment decisions. What we see in Lagos is completely different from what we see in the other cities and in the north, based on the quality of healthcare system and intricate differences as it is easier for people working in the environment to fully connect those dots and make things happen quickly. Third, in Nigeria one has to adapt as it can be difficult to operate, so a strong strategic plan and an almost weekly and daily scenario are needed as one goes into execution. Almost every day things tend not to go as planned if one does not address and mitigate issues with the strategic plan it has in place. To be successful, one needs to be strong strategically and operationally.

What is your outlook for 2019?

2019 will be a year when big things can happen. This will be through our special purpose investment vehicles, which we will ensure become a reality. For us, the motivation is not the return on investment; we want to prove the point that some things can be done differently within the healthcare and pharmaceutical space within Nigeria and Africa. Three production projects will come to effect. If we want to travel 1,000 miles we need to start with the first three steps with the end goal in mind. We want to ensure that we tie into the government's vision of making Nigeria self-sufficient, which we will do in terms of medicine production, and we have a clear roadmap toward this goal.