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A case for investment in local pharma in Africa

With 11% of the world’s population, and 25% of the global disease burden (and if I may add, 1% of the global health care expenditure), Africa never ceases to amaze many. Add to this, only 1% share of the world’s pharmaceutical markets is in Africa, and two thirds of the global value of pharmaceutical products is produced in 5 countries (USA, Japan, France, Germany and the UK) where the global disease burden is negligible. Light bulb moment anyone?

I can’t help but think of the significant amounts of donor money flowing into the purchase of ARVs and other essential medicines in sub-saharan Africa that could be diverted into local pharmacy production instead of flowing to multinational corporations and Indian generic manufacturers. Entrepreneurs like Vanderbilt, Carnegie and Ford changed the world (and yes, their pockets) by making accessible, or available, commodities that local communities needed. And Africa does have a huge need for medicines, and pharmaceutical commodities in general.

Individuals with deep pockets aside, developing the local pharmaceutical production industry is something our governments should look at, and probably more importantly look at as an obligation. The inevitable benefits from self- managed sufficiency and thus a reliability in drug supplies and access, the safe guard & ownership of quality by appropriate government agencies, and the creation of jobs are some of the positives that would emanate from a vibrant local pharmaceutical industry. We do not have to look further than India where pharma has been a solid pillar in the development of the emergent economy that it is today and has contributed to the global medico-pharma hub it is today. We should look beyond the few potential bottlenecks to the successful development of our local pharma industry (notably technology, funding and source of investment, a possible lack of appropriate workforce all of which are areas local governments have routinely and ably addressed in different sectors of the industrialization years).

Uganda, one of only 2 countries where HIV prevalence is on the rise, in early 2007 saw the establishment of a pioneer ARV manufacturing plant in Africa but five years on has continued to heavily rely on the importation of ARV generics with massive funding from donors and support agents like PEPFAR. We have not seen the benefits envisioned of cheaper and accessible ARVs to the local PHA population and I can’t help but think of the impact that would follow if these same funds were directly invested into this local ARV manufacturing plant that brought so much hope, and how a local & truly accessible ARV market would shape the current status of the HIV landscape in the country.

My hunch is that if done well – free of the corruption, bureaucracy and red tape that African industrialization has openly cohabited with for a long time – the grounds for true access to all medicines by the local populations have been laid. My hope is that we will see investment – individual, government, PPPs – in the local pharma production industry.