Her infectious smile brightened the conference room of Ambassadors Hotel, Ikoyi, Lagos, as she walked briskly to her seat with a gait that belies her age. This was shortly after playing host to the victorious Super Falcons who had, the previous day, won the 2016 African Women’s Cup of Nations (AWCON) for a record eight time after beating host Cameroon. The probing eyes that turned in her direction soon got the message that Dr (Mrs) Stella Okoli was fully ready for the next item on her loaded agenda – an interactive session with the media – being one who would not put off till tomorrow what can be accomplished today.
This quintessential entrepreneur, founder/chief executive officer of Nigeria’s biggest indigenous pharmaceutical company, Emzor Pharmaceutical Industries Limited, as anticipated, was blunt as she shared her thoughts on sundry issues, including her involvement with Super Falcons, youth empowerment, the state of Nigerian economy, the way out of recession, Emzor’s flagship product and the company’s corporate culture of annual thanksgiving service, among others. Consumer Life was there. Excerpts:
Despite the short notice, you played host to the Super Falcons on their return to Nigeria shortly after defeating Cameroon to retain the AWCON 2016 trophy. How were you able to achieve this feat?
To me, hosting them was an opportunity of a lifetime. Even though the notice was very short, I had to quickly mobilize my people to get things ready before their arrival. The reception was great and the girls were very happy. Coming here really helped them to relax fully, do some shopping before flying to Abuja with the trophy. Don’t forget that Asisat Oshoala, Super Falcons’ forward, is the Brand Ambassador of Emzor Paracetamol, our flagship product, so we have been providing support for the team.
What lessons do you think Nigeria and Nigerians can learn from your prompt response and the performance of the team in view of efforts to address the current economic recession?
The Super Falcons were not weighed down by the economic challenges back home. They believed in themselves. They were focused on their goal and they worked hard to achieve success, which the whole country is now celebrating. These are lessons we can learn. Another lesson is speed. Speed is a great attribute but it has expiry time. If you don’t act fast, you’ll lose an opportunity. We have to act fast if we want to get the country out of recession. When we make plans and take decisions, they must be implemented with speed.
Teamwork is also important. A lot can be achieved when there is teamwork and collaboration. Government cannot do it alone; they have to do a lot of consultation. There should be regular meetings with the private sector operators, the academia, the business community, and others to strategize on the way forward.
We should be able to harness the best brains we have to get solutions to our economic challenges. There were a lot of consultations and meetings in the past, I see less of such now. It was in the news that the President-elect of the United States, Donald Trump appointed a Nigerian as a member of his economic team. That tells you that Nigeria is endowed with great, talented, hardworking and resourceful people who are ready to contribute to the development of the country if given the opportunity.
There are always opportunities in every adversity. What opportunities has the recession thrown up for the country in general and your industry in particular?
The recession has brought to the fore the need to pursue backward integration, particularly in the petrochemical and agriculture sectors. Industry players should begin to grow local content by sourcing their raw materials locally as this will help preserve foreign exchange and create more job opportunities in the country. Also our manufacturing activities is largely based on the use of foreign machines, technology, and raw materials. These are opportunities our local investors should begin to explore.
What is your view on the statement credited to the Finance Minister that the country would come out of recession soon?
We have no business being in recession because Nigeria has all it takes to build a virile and sustainable economy. However, now that we are in recession, it is not enough to make sweeping statements without explaining what plans are on the table to get us out of recession. I’m still emphasizing the fact that government needs to consult with the relevant stakeholders and find a way out. Talented and resourceful young Nigerians abound everywhere but nobody is talking to them.
What step should government take to put the economy back on track?
Government will have to adopt multi-pronged approach. There is need to consult widely across various sectors, strategize and act fast. If a business runs out of cash, it is dead. When an economy does not have money, people suffer. So government must spend to reflate the economy. The present government is doing wonderful work with its anti-corruption war but recovered funds should be channeled to the productive sector, infrastructure, and research and development because these are areas that can reinvigorate the economy.
The Central Bank of Nigeria last August directed banks to allocate 60 per cent of foreign exchange sales to the manufacturing sector. Has this helped to ease forex pressure on the sector?
We saw this directive on the pages of the newspapers. However, we still find it extremely difficult to access foreign exchange; banks keep telling us they don’t have forex. I believe there is a genuine intention by the apex bank to improve forex supply to manufacturers to enable them import raw materials to sustain their operations. When companies are producing, jobs will be created and the economy will be revived. Unfortunately, we are still not getting forex supply. The implementation of this policy is not clear. When a policy is made, efforts should be made to ensure effective implementation. There should be close monitoring.
What is your view on the federal government’s decision to negotiate the ECOWAS protocols on Free Trade and Common External Tariff (CET)?
I think they’ve done the right thing because we cannot continue to be party to protocols that don’t favour our people. The Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group and the larger Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) have been campaigning against CET for a long time but the country went ahead to sign these documents. Many of these ECOWAS countries do not produce goods; they rely mainly on importation. Most of the goods imported into these countries are smuggled into Nigeria with zero per cent duty under the Trade Liberalisation Scheme, thus further stifling our manufacturing sector. Government must take deliberate steps to support the productive sector of the economy to encourage local investors. The campaign – Buy Made-in-Nigeria – should not remain just a slogan. It must be put into practice. For instance, the National Drug Policy says that 70 per cent of drugs purchased by government must be produced in Nigeria but most of the people in the ministries don’t seem to know this. Perhaps they don’t consult enough among themselves before taking decisions. Most countries buy and encourage their own and Nigeria should do same.
So many young Nigerians desire to go into manufacturing but the challenges confronting that sector are daunting. What advice do you have for them?
They should not be discouraged; they should go ahead. Government, corporate organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) all have a role to play in supporting our youth who have passion for manufacturing. We have many talented young people in Nigeria. Look at the Aba made shoes young Nigerians are producing; they are of good quality. We can encourage this kind of entrepreneurship. If our youth have access to regular power supply and loan, they will achieve a lot because they are very gifted. Training should also be provided for them on how to improve the quality and packaging of their products. The various regulatory agencies should work with them to ensure their products are of excellent quality.
Government should create industrial parks across the country from where these talented youth can be assisted to set up cottage industries. The regime of Former President Olusegun Obasanjo made a pledge to let out a wing of the now abandoned Federal Secretariat in Ikoyi for use as an ICT Park. Several years after, that property is still lying fallow, nothing has been done. When government makes any pronouncement, it must follow it up with action. My advice to our youth is that they should not be discouraged to the extent of burying their passion for entrepreneurship on account of recession. They should forge ahead and they will succeed and help lift the country out of recession.
What business lessons have you learnt from your company’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of Emzor Paracetamol, recently?
One major lesson is that if you build your brand, it will survive the test of time. You must believe in what you are doing and continue to improve on it until you get it right. Don’t compromise on quality. Build a team and carry them along in whatever you are doing. Always explore better ways of doing things. Your stakeholders – retailers, health facilities, patent medicine stores, and consumers – should not be taken for granted because they are key to your business success. Don’t ever disappoint them by cutting corners.
The Emzor Pharmaceutical Industries Annual Thanksgiving service has become a national programme that attracts people from all walks of life within and outside the country. What is the motivation for this kind of gathering?
I really thank God for giving us the privilege to hold a corporate thanksgiving service at the end of every year. It is our own way of thanking Him for all He has been doing in our lives, in the life of our company and our nation Nigeria. We started this company with only one product, Emzor Paracetamol. Today we have so many products. Besides, Emzor Paracetamol has now given birth to Emzor Para1000. We started as a retail patent medicine store in 1977 and we incorporated the manufacturing arm in 1984 while actual production started in 1986. Over the years, the company has been growing stronger in all areas, all to the glory of God. So the thanksgiving service offers us an opportunity to praise God and thank Him for everything, including the gift of wellness. It gives us joy to do that and I am excited this year’s edition is coming up soon.
On a lighter note, what is the secret of your youthful looks?
I don’t know how I look but I can tell you how I feel. I feel good and to be candid I am not conscious of my age even though I was born in 1944. I am happy, I love people and I love God. If God has kept me and He knows I have a lot to do and He gives me energy, life, and health, I just glorify Him. That is the secret, the secret is God.