Last Wednesday, The Citizen run an editorial under the heading “Is drug sector ready for rebirth?” It was in response to a number of investors, including Aga Khan, who plans a $20 million plant.
Statistics released in the recent past shows that the pharmaceutical industry in Tanzania is not doing well but looking at it from business angle, its potential is huge. Health ministry is on record indicating that “Tanzania imports 94 per cent of its needs in medicines”. Most of the imported drugs can be produced locally, thus making it a huge opportunity worth over Sh800 billion annually.
Industry, Trade and Investments minister Charles Mwijage has been categorical that the government plans to source 50 per cent of medicines locally by 2025. Will local businesses rise up to the occasion and walk the talk, or will it be foreigners going to take the challenge? Almost 100 per cent dependency on such a basic commodity on imports posits many challenges. We need preventive medicine, right from when a mother conceives. Curative medicines are also a necessity that we cannot do without when we talk of raising a nation of a healthy people.
Imports are most of the times more expensive than locally produced goods. Secondly, they can be delayed for one reason or the other. No wonder lack of access to medicine has been a challenge to health service providers especially in public sector.
In both developed and developing countries to start a pharmaceutical manufacturing industry is not an easy task. For instance, getting approvals alone in many countries is a nightmare but also getting scientists with the ability to do that, and the costs of investments needed, that might run for years, such industries are not many.
So, for Tanzania, to get such a golden opportunity for the Aga Khan’s plan to open a pharmaceutical industry should not be underestimated.
Some ingredients are made from raw materials using both chemical and physical means. Most medicine manufacturers in Africa use Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API) made in China or India.
Several firms in America, China and India produce and markets thousands of chemical raw materials for API production. But one thing is clear, from The Citizen articles about drugs industry in Tanzania-- major reforms in business environment are needed. The current policies could be favouring importation of medicine rather than production of the same drugs locally.
We need to go beyond importing basic drugs look at why even local manufactures should buy raw materials from China and elsewhere.
Unido had decried in the past on over dependence of Africa on India and China for imports of affordable generics and raw materials for medicine. The body has been calling for local production which has many perceived benefits like saving foreign exchange, job creation, technology transfer, and stimulation of exports among other benefits.
African Union Assembly back in 2005 ordered for perusal of Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Plan for Africa. How this has seen the light of the day, after all this years is a story for another day.
Epilogue: Maize is one of the most important food crops in Tanzania, particularly in Mainland. I am yet to hear of our maize starch (obtained from the endosperm of the kernel) being used for industrial purposes.
The corn is used in making corn syrup and other sugars among many other products. It also has medical uses - for example, to supply glucose to people, etc. For us we just use maize for ugali and makande… May God help us so as we use the product beyond what we do now.
Saumu Jumanne is an assistant lecturer, Dar es Salaam University College of Education (DUCE)