Prof. Maurice Iwu has done a lot of work in the development of natural health supplements in Nigeria. He already has some patents and has developed many of such. He spoke recently in an interview with Paschal Emeka spoke on various issues affecting health and pharmaceutical sector in Nigeria.
Natural medicine appears to be unpopular in Nigeria. What is your assessment of this branch of medicine in the country?
I think it is more of ignorance. Natural science is an integral part of drug development. All known fundamental area of drug development started with nature. The simple aspirin that you take actually was derived from a plant. So there is no known area of drug that wouldn’t have input of natural medicine. I think it is also unfortunate incidence of colonialism though we are independent, but there is this psychological burden of people believing that they are inferior to themselves and that really affected how they assess the contributions of natural medicine. Everything we know about medicine is derived from it; even how our body functions. The DNA is a natural medicine; the whole issue of how drugs work is part of natural medicine, even now that we decided to think of food; not just ordinary food but functional food as medicine. So it is basically ignorant. So rather than call myself pharmacology, I call myself a pharmacognosist. I deal with science of natural products.
Can you let us into the latest activities of your outfit Bio-Resources Group?
Bio-Resources is a component that consists of six companies. We develop medicine from plants. We are into conservation; we are also into commodity trade. We also have some health outlets. So it is six companies made with a laboratory complex that is situated at Nsukka. It is called International Center for Ethnomedicine and Drug Development. Incidentally it is the only privately owned laboratory anywhere in Sub Saharan Africa. We have done contract research for WHO, Nigerian government, the US Military and individual companies over the years. That is our major source of income. The second company is the Bio-Resources Development and Conservation Programme. As the name implies is into bio diversity conservation. We developed Nigeria’s bio diversity strategy and action plan in 1998 on behalf of the federal government, but sponsored and paid for by the UNDP. We also have the Interceed Health Products, a company that manufactures near pharmaceutical products and food supplements and they are marketed all over the world. There is another one called Natures Emporium an outlet that sells only natural products. Then we have Bio-Resources Institute of Nigeria. As the name indicates it is a registered training institute that does research on this aspect of our work.
What do you think government can do to develop the country’s pharmaceutical sector?
Pharmaceutical companies in Nigeria are really in hardship on two points because there are some certain things we could have done earlier which we did not do. We manufacture drugs with imported raw materials. So those imported raw materials are now scarce and because of the present economic condition it is hard for them to grow. Having said that there are no single bulk synthesis plants to manufacture drugs in Nigeria. When you see a drug, it is the chemicals inside it that constitutes the drug, so there is no bulk chemical synthesis plants that will translate into what we call the pharmacon. Because of that, the pharmaceutical industry struggles. Now the foreign exchange problem is a major issue coupled with inferiority complex which made people to patronize foreign made products and allow dumping in the country. Very inferior products from overseas are being dumped in the country. The area of growth for me is research. Most companies are struggling to exist because they don’t have room for research and development and without it we cannot grow. No industry can grow without innovation. Companies have to be operationally comfortable in order to go into research and development. So, for us to develop the pharmaceutical sector, first of all, we must sort the issue of identification. Government should first of all recognize that this is a strategic area. Let me make a point. For example if someone wants to poison this country, since there are a lot of anti- malaria drugs, the person can bring in anti- malaria drugs that is poisoned and it will finish us. So if you recognize that it is a strategic industry, the kind of support you will give it will be high. You give a lot of incentives like reduced tariff at the Customs; reduced tariff for equipment meant for manufacturing; even outright grants. When people see overseas companies doing well, they think they are doing well because those people are smart. They are usually supported by their governments. They enjoy a lot of government patronage and incentives that are not known outside. As I said, I worked oversea before coming down here and one startling thing that happened is that a lot of intellectual property government build up are actually developed by government institutions. Sometimes the companies pay royalties but they are not burdened with the task of developing intellectual property. So for this government, I think what they can do is to recognize that this is a strategic industry. Second is to see it as a major resource earner. If we develop it we can dominate the pharmaceutical industry in the whole of our region. Then, in my own discipline of natural product medicine, this is also an area we can compete with the rest of the world. This is an industry with over $400 billion. We can narrow down to dietary supplements alone which worth about $100 billion and in that sub-sector we have a lot of plants that can support it because we grow the plants in our farms. We can only grow so much if it becomes a national project and there will be competition; people will be sending it to Europe. Look at what is happening with Moringa alone globally. Moringa is really something used by northerners for soup making but now it is a global product yet there is no properly articulated strategy to tap into that material. The other one is common Ogbono seed known as African bush mango. It is the number one selling medicine for weight loss and we are not into the market. It is Europe that sells the product and because the products are scarce there are lots of faking of these African products. On our part, we are trying to see the possibility of reinvention. But having said that, there are a lot of Nigerian Universities that are doing very credible work; very fantastic top level research. We have very brilliant minds in our universities, but there is no nesting. There is nothing that joins these researches together. Nothing connects the dots. That’s where government can come in and create that kind of enabling environment. I heard that government has set up an agency for innovation. The agency should not see itself as a typical Nigerian institution. They should be thinking in terms of how to connect the dots. These people are doing fantastic work it is just that the person in agricultural economics does not know what is happening in the real pharmaceutical area and so on. But if there is somebody whose job it is to connect the dots we will see results. These things are done in three ways. One is that you have to fund conferences. People have to sit down and talk. But most times these professionals and universities are impoverished. Government has to fund them and fund them lavishly. There have to be publications and peer review journals. Science, as I tell people, is like tennis, it is not like golf where you can play nine holes on your own. You play it out and expect someone to return the ball to you. Secondly there have to be active support of literature. The younger ones have to learn what happened before they can innovate. The third and more difficult is what we call translation of research. How do you translate knowledge into products and services? There is no school that teaches that. It can only be done by apprenticeship and by helping the industry to be able to do what they do best. So these are the three key areas government can assist.
What is the actual potential of the pharmaceutical industry in Nigeria?
Imagine a situation where if you are sick rather than go to the pharmacy shop to buy medicine you go to your cupboard where you already have it. Won’t it save you money? So what is happening now is that when we are sick we import from overseas. That’s what I mean. So it is the global pharmacy we are going to buy whereas we can produce it locally. Secondly if you are making it locally you are sure of the contents, safety and security of the products. The other aspect of the product is that it is a heavy foreign exchange earner, if not in pounds and dollars at least it will earn us CFA. Much more importantly it will encourage growth of our population. If you notice there is upsurge in the level of metabolic diseases. People are getting more hypertensive; people are getting more diabetic; people are getting more cancerous and so on. So you should ask yourself why it is so. This is the area that needs serious research. You don’t need to scratch deep to know that if you keep an object here and nothing happened to it, if you move that object outside suddenly it starts boiling, it is obvious that the environment affected the object, then you bring it back. The whole gamut of our chemical exposure is something that our bodies are not used to and our systems are in retaliation. So these are benefits of producing drugs at home. The quality of life of the community will pick up. Some of the things outside world is battling, we should start thinking about them. So you have to have things you will use to treat yourself with your own means not by borrowed means. Few months ago we had Ebola. We battled with it after that we have Lassa fever. We live in tropical environment there are so many diseases out there we don’t know yet. Instead of doing an ad hoc approach to it there should be a systematic approach so that whatever comes up there have to be a system to deal with it.
You mentioned Lassa fever. How best do you think it can be eradicated?
The essential thing is that we have to contain it. I am also encouraged that there is so much research going on. I think what they should do is to keep on encouraging research, not necessarily the treatment. The treatment is only a time issue, but research has to do with understanding it better and also prepare for next time.