Pharmaceutical business “Not a bed of roses”

By By Francis Mukuzunga
June 2010
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GOING into the pharmaceutical business as a first attempt requires that one has to have lots of experience and good acumen.

Nearly all the medicines and drugs at Namibian hospitals and health institutions are imported and costly while at the same time, one has an obligation to satisfy a huge demand, even for those who might not afford.

Shortages of drugs and financing that came as a result of the global recession over the past two years, coupled with delays with clearance of imported drugs by the Department of Customs and Excise and strict regulations by the Medicines Control Board – are all challenges that can be counter-productive to the business.

This is what Benjamin Khumalo faced when he started Living Waters Pharmacy two years ago. Fortunately, Khumalo had years of experience behind him when he established the private pharmacy at the Roman Catholic Hospital in Windhoek.

Living Waters Pharmacy caters for hospital staff as well as patients referred by private doctors who are having consulting rooms at the hospital. Patients who are admitted to the hospital wards are catered for by the main hospital pharmacy – the two are in co-existence, should the need arise. Meanwhile, other well established pharmacies are strategically located throughout Windhoek and the major towns where the majority of people are.

Numbers at the hospital may not be enough to justify a successful business. So how does the young entrepreneur break-even when a small, reasonably sized pharmacy is situated right in the middle of an expensive private hospital? It was not so difficult, it seems, as Living Waters was established on the premise that a special arrangement for all staff of the Roman Catholic Health Services countrywide could buy their pharmaceutical requirements on credit.

Added to that, the Catholic Hospital is mostly frequented by tourists and other foreigners in need of medical attention. Members of the public too, can also access the pharmacy.

“We embarked on an aggressive marketing from the onset. We went everywhere, including newspapers, radio and other media and gave our information to the visiting patients so that they could tell others about our services. We were on the Angolan national radio and newspapers as well as the local media,” says Khumalo.

Angola, he says, is one of Namibia’s strategic markets. With this in mind, Khumalo and his staff have gone an extra mile in learning and mastering several languages, including Portuguese, German, French, Afrikaans, Oshiwambo, Otjiherero and other indigenous Namibian languages so as to serve their clients better. “I went to study Portuguese for six months. The idea is to be able to speak the patients’ language to avoid any misunderstanding,” he says.

Living Waters Pharmacy supplies medicines and drugs as prescribed by doctors, as well as selling off-the-counter medicinal soaps and creams for the skin. Part of the services at the pharmacy includes Pharmacist Initiated Therapy (PIT). Under this therapy one can visit a PIT registered pharmacist without prescription and explain their condition or aliment. The pharmacist will then be able to prescribe the drug and medicine accordingly. In order to do this, Khumalo had to undergo an extra course in Pharmacotherapy at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa in order for his practice to be certified.

Despite the problems associated with supply and distribution of pharmaceutical products throughout the country, and of course, competition from other bigger and established pharmacies, Khumalo says, “We are stable. I am happy that after starting off as a one man operation assisted by my wife on the administration side. I now have a staff compliment of four people and have established a very strong client base.”

Experience was the best teacher for the 32-year-old South African born pharmacist who worked for 12 years before finally deciding to go on his own. Armed with a Degree in Pharmacy from the prestigious University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 1998, Khumalo worked at a few institutions of health in South Africa before coming to Namibia at the turn of the millennium.

“I worked in the North for about four years in Oshakati before trekking down to Windhoek where I found myself at the Rhino Park Hospital where I also worked between 2004 and 2008. I must say this is the period that I learnt a lot about the needs of the country, health wise, and I am glad that I played my part.”

A strong believer in Christian values, Khumalo found the name Living Waters appropriate for his new practice when he started: “Living Waters actually stands for ‘fountain of life’ and brings hope to many people that need help. Of course, the gospel singer Jimmy Swaggart composed a song under the same title, but I had no clue of the existence of the other when I started off. I could have been by coincidence.”

Being a registered tutor, Khumalo has also spent time to do in-house training for two of his staffers and for other pharmacies so as to improve the quality of service in Namibia. He is now being assisted by an experienced partner in the business, Chido Makoni from Zimbabwe and two Namibian trainees, Shireen Brandt and Karrie Ngeama.

He is also vice-president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Namibia (PSN), a position that he has held over the past four terms. The society, he says, represents the interests of all pharmacists that are practicing in Namibia, as well as guarding against any “bad pharmacy practices”. The PSN also continuously encourages education of pharmacists in the country so as to be abreast with up-to-date trends in the profession and medicines being used to treat various ailments worldwide.

Some of the activities at the PSN include awareness activities such as the “Pharmacy Week” in which the society goes out to the public with information on how to best use their services. Themes such as “Buy from a licenced pharmacist” have also come out of these initiatives over the past two years. There have also been awareness programmes to the public against the use of non-conventional and unregistered medicine that have come onto the market of late.

“What we are saying to the general public is that they should make use of registered pharmacists. On the other hand, pharmacists should be on the lookout of some members of the public who buy medicines off the counter for drug abuse purposes. In this case we are also calling on the Medicines Control Board to be strict on some of these non-medicines.”

Khumalo adds that he is happy to note that there have not been any incidents of professional discourse by members of the society so far. The young pharmacist also sits on the University of Namibia’s (UNAM) technical working group for the new pharmacy training programme at the institution of higher learning. According to him Namibia is still facing a critical shortage of professionals in this area of specialisation.

Therefore, he suggests, government and the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration should make it easier for training institutions to recruit tutors from other countries that have the experience so that they can pass it on to the locals. He urged the owners of pharmacies in Namibia to spread their wings across the country, especially in areas where there are more people in need of their services as opposed to big cities such as Windhoek.

With this in mind, Khumalo can assertively say that: “Three to five years from now, we would have expanded to bigger premises or opened new braches elsewhere around the country- even beyond Namibia’s borders.“ PF