Safe Healthcare is Good Business and Good Health

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Many people have been shocked by recent stories about the proliferation of counterfeit drugs and the rate at which they are killing and harming people in Nigeria. The International Narcotics Control Board found that up to 50 percent of medicines in developing countries are counterfeit. This has driven home the point that without the presence of legitimate players in the African drug market, the illegal sharks will step in to make large profits – and a literal killing.

To counter this negative trend, what is most needed is support for reliable Africa-based companies: businesses that are long-term, sustainable and not living from one grant to the next. But as experience has shown around the world, nurturing businesses requires certain fundamentals: they must work to be profitable, they must find a market and exploit it, and they need cash infusions that are timed to the company’s growth, not to the cycle of international donors. This role, often served in developed countries by venture capitalists, who want a fast return of 35 percent – is too onerous a burden for most African businesses. What African companies need is a more conservative, long-term approach; one that expects returns of between five and 10 percent.

Kenyan company Advanced Bio-Extracts (ABE) is one good example. Only 18 months old and based in Nairobi, the company produces one of a new generation of low-cost anti-malarials known as artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs). The drug is produced from the green leafy plant Artemisia, or sweet wormwood. The company is the first in Africa to make this drug, and employs 7,000 local farmers in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, as well as scientists.

ABE has received two infusions of cash from non-profit social venture capitalists Acumen, as well as investment from Swiss drug giant Novartis. Acumen has so far invested US $9.6 million in 11 active investments focused on a diverse set of health challenges, including basic healthcare access in rural areas and treatment for malaria and HIV/AIDS.

“We are commercializing a product that had never been commercialized,” said ABE’s owner, Doug Henfrey, to the New York Times. “Those little windows of support make these things happen. We could not have done it otherwise.”

Acumen’s Kenya country director, Nthenya Mule, said “there are positive things happening in Africa, but they are not happening overnight, and some are happening quietly. ABE is exemplary. You will not see it as front-page news, but in 18 months they set up a factory with 160 people interfacing with 7,000 farmers and supplying one of the major pharma companies in the world.”

Stimulating private sector solutions to African healthcare problems is receiving an additional boost from a new fund established by the World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation. To be launched later in 2007, it will offer cash and loans totaling US $500 million to commercial healthcare projects in Africa. According to its own statistics, 60 percent of health expenditure in sub-Saharan Africa is privately funded, and the market, excluding South Africa, is worth US $19 billion.

Resources

  • Roll Back Malaria Partnership: Launched in 1998 by the World Health Organization. UNICEF, UNDP and the World Bank to coordinate the global campaign, to fight malaria.
  • Malaria Atlas Project (MAP): An online map showing up-to-date information on high-risk areas for malaria.
  • A paper on the global threat of counterfeit drugs: Click here


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