Africa has fewer than 400 drug manufacturers to cater to the more than 1 billion people on the continent. Meanwhile, China and India are countries with similar populations but as many as 5,000 and 10,500 drugmakers, respectively. With so few manufacturers, Africa must rely largely on imports to keep its population healthy. In most of sub-Saharan Africa, imports account for as much as 70% to 90% of drugs consumed, and this drives up costs and limits the availability of medicines.

Without regular access to even the most essential medicines, millions die or suffer from protracted illnesses. Widespread ill health can trap people in poverty, as those who are healthier are more productive. A thriving pharma sector that boosts access to quality medicines will improve health care and consequently propel economic growth.

Africa’s overdependence on imported pharmaceuticals also makes it extremely susceptible to health care emergencies, as COVID-19 has demonstrated. Supply chain disruptions at the start of the pandemic in 2020 severely affected the availability of medicines across the continent because many countries that produce pharmaceuticals restricted exports.

In Nigeria, supplies to manage chronic illnesses were reportedly hard to come by, while psychiatric drugs and oral contraceptives were scarce in South Africa. Similarly, the shortage of COVID-19 vaccines on the continent highlighted the danger of overdependence on imports. As of January this year, Africa had only received about 6% of the 9 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses produced, despite having 17% of the world’s population.

Apart from improving health care outcomes to have more productive people in the economy, significant economic value can be captured from developing Africa’s pharmaceutical sector. In 2021, 40 of India’s estimated 237 billionaires reportedly earned their wealth from pharmaceutical businesses. The sector directly contributes about 2% to India’s gross domestic product and around 8% to the country’s total merchandise exports. India is one of many countries that derive export revenue and create jobs from pharmaceutical businesses.

Hence, with African economies strongly in need of economic boosts, rethinking the continent’s pharma sector as a contributor to prosperity has become imperative. Both public and private stakeholders have a role to play in these critical steps required:

Increase local manufacturing capacity and improve distribution systems. Establishing drug manufacturing hubs across Africa is the first step toward building a new pharma sector that better supports the continent’s economies.

In the words of Margaret Ilomuanya, the editor-in-chief at the Nigerian Journal of Pharmacy: “There’s a big risk in relying on elaborate global supply chains in which the supply of many essential and critical drugs is dependent on overseas suppliers. We have the wherewithal to build the local pharmaceutical industry, and we have the hands. We can take it from bench to bedside.”

However, good distribution also plays an important role in ensuring that local demand can be efficiently met. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the lack of organized distribution systems forces health care providers to rely on open drug markets and unlicensed drug traders, making patients susceptible to counterfeit and substandard products.

More local manufacturing and improved distribution mean affordability and better access to medicines, as well as healthier people who are productive and actively contributing to the economy. These also mean new jobs and potential export revenue.

Tap the potential of technology to improve the whole pharma value chain. The world is witnessing a tidal shift as health care systems globally struggle to improve quality service output while improving efficiency through technology. This is one of the factors that differentiate the COVID-19 crisis from the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

Today, digitalization has fostered instant communication and helped facilitate speedy research, development, and distribution of vaccines, demonstrating its importance to future pharma. Electronic prescriptions, telemedicine, remote monitoring for in-patient and geriatric care, wearables, and at-home testing kits are just a few of the ways tech is transforming health care.

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