Making more medicines in Africa a healthy goal

Nothing has in recent years driven home so forcefully the need for self-reliance and homegrown solutions than what came to be known as “vaccine apartheid” at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The countries that dominate the global pharmaceutical industry prioritised their own people’s needs, and even hoarded medicines at the expense of the poor nations that solely rely on imports.

The viral disease is now largely under control, with infections having declined, but the sad experience is not forgotten. That has spawned the growing clamour for Africa to produce its own drugs as reliance of the multinational pharmaceutical giants is to detriment of the continent. Also, with the numerous existing diseases and new outbreaks, the pharmaceutical industry is not just a source of the life-saving products but also a potential enterprise that can create jobs and also wealth.

Experts in the UN Economic Commission for Africa and African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) are drumming up support for a pharmaceutical initiative. They would like to see African countries speed up the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals to reduce reliance on imports. AfCFTA aims to reduce tariffs among the members to facilitate trade and services, regulate standards and eliminate barriers to trade.

Another poignant lesson from the Covid-19 scourge was the logistics nightmare, often resulting in preventable deaths. The experts are keen to showcase progress in manufacturing and procurement of essential medicines for reproductive, maternal and child health in Africa. As African Union Special Envoy Michel Sidibé eloquently put it, “dependence on externally manufactured goods was problematic as access to Covid-19 vaccines starkly reminded Africans”.

Manufacturing pharmaceuticals is no longer an option. Africa produces only three per cent of the medicines consumed by its people in a massive industry dominated by Western multinationals. These imports are also the most expensive. Africa’s health and wellness sector could be worth $259 billion (Sh30 billion) by 2030, capable of creating 16 million jobs.

Medicines consume 45-60 per cent of national healthcare budgets on the continent, largely made up of imports. This stranglehold must be broken by accessing affordable financing and technology and fixing other challenges.


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