Drugs in Africa: Imports are the problem

by Developed Africa 28. June 2013 09:00

The issue of drug imports to African countries from China was highlighted in an excellent article over on Think Africa Press recently.

Chinese manufacturing dominates much of the imports into Africa and has become the largest trade partner for the continent with deals totalling more than $160 billion in 2011. With many goods, poorly regulated production leads to faults and substandard products. This is usually an annoyance, with drugs it is much more serious than that. As the Think Africa Press article puts it:

Substandard drugs are usually impossible to distinguish from good drugs. They look the same, come in identical packaging, and are manufactured by the same companies that make the good quality drugs. In fact, in the same way we might come across a few shirts with minor defects amidst a pile of perfectly-made clothes, substandard drugs can often be found in and amidst supplies of otherwise good drugs."

 The big pharmaceutical industry in Africa has been somewhat beleaguered following high profile copyright cases that saw many of the world's largest drugs manufacturers losing emerging markets to cheaper or knock-off drugs. While this has made the cost of life saving treatments fall substantially, it has also allowed a far greater fluctuation in quality. A long running dispute surrounding the import of antiretrovirals (commonly known as ARVs) - used for the treatment of HIV/AIDS - is a good example of the difficult and often broken relationship between 'big pharma' and African governments.

With China filling this gap, the poor quality of drugs now coming into the continent is simply the latest downside to an on-going problem. The problem is the lack of pharmaceutical manufacturing within Africa.

In 2010, a factory in Uganda became the first in a 'least developed country' to be regarded as world class. Rather than import for either incredibly high prices or at the risk of flooding the market with substandard of defective drugs, African countries would be better served seeking investment for nascent drug manufacturing. In January 2013 saw the creation of a new body, the Federation of African Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (FAPMA), to lobby more strongly for a domestic alternative to imports. Tsingi Moyo, the spokesperson for FAPMA, stated:

Self-sufficiency in healthcare is important for economic growth, for that reason it is dangerous to be dependent on others. Hence the infrastructure problems of Africa should be addressed. This can only be done by directly confronting them rather than giving up and abdicating our future to others."

To move forward, investment in infrastructure in the continent should be sought, promoting mutually beneficial partnerships rather than repeating the pattern of trade and recrimination that seems to have dominated this issue for the last ten to fifteen years.

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Categories: Investment

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