Smart medicine for a better, fairer and healthier Africa

Myriam Lahlou Filali, General Manager, Pharma 5 Group, describes how Morocco has proved itself as a reliable producer of competitively priced, top-quality pharmaceuticals.

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The Moroccan pharmaceutical industry has an annual turnover of $1.8 billion, with around 20 percent of that total coming from exports. Specializing in Moroccan-developed and made generics, Pharma 5 is one of the leading local players in the market. It posted a $120-million turnover in 2019 and exports 20 percent of its production, notably, but not only, to the African market. How would you summarize the competitive advantages of Moroccan pharma products in Africa?


Over the past 15 years, Moroccan actors including Pharma 5 have built very solid win-win partnerships with the public sector and with the private sector based on mutual trust and respect. Our products, not only in sub-Saharan African countries, but also in the Middle East and soon in European countries, have very strong competitive advantages.


The quality of our products is recognized worldwide today. The company that I lead, for example, has very strong, stringent certifications from international authorities like the Saudi Food and Drug Authority, the Gulf Health Council, ISO and we’re on track for La Agence Nationale de Sécurité du Médicament et des Produits de Santé, which is the French regulatory department. We also have companies that are U.S. and European Union (EU) approved. Our products have very high-quality standards.


Morocco’s second strong competitive advantage is price competitiveness. Despite our very small base market, we can compete in public tenders in front of Chinese, Indian or Egyptian companies that have a bigger base market—we win tenders in African countries. The third competitive advantage is reliability. Moroccan products are always available, which we proved during the pandemic, when we continued providing African partners with all our products, at the same price and at the same quality.


We also keep producing and providing products that might be delisted by companies in other countries because they are no longer profitable enough to make for them. But there is still a need for them in African countries because they are cheap and they help with some diseases; so we keep those products in our portfolios. This is another a competitive advantage.

“Morocco has a pharmaceutical industry of more than 60 years standing containing cutting-edge technology, cutting-edge companies and factories that manufacture everything from tablets to vaccines.”

Pharma 5 has also ventured successfully into the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), particularly in the Gulf region countries. What are your winning cards when competing in MENA?


MENA is a hard market to enter because, first of all, the big pharma companies are very strong there and they can pursue their patents for years, plus the regulatory processes are long. But we are very patient. In the MENA region, we have the same competitive advantages as in Africa: we are reliable and we come with very high-quality products at low prices and with bio-equivalencies of proven safety and efficiency.



Morocco has free trade agreements with the U.S. and the EU. What challenges might you face when exporting to those markets?


The main challenge in the pharma industry is regulatory authorizations. I would like the requirements to be mirrored on both sides—but, today, it’s easier to register a product coming from the U.S. or Europe in Morocco than it is to register a Moroccan product in those countries. We’re on track to get French authorization, although we have to be very patient as it takes time. On the other hand, there are huge opportunities due to the fact that western countries want to localize their supply chains.


We’re very confident in Morocco’s strong, competitive assets, not only the price, quality, reliability and availability of our products, but also those of our country in general, including its geographical position and political vision, led by King Mohammed VI. Also, Morocco is the climate champion of Africa, a path that it has been on for more than 10 years. Moroccan companies respect sustainability and have a strong, positive social impact. All the ingredients are there for us to succeed in exports and, for western pharma companies, Morocco is the ideal hub for entering Africa. Today, everybody recognizes that Africa is a future growth market. We have strong opportunities to build something together, but we need to mutually recognize that our quality is comparable and that the regulatory requirements must be the same.

How did the pandemic affect Pharma 5’s activities?


The pandemic demonstrated the strong correlation between economic activities and health status, as well as the strategic importance of local production. For 40 years, Pharma 5 has had the mission of ensuring access to medicines for all. We develop and produce only generic pharmaceuticals. With one billion units, 100-percent developed and manufactured in Morocco per year, Pharma 5 is the leader of generic products in the country, with a 30-percent market share, and we’re the leading Moroccan exporter. We enjoy strategic independence in our value chain and this helped us to ensure normal market supply during the crisis, despite the international tension.


In that type of context, where demand can quickly increase for specific products and stock can decrease dramatically, local pharmaceutical production is strategic as it guarantees sovereignty. This is a huge responsibility—and we took it seriously during the crisis. That is why, for more than two years, our top priority has been to ensure the availability of strategic pharmaceuticals, especially ones to combat COVID-19 of course, but also treatments for all the other severe diseases, while also securing the safety of all our workers. Ensuring their safety was very important because we needed be manufacturing seven days a week—we never stopped producing.


Our day-to-day challenge was to adapt continuously to the multiple constraints in order to ensure the health security of our country and, moreover of our continent, by guaranteeing the availability of quality medicines and even of disposable medical equipment. Our ministries of industry and health asked us to develop PCR kits as there was a worldwide shortage. We developed and produced 100-percent Moroccan kits and we made disposable equipment.


We are proud to say that all the pharma products normally manufactured in Morocco have always been available during the crisis and we had no shortages of pharmaceuticals manufactured locally. That is due to our strong sense of responsibility and I’m proud to say that all our staff worked very hard to ensure availability.


A positive effect of this pandemic is the acceleration of Pharma 5’s digitalization. In 2021, we took a very big leap into the era of industry 4.0, launching a new 12,000-square-meter plant we call the Smart Factory. It’s fully digitalized with artificial intelligence combined with a unique infrastructure serving increased quality, traceability, safety requirements, enhanced industrial competitiveness and increased production capacities. Our new smart factory is one of the largest pharmaceutical factories in Africa and the first of its kind on the continent. We have developed more than 25 in-house applications to digitalize almost all processes, from project management to customer management and expense reports.


Morocco’s main pharma achievement arising from the pandemic lies in the fact that we now know we are able to produce all the pharmaceuticals we need, including vaccines—at least, the fill and finish part that requires the most-demanding, most-complex expertise. Morocco now has this expertise!



How does Pharma 5 invest in research and what are its priorities?


Investing in research is at the core of our DNA. We’re a generic company, and our business model is not to buy recipes. We have our own research and development (R&D) department. Of course, we don’t set out to discover new molecules but, once a product is coming out of its patent period, then we have a team of 40 people 100-percent dedicated to reverse engineering and reproducing that pharmaceutical.


This is what we did, for example, with the latest generation of pharmaceuticals targeting hepatitis C five years ago. At the time, the original product was extremely expensive, but it wasn’t patented in Morocco. We could reproduce it with the same quality, efficiency and safety and it was 100 times less expensive than the original product, despite the very small size of our domestic market. That is a very strong focus for us: continuing to provide our continent with the latest generation of products once they are out of patent—we respect both the law and patents


We also make R&D investments in startup companies that are at the very beginning of creating innovations in fields we strongly believe in—for example, in new oncology treatments, microbiology and in a new area that is very promising for innovation and development: therapeutic cannabis.



For investors in advanced industries like pharmaceutical that are considering establishing bases in Morocco. Is there a qualified workforce they can rely on?


Absolutely! Morocco is well-prepared in this sense. Morocco has pharma universities, medical universities and biotech universities. In addition, University Mohamed VI in Ben Guerir develops a lot of very qualified and talented people in engineering.


But nothing replaces the experience they will have growing within a company. Pharma 5 is keenly aware that the core of the company is the women and men who work here, and we have a strong focus on training and developing expertise. During the COVID-19 crisis, we launched an academy for training, Pharma 5 Academy. We run programs adapted to our needs in production, quality, sales, marketing and all the key competences that each qualified Pharma 5 person has to have. Our academy is housed in a new building and we have a team dedicated to the continuous training of our people, in order to reinforce their skills for today, but also to create the talent that we will need tomorrow.


We also have a strong focus on care. Our mission is to provide healthcare at the lowest price to contribute to a better and fairer Africa and Morocco. That begins with our almost 1,800 staff. We developed a program, which is unique in Morocco, called Pharma 5 Care—it’s a daily program providing advise and support in all the areas that a human being need to be fit and healthy. We’ve also aligned with psychologists and the program was a huge success during the pandemic.



Do you have a final message for the readers of Newsweek?


Morocco has a pharmaceutical industry of more than 60 years standing containing cutting-edge technology, cutting-edge companies and factories that manufacture everything from tablets to vaccines. Despite it being a small country, Morocco also has a pharma company, Pharma 5, that ranks among the top 10 in Africa alongside huge businesses like Sanofi, GSK and Magenta. That demonstrates that Morocco boasts really strong assets for the pharmaceutical sector.