Medplus, a once-small pharmacy on Adeola Odeku, Victoria Island, has evolved into a giant pharmaceutical retail chain with 108 outlets in Nigeria. The company has restored the confidence of many in a market haunted by counterfeits by building a legacy of authentic drug marketing across three decades.
In this interview, IFE BAKARE, Medplus’ head of Strategy and Innovation, explains how partnerships with key investors have driven this growth and why critical investments in the broader value chains of healthcare are also needed to improve efficiency in the health system. TEMITAYO AYETOTO-OLADEHINDE, senior health correspondent brings the excerpts.
How has MedPlus’s mission and vision of providing authentic drugs and improving healthcare in Nigeria evolved over the past three decades?
I joined the company in July 2019. MedPlus is a one-stop shop health care provider. We do that in the form of retail stores.
Our slogan is ‘More than a pharmacy’. We want to be your one-stop place where you go for all your healthcare needs, mother care, baby care, vitamins, supplements, over-the-counter, and then your skincare, beauty, and cosmetics.
So that’s what we are in a nutshell. We have 108 stores now nationwide and growing.
What glaring deficit in healthcare are you solving with your operations?
So I’d say three things: One is the originality of our products.
With supply chain and pharmacy, you have to be very careful with counterfeit medicine and there are a lot of that in the market. But because we have very trusted suppliers and we have been doing this for quite several years. We have been able to put in very structured practices. So we ensure that our supply chains are verifiable, and our products are original and authentic.
The second thing I will say is clinical relationships. So every time you go to your pharmacist, he or she needs to understand your profile. What are you allergic to? What have you been taking in the past? What is your blood pressure? What are your other readings?
Healthcare is very holistic you can’t just prescribe something on the day. You must look at history, you must look at your biomarkers from your heredity.
So I call that personal care. We are solving that care of lifestyle and healthy living and it is not just for when you come and you’re sick. We want to get you preventive, which is why we are consistently pushing supplements and vitamins D3 for your immunity, Omega 3 features for brain function, and B12 for your skin. So that is the second thing.
The third thing I would say is affordability. We try to make them affordable but as you know with the exchange rate at N1200 to $1, it is tough.
You know, we are bringing these medicines in. A lot of our businesses cover foreign medication. So we do try to stay competitive with pricing, especially on the most popular pills. We beat our chest to say that we provide the best pricing because we have the economy of scale.
With 108 stores, we can buy competitively and then one thing is more important to us. It is what we call non-communicable diseases, hypertension, diabetes, and high blood pressure. It is very rampant in Nigeria especially because of the stressful environment. People are eating late, eating a lot of starchy foods, a lot of carbohydrates, and a lot of sugar. So, we have a lot of people that we have to put on this medication.
We need to be fully aware and look at how we catch these things earlier and how we prevent them. Of course, there is the whole public health side. We are a major force, we are at the front line of healthcare in the country. People don’t go to hospitals, they come to us first. The doctors don’t like to hear it but sadly that’s the reality. Those are the gaps.
What specific impact has inflation had on the cost of drugs over the past year, and which drugs have been most affected?
So I don’t have the exact numbers but definitely, the margin on our products has shrunk. We have had to increase the price to maintain the margin.
But I will say people are now looking for a cheaper alternative. So for example people buying foreign Panadol now buy locally-made Panadol, or they will buy Emzor paracetamol because it is cheaper. It has the same efficacy because it has the same active ingredient.
People are also then turning to the private label that we use. We sell our type of Imodium; it is called Modia. Imodium is for diarrhoea.
People are now looking to leverage the products that we make ourselves because they’re cheaper.
How has MedPlus addressed the trust deficit issue that it has been trying to solve for the past 30 years, and how has the public’s confidence in MedPlus changed over that time?
So it’s a tried and tested brand. People are familiar with the brand. We have people of all ages. We have Grandpas that have sent their children, and then almost grandchildren now coming to shop with the brand.
We started at Adeola Odeku in Victoria Island, and we have grown. People know that when you go to MedPlus, you are getting original; you are safe. You are in good hands and that is something we care deeply about. We don’t take it lightly. We know it’s a massive responsibility because you don’t play with people’s lives; you don’t play with healthcare.
So definitely it’s something that we’ve invested in and we must say we have good people as well. A key to MedPlus’ success over the years has been people. The managing director is not one to micromanage. She lets people flourish and grow, so the company has taken a life of its own. It has its own culture. It has its practice. It’s not built around her.
What role has private equity investment played in your expansion?
It’s been great. Verod Capital has been a fantastic partner for us. We signed with them in 2022. They are a good partner, bringing in excellent corporate governance for us.
Of course, they have given us liquidity for expansion and then, they’re kind of checking our blind spots, and then they are international. They have international investors; the likes of AFDB, and a lot of those DFIs, and development banks. They have to adhere to a lot of world global standards and global best practices.
Given that Lagos is the commercial nerve centre of Nigeria, are the businesses in other states where your company has investments catching up at a satisfactory pace?
Lagos is still about 70 percent of our business. I must say 70 to 80 percent, though it’s because we have the majority of the outlets here (we have about 80 to 90 outlets here).
So of course, it’s the majority, but obviously, Lagos is also the biggest commercial market in the country. That being said, Abuja and Kano are massive. So for us, Abuja, Kano, and even Rivers Port Harcourt are our prospects.
We’re looking at mergers and acquisitions as well, buying smaller chains.
What challenges face the company?
The first one is personnel and talent. All our pharmacists are constantly getting poached, and are moving to the UK and Canada. We don’t lose staff to our competitors in Nigeria; we lose them abroad.
Our head of operations left last year for Canada because of his kids. He just wanted to give his kids a better educational life. Not even for him.
The cost of the operation is going up. So my diesel cost went up four times last year. When I was running my numbers, 2022 versus 2023, my diesel cost went up, so it affected my profit line negatively.
Apart from that diesel cost is inflation. I’ve had to increase salaries. That also affects my margin because of the cost of living and all those things.
So the general macro environment isn’t great. But we are optimistic, we see light at the end of the tunnel. This new government needs to put in key program incentives.
How do you envision the company’s growth trajectory over the next 20 years, given the rapidly evolving technological landscape and competitive dynamics?
We want to go to 1,000. I was looking at Boots the other day in the UK. They have about 4,000 stores across the UK.
So Nigeria can take at least 5,000, and we want to go heavy with that growth. So we are going to grow our stores and our footprint nationwide.
We plan to get to 250 by 2025, but I think we will surpass that. Then we are also going to look at other African countries like Ghana. I like to think of it as Nigeria is on the west, Kenya is a good hub for the east, and then in central Africa, you mix around maybe Rwanda or Angola.
And then the Francophone is also very virgin. Although in Francophone Africa, some countries like Senegal, and Cote d’Ivoire don’t allow you to run chains, you have to run each one independently, so we have to figure out.