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Taming capital flight with Princess Medical Centre ‘Signature’ is my gift to Niger Delta at 63 – Emi Membere Otaji

Rivers State-born medical doctor and investor, Emi Membere Otaji, presides over a business empire highlighted by perhaps the biggest medical centre in the Niger Delta with a six story world-class hospital facility in Trans Amadi, Port Harcourt, named the ‘Signature Wing’ of the Princess Medical Centre. In an exclusive interview, the Dein Piribo 2 of Kalabari, Ijaw, told IGNATIUS CHUKWU that creating such a world-class medical centre is his gift to the Niger Delta at 63. Excerpts..

Can you take us through memory lane of your life and career as you clock 63?

On June 10, 2021, I turned 63 years of age, born 1958. I had straight forward education from Township Primary School to Baptist High School to the then College of Science and Technology, all in Port Harcourt, before proceeding to the College of Medicine, University of Lagos where in graduated in 1983. I did my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in 1984 at Military Hospital in Port Harcourt. After medical school, I had wanted to join the military but was discouraged.

After my NYSC, I went back to Lagos to work for two years, after which I came back to Port Harcourt. In 1987, I set up the Princess Medical Centre in Trans-Amadi Industrial Area of Port Harcourt.

I had a foray into politics in 1991 and served as board chairman of the West African Glass industry (WAGI),then the only publicly quoted company east of the Niger, with German technical managers. I was a young doctor, fresh even in medical practice, to head a board of business gurus. I had to train myself, go round to see how factories looked like, went to the Oluwa Glass Company, then the best in the country, proceeded to the Lagos Business School, to the Nigerian Stock Exchange to imbibe the language of the stock and capital market.

What gave you the confidence to wax strongly as a medical investor all these years?

My early sojourn in the corporate business world rubbing shoulders with best of the bests brought out a big entrepreneurial or business spirit in me, apart from being a medical doctor. The company I registered in 1987 is still running over 30 years, evidence that it is good to understand business principles. In 2017, with the support of Shell Nigeria through their Aspire Fund, we set up this ‘Signature Wing’ of the Princess Medical Centre which is to take care of the high-end of the economy while the old facility that was started in 1987 takes care of the low-end. The ‘Signature’ is multi-specialty from dental unit, gynecology, cardiology, name it. There are four theatres, just to tell you what we are talking about.

I later established a company rendering services to many companies including supply of chemicals to then NAFCON, today’s Notore, Shell, etc, in many areas; civil works, location buildings, etc. We also had another company doing medical equipment supplies.

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We played in that role until 1999 when I became Commissioner of Health in Rivers State. I happened to be the chairman of the body of Commissioners of health nationwide.

Due to paucity of funds at that period in Rivers State {1999-2003}, we focused on making the system work as much as we could.

One high point was the establishment of the Emergency Medical Service (EMS). We were the first state to have a statewide EMS, both land and water. It worked to a very large extent.

Again, as chairman of commissioners of health, I represented the states in the federal panel that worked out how to start the National Health Insurance Scheme {NHIS} with Labour, Doctors, and Pharmacists.

On my way from one of such meeting in Jos, we were captured by herdsmen and tortured. The injury or mark is still there on my back to this day.

What are those things that stand you out especially in the healthcare sector, oil and gas, and in shipping?

My foray into politics caused my company to decline because operations were centred around me. Today, that is no more the case. The company is now running with structures drawn up by KPMG as consultants so that it won’t be around one individual. The company is now ISO-certified and so, its operations are of international standards.

So,when I came back in 2003, I went into marine sector in 2005 and started building barges and tugs. That is how shipping and inland business came up, moving things to locations. We also do ship repairs, and ship building in Port Harcourt.

Necessity is truly the mother of invention. That was how I as then president of the Port Harcourt Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (PHCCIMA) suggested at Quarterly business Meeting at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, with captains of industry. I suggested how to use the Niger Delta experience to help Apapa port road gridlock by showing how cargo can move by water at Apapa. This helped a lot, though with some issues.

So, Elshcon works offshore supporting oil and gas. Few months ago, the issue of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) came on stream. It means there is big trade in Africa, seamless trade. So, we now use our vessels to carry containers between Apapa and any other ports in the West Coast and beyond.

What could Shell want to achieve by supporting this world-class medical facility?

They have a financial facility called Aspire Growth Fund to support businesses in some selected sectors. Healthcare managed to be part of this. So, we applied and they came to see things for themselves. They saw the world-class processes on ground and approved. They brought in their own fund, a quarter, the old Princess Medical Centre brought a quarter, and Elshcon brought some.

Is the Shell fund equity or loan?

That is a good question. They saw the world-class process of our businesses and approved six-year tenure, then much lower interest rate without equity stake. Also, Shell uses this medical facility; same with almost all the IOCs, NLNG, Agip, Total, Exxonmobil etc. Chevron is about to join. What is here won’t be found in most other places.

Can this place help Nigeria to reduce foreign exchange or capital flight?

That is where we are and we can do more. Some of the patients here would have gone abroad. The renal transplant to be done here would stop patients from going abroad. The investors and partners paid attention to details of setting this place up.

The way this place is going, in the next five years, what would this place be doing for Nigeria?

Our plan is to expand in both scope and content. If we do that, it means that many more people will be employed, and many persons who would have gone abroad would be treated here. To Nigeria, it will help to stem the tide of medical tourism abroad.

This means this very challenging area of medicine has been taken care of, Port Harcourt is stepping in?

Yes, Port Harcourt is joining the league of a few healthcare facility centres that can now save Nigeria’s foreign exchange. The scope will only get bigger.

How do you secure the confidence of the upper end, how can top persons accept that here can solve their problem?

That aspect is an issue to an extent because they want to fly abroad but what about emergencies. We just had an emergency situation in an oil company. The patient was very bad such that even air ambulance could not help him. He has been with us for two weeks.

Cost is another factor.Some surgeries and procedures that cost $13,000 (N5.8m) in UK or the USA can be done here for as low as N100,000.

Your question is very apt because we have seen top government officials, monarchs, company executives, etc, that are entitled to going abroad; they would want to go abroad, but when they have emergencies or their loved ones have issues, they will come.

These awards to you and your companies, are they saying what you did is new or different?

Last month, the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA) in one of their visits to this facility, saw that the old facility has been in operation providing medical service since 1987. They realized that most businesses in Nigeria hardly survive for 30 years. Add this to my being in healthcare business for all these years. I was chairman of Clearline Health Insurance Company, one of the oldest. We have had our footprint in the healthcare industry. So, adding this to the oil industry and shipping, it meant much to them, thus the awards.

When Nigerians realize that here they can get it right and cheap, there will be a surge, can here cope when this happens?

An old Indian doctor going back home saw this place and predicted a surge soon. Our hope is that we will be expanding as need arises. We are prepared for this.

At 63, do you feel accomplished, now at your plateau, or still climbing?

As you get to 63, you get more spiritual, more careful, more philosophical, and you take less risky. You also get wiser. A lot of people want you on their boards. You get a lot of speaking engagements, etc. For me, we are pushing boundaries at 63, in different areas. We are going higher. I train my body and mind every day.

Giving back is important at this stage through various missions. We have Dr Emi Membere-Otaji Awards in the Uniport medical school. My company Elshcon has scholarship in the Rivers State University in marine engineering and mechanical engineering. We also take care of indigent students and have medical outreach to those who cannot afford it. We are giving back to society from the little resources available.

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