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The compelling narrative of Greenlife’s Chukwuka

Pharmaconex: Gateway to collaboration, growth in West African pharmaceutical manufacturing

Often, when you read the biographies of business leaders, you need some tutoring in the business school lexicon to understand the narrative.

But Dr Obiora Anthony Chukwuka broke the mould. Disarming simplicity is the hallmark of his autobiography entitled, My Wilderness Journey. Indeed, reading through this autobiography, what came to my mind was, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano.

Though well-versed in the Business School lingo, the purpose of the book wasn’t to impress snobs. Rather, Chukwuka set out to pass on knowledge and experience that gathered from setting out as a trading apprentice to setting up Greenlife Pharmaceuticals Ltd, a major player in the healthcare sector in Nigeria and Africa. His target is to pass on this knowledge to as many as may be willing to learn and walk this tested road to success.

Following a chronological order, Chukwuka traced his footsteps from birth as an only son and last child among six siblings, through school, then apprenticeship to establishment as a trader and on to becoming a big modern entrepreneur.

Born in Nnokwa, Idemili South Local Government of Anambra State to a teacher father and petty trader mum, in 1963, Chukwuka saw little cash growing up. But he had sufficient discipline which was the hallmark of teachers then. In addition, he had a very thorough Catholic Christian upbringing which marked his development and has been a lifetime trait.

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A very significant event of his childhood was being struck by hepatitis as a five-year-old, right in the middle of the civil war. He survived courtesy of the treatment he got from the Red Cross. Very few people survived such a major sickness at that time. His survival marked him out, and one could say that providence had something special for him.

Much later in secondary school at Oraukwu Grammar School (Oragrams), Chukwuka picked the Red Cross for his extracurricular engagement, picking the thread of humanitarian service that had miraculously saved his life. He learnt to treat more physical boys who got wounded at games or play. As a senior, he was the custodian of the school’s first aid box.

Chukwuka learnt early to look reality in the face in making life decisions. Literature and history were his best subjects, and he dreamt about being a journalist.

Chukwuka would have been an editor’s delight, given his knack for precision. His autobiography has precise dates that were significant in his life, right to the days of the week, from age 17.

But reality told him that his teacher’s father could not pay for his university education. He didn’t bother taking the Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board (JAMB) entrance examination. He would go into trading following the apprenticeship route of his people. And his mind was on pharmaceuticals, he told friends in school.

Read also: Nigeria’s pharmaceutical imports drop 63% in two years

The door to apprenticeship opened via an older cousin of his who traded in Lagos. He was Chukwuka’s master. But his merchandise wasn’t pharmaceuticals which Chukwuka longed for, but ladies’ shoes. He took to what was available, while not forgetting his preference. He served with diligence and it paid off for him when his master gave him an early partial settlement – a partner with his own shop before his third year, instead of the normal fourth or fifth year.

His chance to go into pharmaceuticals popped up when the Balogun Street market was demolished by the government and it affected their shops. The master gave the boys a choice of continuing with shoes at other locations or changing their lines of business. All the boys opted to stick to the known, except Chukwuka who decided to move into pharmaceuticals. That move laid the foundation for Greenlife Pharmaceuticals Ltd.

Pharmaceuticals gave Chukwuka wealth that was measured by his peers. But he wanted something more than mere wealth. He dreamt about having a corporation, and he dared pursue the dream.

Armed with a dream, he did what successful entrepreneurs do – sharpen up a vision, pencil down a mission statement and pursue the same with diligence, deferred pleasure and patience. That is the standard package.

But there was something that stood Chukwuka out. As a child, he was instructed in the ways of God by his Catholic parents and he imbibed them. Other youths were equally instructed in the same discipline but failed to live up to the rigour. Rather than nibble at the pleasures that lined the route to success, Chukwuka dipped himself more into Christianity, joining the Charismatics, the Pentecostal arm of the Catholic Church, rising from being a learner to being a teacher. Hiding himself under the banner of Christ, Chukwuka escaped the teenage temptations, and the lure of quick cash and developed integrity which is essential for partnership and business growth. Chukwuka’s biography shows the benefits of running the spiritual race; that the good boys end on top.

Chukwuka handed himself to God and was led by God all through such that he didn’t stumble and crash. What he called his wilderness journey looks more like a walk in the prairies. One led by God would never miss his way!

Walking with God requires discipline, as Chukwuka demonstrated all through. For a dream-like his, he apparently gave heed to the biblical maxim that one would chase a thousand, but two would chase ten thousand. He therefore decided on a partnership. And in choosing a partner, he didn’t just go for people who would add greater cash to his vault, but for someone that brought something solid to the table of synergy. Ebere Nwosu had lived in his apartment as an apprentice to his cousin. Chukwuka watched him grow in business and noticed he was good at merchandising – zeal, energy, style. He handed the products to Ebere to sell, while he built the corporate structure. Administrative acumen embraced the merchandising drive and a winner was born – Greenlife Pharmaceuticals Ltd!

Read also: Pharmaceutical manufacturing hubs: Innovative approach to reshaping Nigeria’s pharma industry

So beneficial has Chukwuka’s chosen way has been that even the lost opportunities of his youth came right back to him. Some 22 years after he dropped off from formal education due to scarcity of funds, he returned to school the way many would envy. He gained admission to the University of Lagos to study business administration part-time while keeping his position as a globe-trotting industry chieftain. Rather than deploying the easy unethical way of surrogate learning, he cracked the course by himself, wrestling with business mathematics, philosophy and logic which stressed him. He disclosed that he went for tutorials to pass his exams, including the lone carryover that had tripped him. He proceeded to Leeds Metropolitan University and bagged a masters in the same course. He promptly registered for a doctorate there, but just then, Commonwealth University, Belize in conjunction with London Graduate School offered him an honorary doctorate. He then took a break from the classroom.

Perhaps, the ultimate lesson that Chukwuka taught in his autobiography is the essence of giving. He disclosed about situations over which he prayed and fasted to no avail, but eventually got a break from giving. The lesson is that when God blesses you, you have to be a blessing to others. “I am a living witness to the reality of the efficacy in the promised word of God, as it concerns giving”, he says.

“To enjoy God’s amazing grace, begin to sow seeds. When your seed leaves your hand, your harvest will leave the warehouse of heaven towards you”, he admonishes.

Running with this lesson, Chukwuka set up the Eziafakego Foundation, through which he has given much more than modesty would allow him to acknowledge, to the poor, the struggling, the church (not limited to his own denomination), communities, indigent students etc.

Keeping to promise, Dr Obiora Anthony Chukwuka is disengaging from the daily management of Greenlife Pharmaceuticals Ltd as he clocks 60. Family and friends used the occasion to pay ample tributes to him. The one-line tribute of his young son summarizes the essence of this uncommon man: “A father is someone you look up to, no matter how tall you grow”. That’s Obiora Chukwuka to those who know him close enough.

Ojukwu-Enendu was a newspaper editor.