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BUKKY GEORGE, on scaling HealthPlus Pharmacy, surviving COVID-19 and turning 50

Bukky George is the Founder & CEO of HealthPlus Limited, Nigeria’s first integrative pharmacy, the fastest growing pharmacy & beauty chain in West Africa. She is well-regarded for her leadership in entrepreneurship, retail and the pharmaceutical industry. She has over 28 years of experience in the health & beauty industry. She is a registered pharmacist with the Pharmacists Council of Nigeria, the General Pharmaceutical Council UK, a member of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain and a Fellow of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria. She holds an MBA from the University of Lagos. She is an alumnus of the Lagos Business School (Owner Manager Program), Harvard Business School (Owner/President Management Program) and IE Business School (Women On Boards – Africa Program). Bukky recently became the first Nigerian female Endeavor Entrepreneur.

Over the past 21 years, the company she founded has grown to over 90 retail outlets, with a central distribution centre and employs over 850 associates. HealthPlus is a multi-award winner for excellence and community service. Bukky aspires for HealthPlus to be Africa’s #1 for pharmacy, wellness and beauty.

Her strengths include a strong academic foundation, a passion for excellence and a determination to raise the standards in healthcare and retail. She is devoted to continuous learning. Bukky provides strategic leadership for the HealthPlus Group.

Bukky was an executive council member of and is an active mentor for Women in Management, Business & Public Service (WIMBIZ). She is a multi-award winner for excellence in entrepreneurship, healthcare and community service.

 

Early years and influence on life and work

I am a product of my childhood and upbringing. Early years were living in Lawanson with my mother and two sisters. Growing up was tough but we were happy, resourceful and learnt to use our hands for sewing, cooking, baking, knitting and crocheting and so on. I was curious, always asking questions and developed a knack for solving problems. I’m a product of my passion for learning. I learn from formal and informal sources of information. I learn from the young and old. Learning is continuous. I’m a product of my quest for excellence. I don’t accept the status quo and demand high standards. Finally and most importantly, I am a product of the grace and the favour of God. My story can never be told without the profound impact of God on my life and work.

 

Starting HealthPlus Pharmacy

HealthPlus started operations 21 years ago in response to the limited access of Nigerians to safe medicines. There were and still are numerous unlicensed drugstores operating alongside relatively few licensed pharmacies. The Pharma supply chain is infiltrated with unlicensed operators and substandard/falsified medicines. Among licensed pharma-retail operators, standards and service quality vary significantly. Reliable access to safe, affordable, high-quality and effective medicines, for most people in Nigeria is simply not something that can be taken for granted.

 

Challenges

We have raised the bar in pharmacy practice. We have set new standards by adopting global best practices. We have groomed a new generation of pharmacy professionals who are committed to high standards, the ethics of the profession and shun mediocrity. We are community heroes, committed to improving the health of the people in the communities we serve. Currently, we have over 90 retail outlets, employ 850 employees and operate in 11 states in Nigeria. We have been recognised through multiple awards. We are contributing our quota to the achievement of universal healthcare coverage and to increasing the life expectancy of Nigerians. Our major challenge is appropriate funding to scale. Today, many entrepreneurs are faced with expensive and stifling financing from financial institutions. Healthcare businesses in particular need patient capital. Government must intervene with an appropriately priced Health Fund like we have with Agric businesses.

HealthPlus Pharmacy has been around for over 20 years, how have you survived and thrived?

Well first, our business addresses needs and gaps in the market. Our brand fulfills its promises to our customers. Though a pharmacy, we provide unique offerings which include our niche in natural health, wide range of medicines and healthcare products, the integrity of our supply chain is guaranteed as no substandard or falsified medicines can be found in our stores. Effective management and people are key to the growth of any organisation. We have worked hard to build a one-of-a-kind management team. We pay great attention to the quality of people we employ at HealthPlus & CasaBella. We have standardised and efficient processes. We give extraordinary customer service. We are committed to continuous improvement. Finally, the role of funding is very important and critical. Adequate funding I might add. We have accessed funding over the years, hence our growth but this remains a challenge as these funding are not adequate nor appropriately priced especially for a healthcare business.

 

The impact of the pandemic has had devastating effect on many businesses, how are you dealing with this?

We are operating at about seventy percent which is fair considering the devastation to many businesses. For this, we are grateful. The key to dealing with the situation is to engage the hearts and minds of the people, carrying them along as fast decisions are made. In addition, we have ensured that our product mix addresses the needs of the customers. We remain focused on delivering excellent service. Furthermore, we have applied and obtained available palliatives from the financial institutions we partner with. These are some of the ways we have been coping.

 

It is common knowledge that you and 10 members of your family survived COVID-19 infection, how was the experience?

I did articulate this in great detail in an article I had hoped will remain confidential but this got labeled with my identity without my consent and it did go viral. With hindsight, it’s all good. For those who did not believe that COVID-19 exits should now appreciate that this virus is for real and can be devastating. Yes, 11 of us tested positive to COVID-19 in April. We were isolated at the Infectious Disease Hospital Yaba. We were anxious and afraid but also consoled by the recovery rates in Nigeria which are better than the rates in many developed countries. We received the care that was made available during our admission but we also helped ourselves swiftly! One of my mantras is the application of “100% faith and 100% works” in all I do. To the glory of God, with gratitude to the medical corp at IDH and our fellow ward mates who supported with tips and prayers, we tested negative twice within seven days and were discharged thereafter.

 

The role of personal research in your healing process

The self-help I referred to came from several sources including a nurse who was on admission with us. Remember you can and should google everything. We got great tips from WhatsApp groups too. One of my children researched tips from survivors worldwide and that particular research revealed that the virus does not thrive in heat and alkaline conditions. So, we ate and drank alkaline meals and beverages. In addition, steam inhalation, hot fluids and chest physiotherapy were key to breaking down mucus in the lungs for the couple of us that had respiratory symptoms.

Your first-hand experience of the lack of amenities at your isolation centre

Nigeria is a developing country and many facets of development are sub-par; from healthcare, education, power and other infrastructure. It is what it is! The sub-optimal state of healthcare in Nigeria is why we always pray for good health and when people fall ill, they manage what is available or travel out if they can afford it. The pandemic has however locked all of us in, so “the rich are also crying’’. All of us can see clearly the state of our hospitals, the grossly inadequate manpower, equipment and standards. This time though, we are all in it together. I went to the isolation centre with little expectations. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised. The wards were clean, PPE was provided. Food was ok but water was inadequate; we augmented these. We had to buy bed sheets, blankets, pillow cases and others. Electricity was available. Oxygen was provided when required. I was informed there was a ventilator in the hospital. Not sure how many though. I am grateful we did not need one! One family member was admitted at LUTH Isolation centre and I was told first hand there was no ventilator at the isolation centre. This was in April. That’s not good enough. Maybe the situation has changed.

Deaths per 1 million population is 4 in Nigeria and 660 in the UK. UK ranks 4th in the world while Nigeria is in the 141st position. My suspicion is that our Ministry of Health and NCDC must have brainstormed on the best approach to handle COVID-19, set up treatment protocols and were willing to be flexible to try medicines that had some evidence of success. I believe developed countries might have been rigid in their approach hence higher death rates. I stand to be corrected. You will agree with me that we are doing very well in Nigeria.

Here is my conclusion, I no longer sit and bellyache about what is not working in Nigeria. I am focused on fixing my sphere of influence. I encourage everyone to do same. Pockets of excellence all over the country and across industries will eventually create several oases of excellence.

 

There are complaints about under-reporting of COVID-19 infection and deaths, what are your thoughts?

Yes, I have heard this. However, under-reporting is not peculiar to Nigeria. I know of deaths in the UK and the USA that were not tagged with COVID-19 as the cause of death since testing was not carried out. This will of course lead to under-reporting. Same is happening in Nigeria. We don’t have adequate testing for starters. This in itself will lead to under-reporting of infections and deaths. The Kano saga is still a mystery. The verdict I read in the news said some of the deaths were most likely due to COVID-19. Were our numbers adjusted accordingly?

How important is it to abide by the oath sworn by medical professionals even in the face of a pandemic?

Medical practitioners do take an oath to be admitted into the profession. The Pharmacists oath for example includes a sentence that states that “I will sustain my respect for human life”. The Medical Doctor’s oath includes “The health of my patient will be my first consideration”.

We must abide with these oaths in words and in deed. Period! I guess you brought this up because of persons being turned back from hospitals out of fear. This is categorically wrong. To every problem, there is a solution. It is possible for a hospital to stay open and serve its patients while keeping the staff and patients safe. Telemedicine is also an option which can handle many ailments. Protocols just need to be set up. The health agencies have a part to play here. Trainings and monitoring will then be carried out.

We have seen patients being turned back from hospitals because medical practitioners are afraid of COVID-19, surely this cannot be the right approach?

No, not right at all. The way we are wired at HealthPlus is to deal with each situation based on facts. In 2014, when the world was not as connected as today, I set up a small team and we researched authoritative websites for information that helped us stay open in order to serve our customers during the Ebola epidemic. Top priority of course was keeping our people and our customers safe. During this Coronavirus pandemic, we have done exactly the same.

 

HealthPlus stayed open before the lock down, during the lock down, in fact, everyday – how are you able to achieve this? How have you kept your staff and customers safe?

Indeed, HealthPlus Pharmacies are open every day and it is a great sacrifice. At the start of the pandemic, I wrote all our employees. I acknowledged their fears and anxiety but reminded us of what we signed up for as healthcare professionals. I encouraged us all that we will not be ruled by fear and rumours but will base our decisions on facts. It was important to deal with people issues and we had a couple of these. We set up WhatsApp groups to ensure smooth and fast communication between teams. We developed standard operating procedures to guide sanitising and disinfecting our spaces, customer handling, social distancing, working from home and so on. We made PPEs available as required. We ensured that despite the disruptions to the supply chain of goods and services, the integrity of ours remained intact to avoid substandard and falsified goods getting through. We expanded our delivery services using third party providers and this enabled us achieve nationwide and even international deliveries. We optimised telepharmacy and our e-commerce platforms. Where there is a will, there is always a way!

 
Turning 50

To me, every new age is a significant milestone and I always celebrate. Turning 50, my golden jubilee, is a major milestone, a real big deal especially following my recent experience. I am grateful to God for life, family, friends, joy, provision, the good people of HealthPlus & CasaBella and the future. The biblical significance of jubilee means liberation, consolation and rest. I receive these as I step into my new season.

 

Final words

I encourage us all, now and always to pursue happiness, stay positive, guard our minds, expect good things to happen to us, stay calm in the midst of the storm, believe that all things are possible and to stay safe!

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