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Syringe manufacturers face mounting obstacles amid persistent

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on January 4, 2024, Jubilee Syringe Manufacturing, once regarded as Africa’s largest syringe manufacturing venture, officially ceased operations.

The company, which was located in Awa in the Onna Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom cited ‘unforeseen circumstances affecting its business operations’ as the major reason for its decision to stop production.

Owned by a Turkish national, Onur Kumral, Jubilee Syringe Manufacturing Limited was one of the several industries attracted to Akwa Ibom State by the former Governor Udom Emmanuel administration. It was inaugurated in 2017 by former Vice President Yemi Osinbajo.

In the memo announcing its decision to fold up operations, the company, interestingly, did not employ the vague language which has become stock-in-trade for the several companies which have left Nigeria in recent memory.

It admitted, “The challenging business environment we find ourselves in has compelled us to take these difficult steps.”

In the wake of the company’s decision to wind down operations, the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria blamed the current business environment for the continued exit of multinational companies.

Speaking with , the Director-General of MAN, Segun Ajayi-Kadir, said companies exiting Nigeria had been stretched to “breaking point”.

He noted, “The reason companies are closing is evident. It is just a matter of resilience. When it gets to the breaking point, you will have to give up because of the employment environment.”

For some experts, forex scarcity had been the major reason for the company’s exit, like many others before it. They argued that JSM’s exit from Nigeria was emblematic of a larger issue that had insidiously militated against local syringe manufacturers for an extended period.

This problem has been the importation of syringes, mostly from Eastern and Western Asia, despite unyielding protests by stakeholders that Nigeria has the requisite capacity to manufacture syringes for local consumption and exports.

While speaking with journalists recently, the President of the Medical Device Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, Akin Oyediran, described syringe imports into Nigeria as carrying coals to Newcastle in light of the country’s capacity to manufacture the product.

Oyediran said, “We can produce the syringe demanded in the Nigerian market. Our syringes are world-class syringes. Apart from that, they just got endorsed by the Nigeria Medical Association. So, the quality is not questionable at all.”

As of 2021, Nigeria had seven recognised medical equipment manufacturers, many of them struggling to stay afloat due to excessive importation of syringes and other medical/pharmaceutical supplies.

The trend became a grave concern which drew the attention of the Ninth Senate. To address the issue, the upper legislative chamber began a probe into the state of manufacturing and importation of needles and syringes into the country.

Consequently, a joint senate committee on health invited the Minister of Trade and Investment, the Minister of Health and Director-General of NAFDAC and the Comptroller-General of Customs to appear before it and explain the modalities involved in the importation of needles and syringes and clarify what the lawmakers described as a deliberate effort to sabotage local manufacturers of medical devices in the country.

Months after the commencement of the probe, the Senate asked the Federal Government to implement a policy to ensure all government-funded hospitals and health centres in the country procure their needles and syringes from local manufacturers.

The rationale behind the recommendation was to encourage local manufacturing of needles and syringes, stop the loss of foreign exchange and protect the lives of Nigerians via the ban of imported syringes, many of which were deemed to be substandard.

According to data from Transparency Market Research, the disposable syringes market is expected to reach $14.4bn by 2030.

Nigeria’s syringe manufacturing industry is a developing sub-sector with ample economic potential. According to minutes from the Senate hearing in 2021, investment in the sector is estimated to be about N64bn with a potential local market value of about N100bn and a direct employment opportunity for 3000 Nigerians.

It is also estimated that over a billion units of syringes and needles are imported into Nigeria yearly, resulting in the loss of huge foreign exchange to the tune of $150m per annum.

During the senate committee hearing, the lawmakers expressed concern that those imported needles and syringes were often substandard and recycled, putting the health and lives of Nigerians at risk.

The senators also expressed dismay that neither the minister of health nor the permanent secretary in the ministry was present at the Hearing. The then Vice Chairman of the Senate (in the ninth Assembly) Committee on Primary Healthcare, Senator Sadiq Umar, alleged that money laundering and other corrupt practices had contributed to why certain government agencies continued to encourage the importation of the product.

The then Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Betty Apiafi, blamed NAFDAC for being complicit in the unrestrained importation of syringes into Nigeria, and described it as a ‘shame’.

She said, “Can we have the list of companies that have been supplying syringes in the last 15 years and the amount? It will be interesting to know what has been going on. It appears this is a deliberate effort by NAFDAC. How can we as a nation be importing syringes? It is a shame.”

A major reason the Senate recommended a ban on the importation of syringes was because of the strain certain ‘unwarranted’ imports were putting on the foreign exchange market.

Given the rapid depreciation of the naira in recent years, the lawmakers believed encouraging the continued importation of a product, which the country had the technology and expertise to manufacture, was counterproductive to the local economy.

While addressing the hearing, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Health, Senator Ibrahim Oloriegbe, blamed imports of products like syringe for the continued depreciation of the naira.

He said, “This is why the naira is getting worse and worse every day, because people in China and India, their citizens are working, but these are Nigerians (syringe companies) who invested, they are not working.”

Experts had also echoed the sentiment that importing the product into the country when Nigeria had companies with international standards’ certification manufacturing syringes in-country was a major contributor to the forex scarcity that had fuelled the devaluation of the naira.

While speaking with , an exco member of the Akwa Ibom State branch of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria, Mfonobong Okon, linked JSM’s closure to the competition created by the continued imports of syringes into the country.

He said, “When the local industry is exposed to competition from other channels that import, with the cheap products from Asia, they won’t meet up because those countries have economies of scale, they have cheap labour.”

Also, for some local syringe manufacturers, despite committing much in terms of local content to production processes, the scarcity of foreign exchange ultimately echoed as the canary in the coal mine which dealt a devastating blow to business sustainability.

Okon, while providing insight on another reason which led to the company’s closure, noted that JSM did not manufacture the full component of what makes up a disposable syringe, but had relied on importation of needles from Asia.

That partial reliance on importation, he said, left the company exposed to certain inevitable shocks, which prompted it to close up shop.

He added, “From what I understand about the business model of JSM, they were still importing. They were importing the needles from China. You know a syringe has a needle and a plastic plunger. From what I heard, the needles were still coming from China. What was manufactured by JSM was the plastic plunger.”

According to a Lagos-based legal practitioner, Nse Enobong, the reason the action taken by the lawmakers was yet to yield the desired effect was because of an existing gap between the executive and the legislative arms of the government.

According to him, while the Senate may have held deliberations on the matter, it merely recommended a course of action which is yet to be acted upon by the executive branch of government.

“The Senate does not have the power to ban the importation of any product except a law is passed to that effect. It should be an executive action, not a legislative action. Once the government makes the policy, then the Customs will be responsible for enforcing it. There should be clear punishment for whoever imports these goods once there is a policy in place because that would be smuggling,” he noted.

The legal practitioner further stated that the executive arm of government would have to synergise with the legislature and implement policies based on factual intelligence to help local syringe manufacturers stem the tide of incessant imports into the country.

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