Mr. Olufemi Soremekun, a trained accountant is the Managing Director of BIOFEM Pharmaceuticals, the first pharmaceutical company in Nigeria to start using the Mobile Anti-Counterfeiting System (MAS), an innovative technology used to fight the menace of drug counterfeiting. In this interview with Iboro Tonye-Edet, Mr. Soremekun talks on how he has successfully run a pharmaceutical company despite training as an accountant.
Please tell us your full name and a little bit about your educational background? I am Olufemi Olurotimi Soremekun.
I attended St. Catherine’s Primary school in Surulere and Igbobi College, Yaba both in Lagos state Nigeria. Thereafter I went to Florida International University where I read Accounting and International Business.
When did you join Fountain?
I joined in 1995 when I first met my wife. Then she was an executive of the Singles Fellowship
In what areas have you served or are serving in the church?
I have been serving in the Greeters department since 1997. My reason for joining is basically that I’ve always liked to meet people. At the time I joined, I probably felt I could contribute something. I mean, standing at the gate and greeting people- that I didn’t find so difficult. Besides, at that time too, we were only two or three men in that unit filled with mostly women, so a lot of attention was on us. I love the department and everyone there. I don’t see myself leaving there.
in which industry are you operating and for how long have you operated there? I operate in the Pharmaceuticals industry- not as a trained pharmacist though, but more as a businessman. I started my own business (Biofem Nig limited) in the year 2000 as a general business organization dealing in all kinds of trading including pharmaceuticals. Then in 2002, I decided to separate the pharmaceutical aspect of the business from Biofem Nigeria Limited because it involves professionalism. That gave birth to Biofem Pharmaceuticals that we have today.
Why did you decide to invest here seeing that you aren’t a trained pharmacist?
What happened to me was that when I came back to Nigeria finally after my University studies abroad, my dad actually asked me to help my brother (a pharmacist) run his pharmaceutical business. In the process of helping him with the business, I started from marketing drugs which are not basically Over The Counter (OTC) products, because there were professionals handling other aspects of the business. That was where I got the experience/exposure from. So I ran the business for my brother for quite a number of years before I left to start up my own. It was quite straight forward, knowing fully well that you need to have professionals (trained pharmacists) since I wasn’t a professional but the business itself is also a business. So if you have the business acumen, you can actually do it. You just have to make sure that the professionals are doing what they are supposed to do. With the experience I’d had working with my brother and running the business for him for quite a number of years, …as a matter of fact, while working for my brother, there were a lot of things that I did; I was even tasking the professionals and saying why can’t we do this, why can’t we do that… so automatically, that enabled me and emboldened me to say to myself if I were to do this on my own, I know what I need to do.
How has BIOFEM Pharmaceuticals impacted the pharmaceutical industry?
Part of my vision for the company is to be able to impact the profession in so many positive ways that it would move the profession to another level. We have never stopped doing that; whether it is in capability or capacity building, we are always looking at doing that and partnering with the industry. You can’t be in an industry and make money from it and not give back. I strongly believe in giving back. There are so many ways you can give back. It’s not all money, money, money. There are the younger generations who are trying to come into the industry. They need to be guided, to be advised, encouraged, even up to starting their own business. The ultimate goal is to leave the profession better than I met it.
What are the peculiar challenges you faced at the beginning?
Challenges I faced were mainly capital. In Nigeria there is nothing called credit; you are on your own. In most cases its always family you can start with. They’re the ones that would appreciate your passion, and they are the ones willing to take the risk; whereby even if you don’t get to pay back, they can still manage you. However, there are also the SMEs that are there to help. You can see, The Fountain of Life Church is still trying to do a lot of things. Another challenge I also faced initially was getting competent professionals to handle the technical part of the organization.
What are the peculiar challenges affecting the industry?
One of them is retaining good staff due to remuneration issues. We have seen in the past and even up till now, a lot of pharmacists taken by the Banking and telecom industries because they pay so much and this becomes a challenge for us because we cannot pay what they’re being paid. Now when you even employ them, to retain them also becomes a challenge. If by chance you have such a good training platform, the other upcoming companies are going to look at poaching them so they can achieve what they want faster. However, we at BIOFEM like to take them fresh so they can imbibe our culture; hence we are willing to be patient to show them the way. Indirectly that has paid off because there is a lot of loyalty and a lot of them stay with us. Power is one other challenge. Nigeria should actually be looking at situations where the Pharmaceutical industry is encouraged to do local production. Right now we have a lot of products from India & from China; they started off from somewhere but they had a lot of government support. We are just hearing of so many things now that the government is trying to do but they need to do it much faster. We are interested in manufacturing but we cannot even start on that now because of power problems. The meagre resources that we will have will probably be used for providing electricity. If the electricity problem is sorted out and people have confidence that there’s stable electricity, then probably many of us can venture into manufacturing. Funding is also a challenge. As a marketer, importing products is still an issue because you must have the resources to be able to import the products; you must be able to provide what the banks need to enable you access credits. What if I have not started business or made profit and I’ve not used the profit to buy assets, land, property, then I won’t have anything to give the bank that will enable them give me more credit. So, somebody has to come in the midst of all that to assist. That’s where the government can come in. Abroad, that’s what they look at too. Their government doesn’t expect you to have all the money but there’s some level of credibility that goes into it. I hope in a couple of years, as the credit thing goes forward, I believe we will get there.
How did you raise funds to start?
Basically I raised funds from my wife, friends and other family members. My wife supported me basically with all our savings. She knew the passion I had and she was very helpful in that regard. Let me also add that, suppliers contributed too. It got to a point in our business that when our suppliers saw how credible we were, and our frequency of purchase, we made proposals to them to provide us with additional stock and that helped. That is the difference between us and them. These are people who you buy from regularly, they have visited your premises and they know that you are not going to run away tomorrow. You just have to start with the basic level of risk which is what they did with us.
How big is your operation?
We are all over Nigeria, and we have presence in Ghana since 2009. We are fully registered and operating there. Our partners are in USA, Europe and Asia. We are also into the business of medical devices which we use. A typical example is the Glucometre which we use to check your blood sugar level since it complements the business that we do.
In two paragraphs, advise a young person going into business.
For young people, I tend to use my experience to tell them a lot. By the time I was finishing secondary school, I knew I was going to go into business. My parents were distributors for Guinness and Nigerian Breweries. I wasn’t a student in the boarding school so every day I was at home to help my mom. I would ride my bicycle to help make deliveries; I would help her in off-loading and loading drinks. I would help in attending to customers, doing accounting for her (put all the money together made from the day’s sales and take it to the bank). I could see the business aspect. I could see I had the flair for it. So, I will say, prayerfully get into a business you have a flair for. What you love to do from your primary or secondary school days may help to guide you toward what the future holds for you. Learn to love to do something from an early age. Yes, I may have stumbled into pharmacy, but I am not doing the professional side of it. I am doing the business of running a pharmaceutical company and I am doing it effectively because I have the skills and passion for business.
How has being in Fountain helped your business or career?
Our yearly promises have helped me to face each year with a positive attitude, no matter what my auditors are saying. Fountain’s theme, when I became a member was Philippians 4:13 and it was a daily mantra for us. I have also learned from Pastor Taiwo Odukoya’s life of humility. In all his dealings with people, there is humility and that has infected me. Whatever you have been successful with in life, do not be proud. If God has blessed you and put you in a position where you can bless other people, be humble.
What particular scripture passage have you applied to enhance your business?
What is your personal business principle?
I am a team player and I believe in a win-win approach to my business dealings. I operate on the principle of Amos 3 vs 3. In business, when two people are happy with whatever it is they’ve agreed upon, then it’s easy for everyone to put in all their best to make it succeed.
Share your turning point or a special moment in your business?
When our major product was being faked by unscrupulous elements in the market, we went into partnership with a US-based Ghanaian IT Specialist to introduce the Mobile Anti-Counterfeiting System (MAS) of confirming the authenticity of drugs to the patients. We are the first company in the world to do this and the lesson in this is that God will use your challenges to bring you international accolades. Our fight to combat drug faking has brought recognition from CNN, BBC and Aljazeera. We were visited different times for interviews and our success at saving patients from unnecessary deaths has also been embraced by other pharmaceutical giants as well as the Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON).
When troubles come what do you do?
Obviously I run to God to remind Him of His promises. We conduct praise, worship and prayers every Monday morning in my Head Office. Wisdom and knowledge is key, because trouble will always come but if your anchor is firm, then there is assurance of overcoming it.