Women don’t usually make it to the top executive, decision-making positions in Pakistan’s corporate world, even if it is a family-owned business. Their presence in the company or on its board is mostly symbolic.
Qurat-ul-Ain Irfan is one of the handful of women in the country who have contributed enormously to the growth of their family business, and perhaps one of the very few who have helped put their firm on the international map.
A doctor by profession, Qurat-ul-Ain joined her husband’s company, Pacific Pharmaceutical, in 1996, a few years after the plant started commercial production. Ever since, she has looked after the firm’s finances and headed its quality assurance division.
Her passion to maintain international quality standards at their plant has helped the firm become the first — and so far the only — Pakistani pharmaceutical company that is exporting products to the European Union.
Although the company’s current exports of almost half a million dollars to Germany and elsewhere in the EU are only a fraction of the country’s overseas drug sales of $180m — this represents a less than 1pc share in the global pharmaceutical trade. Pacific Pharmaceuticals has already obtained additional orders of $6.5m from the United Kingdom for 2017.
“There is immense potential for expansion in both the domestic and international markets for our pharmaceutical industry if a favourable regulatory policy aligned with international global practices is put in place” — Qurat-ul-Ain Irfan
“If you look at the global expansion strategy of India’s pharmaceutical industry, you will observe that companies gaining a foothold in Europe have grown at a faster pace than their rivals,” Qurat-ul-Ain, who is now vice-president of her firm, told Dawn in an interview last week.
“The orders we have managed from the UK for the next year are a major breakthrough for our business and I see more opportunities coming our way over time.”
Her company’s annual local sale revenues stand at about Rs1bn with overseas sales touching $1m — half of its exports are diverted to Asian countries. They are now setting up a new state-of-the-art plant at Sundar industrial estate in Lahore, which will be the first facility of its kind in the country producing injectables, eye drops and IV solutions under one roof.
The company’s sales are expected to double and the number of employees estimated to grow from the present 600 to 950 when the new unit starts commercial production next year.
“There is immense potential for expansion in both the domestic and international markets for our pharmaceutical industry if a favourable regulatory policy aligned with international global practices is put in place,” Qurat-ul-Ain contends.
The pharmaceutical industry has been one of the fastest growing sectors in Pakistan with the average annual growth rate surging to above 12pc a few years ago. Pharmaceuticals grew 7.21pc
compared with 6.84pc in the first nine months of the last financial year, according to the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2015-16.
She said the process of registering a finished product in the EU and the UK was time consuming and required a lot of investment. “Other Pakistani manufacturers can also start exporting their products to Europe and the UK provided the government gives the industry some incentives and financial support.
“Most national pharmaceutical firms aren’t expanding into Europe and America because of the costs involved. The government must support the manufacturers to enter, and grow their exports, in these markets.”
Pakistan’s local drug market size is estimated to be around $2.1bn, one-tenth the size of India’s. Similarly, its overseas pharmaceutical sales are negligible compared with Indian exports of $16bn
An eight-year old study by McKinsey, a global management company, for the Planning Commission of Pakistan and the Asian Development Bank had identified the pharmaceutical industry as a ‘Sunrise Industry’, an industry which can lead Pakistan to economic prosperity.
It had suggested that Pakistan focus on drug pricing reforms, provide incentives for investment in the FDA-quality plants and enforce quality standards to support growth in this sector and help it gain access to export markets in the US and Europe, apart from other regions.
“Ours is a heavily regulated industry,” Qurat-ul-Ain argued. “The government must arrive at some mechanism to allow periodic revision in our prices to absorb the spike in our cost of production and inflation; it is crucial for the survival of this industry.
“Some multinationals have left Pakistan because of the financial losses due to low medicine prices. This is a blow to healthy competition that was forcing many national drug manufacturers to invest in new technology and quality.”
Drug pricing has become a contentious issue in Pakistan. Most medicines are on a price-freeze since 2001, with some exceptions accorded in the form of hardship allowance.
The industry is demanding an across the board increase in its prices to cover the impact of inflation, increased taxes and power tariffs over the past several years. Some companies have unilaterally increased the prices of a number of drugs, with the State Bank of Pakistan supporting their demand for price revision in its annual report on the economy for the year 2013-2014.
“The local market is falling behind in the availability of cheaper drugs. Our own company is one of the 4-5 survivors still producing anti-TB medicines (despite cheap prices),” the company’s vice-president said.
She was of the view that the government could categorise manufacturers of medicines based on the quality of raw materials, technology and finished products, and so fix different prices for different producers.
Further, she insisted, the government needs to attend to the issue of sale of illegally imported medicines on account of delays in registration and licensing of the drugs.
Published in Dawn, Business & Finance weekly, November 7th, 2016