Making Affordable Drugs in Africa Richard Harris profiles Ghana's first manufacturer of generic AIDS drugs. It's the brainchild of Yaw Adu Gyamfi, an American-trained Ghanaian who brought together diverse interests to make it happen. The company hopes to produce drugs in Ghana for nations throughout Africa.
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Making Affordable Drugs in Africa

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Making Affordable Drugs in Africa

Making Affordable Drugs in Africa

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Africa struggles from twin burdens: many ill people and many ailing economies. One man in Ghana is trying to address both those problems at once. He's built a drug company in the West African nation called Dan Adams Pharmaceuticals, with hopes of making more affordable drugs. Earlier this week on "All Things Considered," listeners heard a bit about this enterprise. In the last of our series on global health, NPR's Richard Harris has the story of the man behind it.


Stories about Africa tend to range from the grim to the grimmer, about people dragged ever deeper into poverty and ill health. Well, that is emphatically not the story of a charismatic Ghanaian named Yaw Adu Gyamfi(ph).

Mr. YAW ADU GYAMFI: The US, when I say, `What's your name?' I say, `Yaw,' it's, like, `Yaw, let's go,' you know?

HARRIS: Here on the outskirts of Ghana's capital Accra, this round-faced 51-year-old man has created a modern drug company, one that may provide not only lifesaving medicines but jobs and economic development to his native country. Gyamfi leads us to his office which is festooned with pictures of himself. The one over his broad desk shows him standing next to the president of Ghana, inaugurating this new green and white factory. Gyamfi has come far from truly humble beginnings.

Mr. GYAMFI: I'm from a small village which is not even on an Ghana map in the center region, born and raised in the village. I used to weave kente cloth to help pay my school fees. And when I finished, there was this benefactor, a Christian brother's mother, helped pay my ticket to the United States.

HARRIS: Clearly that missionary sensed the determination, optimism and faith that drives his life even today. Gyamfi went to college in Atlanta, then on to pharmacy school for a doctorate. It seemed his story was going to be just another case of an African fleeing the continent for a good job and a good life, but no.

Mr. GYAMFI: My last year in pharmacy school, my mother had cardiac failure. So I rushed out to Ghana to see how she was. When I came, I was looking for medication called digoxin, which is an American drug to treat cardiac cases. I couldn't find it anywhere. And it's such a common drug in the US that every heart person takes. So right away with that in my mind, I went back, I just thought of definitely coming back home to help.

HARRIS: After a one-year clinical residency at Montefiore Medical Center in New York and a few years working at a pharmacists in the United States, Gyamfi did return to Ghana. He started a drugstore, then a small drug importation business, but he wanted to do more. He wanted to manufacture drugs in Ghana, not just to make a profit but to provide jobs and cheaper medicines for his native land.

Mr. GYAMFI: I looked into the industry and found out that the two major endemic illnesses in Ghana--that is HIV and malaria. And basically in these areas, there was no manufacturing. So I said, `Well, then if my next investment is to be in manufacturing, then I will go into an area where nobody has gone into.'

HARRIS: He knew he couldn't do it alone. He tried and failed to find partners in the United States. So Gyamfi decided to look to China. He had no contacts, so he simply decided to go to a trade fair there.

Mr. GYAMFI: Nothing happened until the last day of the fair that while I was about to leave the fair, a gentleman I met called me, `Where are you from?' I said, `I'm from Ghana.' And I stood at his stand, and we talked, and I said, `This is my whole thing of coming to the fair.' He said, `Hmm, I'd like to come and see.' So I invited him to Ghana. He saw my setup and then we actually sat down and talked about how we can get the whole manufacturing plant set up.

HARRIS: That talk turned to action. According to company literature, the Chinese company invested $4 million in the joint project, the lion's share. Gyamfi built a three-story building to house the manufacturing facility, and his Asian partners provided Chinese-made drug-making machinery, an industrial ventilation system and all the supplies needed to make pills to treat AIDS and malaria.

Gyamfi leads us through a corridor passed company offices and into the factory itself.

Mr. GYAMFI: One of the products comes from China. The raw materials, this is where it's kept and the ...(unintelligible)

HARRIS: So these are sort of the fillers that are in pills...

Mr. GYAMFI: Exactly.

HARRIS: ...sort of the powders that aren't the actual ingredient?

Mr. GYAMFI: Exactly. Exactly. After we test them and they are OK, then they release them. These are the two gentlemen who are in charge of the area.

HARRIS: As we walk through, we see a few dozen workers, a mix of Africans and Chinese. Upstairs from this room, Gyamfi points out an apartment for the Chinese workers.

Mr. GYAMFI: You know, they have a system. They always want to live where they work. So they live on the last floor.

HARRIS: Oh, is that right?

Mr. GYAMFI: The Chinese will live on the last floor.

HARRIS: Gyamfi is the CEO of this joint venture. His Chinese partners, which include the Sunflower International Group, are keeping close tabs on the operation. The chief financial officer is Chinese. He works and lives here. The Sunflower Web site says it expects to earn nearly $4 million a year selling drugs throughout Africa once the products are approved for sale. They call this venture the African Family Solution.

Mr. GYAMFI: In our agreement, we agree that we will be the base. Every country in Africa that they're going to deal with are going to be dealt with from Ghana.

(Soundbite of factory)

HARRIS: We walk on through the production line which today is stamping out antibiotic pills to treat AIDS-related infections for the Ghanaian market. Gyamfi leads us another flight of steps.

Mr. GYAMFI: Now we're going to the quality control lab. More or less it coordinates--everything that is done here must be coordinated to the lab to make sure that every medicine has been processed.

HARRIS: The lab isn't fancy. Its countertops appear to be Formica rather than industrial-grade lab bench, but there is some modern gear here: a high-performance liquid chromatograph. This is one of the critical pieces of equipment needed to make sure the active ingredients from China are potent and present in the right doses in the finished pills. Substandard drugs are worse than no drugs at all because they can lead to resistant strains of the AIDS virus and other germs.

(Soundbite of machinery)

HARRIS: Another machine tests how well the pills dissolve.

Mr. GYAMFI: So it's just kind of imitating how the stomach will work and do that and see how the medicine will be assimilated into the bloodstream.

HARRIS: As we leave the factory, the company's chief of sales gives us a sample of some of its generic AIDS drugs. At NPR's request, the American drug standard setting body, US Pharmacopeia, tested some of those pills. The medicines were indeed what was described on the label, but that test didn't look for impurities or prove that the medicines would appear in the bloodstream at the right levels. Ultimately the drugs need to pass those tests and more in order to gain approval of the World Health Organization, and Gyamfi's company needs that stamp of approval in order to sell the drugs to the Ghanaian government and others who rely on international donations to buy their drugs.

Dr. Jonathan Quick set up that WHO approval process. He's now president of a non-profit consulting group called Managing Sciences for Health. Quick says WHO approval is not the only hurdle Gyamfi must clear in order to succeed.

Dr. JONATHAN QUICK: Well, he comes into a competitive market.

HARRIS: Right now most of the AIDS drugs come from the US, Europe and India. Plus, Quick says there are other companies in Africa also trying to get into the AIDS drug business, in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. So far only a single antiretrovial AIDS product from a single African company has passed WHO qualification, but others like Gyamfi's outfit are trying.

Dr. QUICK: The thing we need to keep in mind is that there are low-cost international quality antiretrovirals available on the world market, good quality, good price. So there shouldn't be any compromise on meeting those standards.

HARRIS: Back in his office in Ghana, Yaw Adu Gyamfi says his goal is to produce drugs that meet the highest international standards and to produce them at about half the cost as competitors. He's well aware of the challenges but he's convinced he can succeed. His charisma, his boundless optimism and his Christian faith have gotten him remarkably far already.

Mr. GYAMFI: If you don't believe in yourself, who's going to believe in you? Nobody. And that's what I'm talking about a Christian life. The one in me is greater than anything in the world. I am an overcomer. I am born to make it. I have to make it. Whatever it is, there's a way out. Let us find a way out and we will get there.

HARRIS: Richard Harris, NPR News.

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