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Africa The Final Frontier

Ranjani Saigal

A packed auditorium of over 100 people heard Zain Latif, Principal at TLG Capital and Emmanuel Katongole, CEO of Quality Chemicals Ltd of Uganda speak of the immense opportunity for investment in Africa. The speakers were sponsored by The International Business Center Global Speakers Series of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, Fletcher’s Center for Emerging Market Enterprises, Fletcher International Business Club and TIE Boston’s Social Entrepreneurs Group. Dorothy Orszulak, who was one of the prime organizers, introduced the speakers and thanked the audience for their attendance. 

Zain Latif led off describing why he decided to focus on Africa. He felt that the rest of the investment world was giving short shrift to the continent because they either held onto preconceptions of the country that were dated or treated the entire continent as one entity lumping areas of immense opportunity with other developing regions. For example, he pointed out that the growth in cell phone penetration in Africa has been tremendous. In 1995 there were fewer phones in all Africa than in New York City. Today there are as many cell phones as the US. One of the more progressive implementations of mobile commerce is in Kenya. 

He went on the emphasize that investors need to look at opportunities on a country by country and case by case basis and not be put off by preconceived notions of Africa. Like any other investment one needs to do ones homework before investing. Those who do will find several interesting opportunities in the country. He described Quality Chemicals as one such opportunity. When TLG looked at the entire country, they were amazed to find that there wasn’t a single pharmaceutical manufacturing company that was making any of the antiretroviral drugs that were used to treat HIV/AIDS. Most of the medicines were imported from abroad, primarily India. With some of the highest incidence of this disease, TLG saw an opportunity to help establish a manufacturing setup. They worked with CIPLA, one of the largest generic antiretroviral suppliers to develop a joint venture with Quality Chemicals in Uganda. Another example is their upcoming investment in a hospital for cancer treatment in Ghana. He explained the rationale behind the investment was again very simple when one realized that billions of dollars were being spent on treatment abroad by those who could afford it. Opening a hospital in Ghana helped the local economy as well as provided a solution to a social issue.

Emmanuel Katongole recalled a story when as a child he was taught English through repetitive learning and one of the phrases they were taught was that “Boston is the birthplace of wisdom”.  He said he was very excited that he was finally able to visit Boston and see ‘the birthplace of wisdom’. His talk was prefaced by a short video that highlighted the world class manufacturing facility that was built in the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda. With obvious pride he recounted the quality and kind of medicines his plant was now producing that will help treat thousands of Africans while keeping hundreds more in Uganda employed. He envisions moving beyond the current drugs to a wider spectrum of medicines to treat a variety of disease endemic in Africa. He also was looking to see how he could export some of the medicines he manufactured to the west to allow them access to lower cost drugs.

The presentation was followed by a spirited question and answer session where the audience had an opportunity to engage in in-depth dialog with the speakers.  When asked about  corruption and how to deal with it. both speakers didn't deny that corruption is a  fact of life. "We were faced with this question as we were about to open the cancer facility, the only one in the country that could save so many lives" said Latif and urged people to weigh the pros and cons carefully before making decisions. But overall they were optimistic about positive changes.

They detailed the Malarial problem which kills over 300 people everyday.  His company is producing drugs to fight Malaria for no one int he west realizes its seriousness.

The issue of exporting medical products to the United States to help in revenue generation was brought up. However both speakers acknowledged the limitations of existing laws, especially FDA regulations. If drugs could be imported to the United States, it could be helpful to reach out more AIDS patients with cheaper drug option. However especially for AIDS drug and its type, the difference in dose (once a day in Uganda as against thrice a day in the US) can also limit the opportunity as the drug combination is different.

The duo encouraged investment in Africa both for social and business reasons.

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