Mending the economy

Friday, March 18, 2022
Group Senior Executive for Strategic Trade at Aspen Pharmacare, Dr Stavros Nicolaou.

While there is no single panacea to rid the country of its challenges, South Africa remains a good place to inject investment.

“South Africa is open for business on many different fronts; we have very good infrastructure, a good financial system and good human capital and talent pool to draw from,” notes Group Senior Executive for Strategic Trade at Aspen Pharmacare, Dr Stavros Nicolaou.

Nicolaou’s comments come as the country is due host the fourth edition of the South African Investment Conference (SAIC), which will be held on 24 March at the Sandton Convention Centre, in Johannesburg.

The conference follows on the heels of the 2022 State of the Nation Address that sent a strong message that the country is open for business.

In April 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that South Africa would host an investment conference with the aim of raising R1.2 trillion over a five-year period.

Since its initial launch in 2018, the SAIC has drawn delegates from South Africa and the world. The conference, which has been held annually until 2020, has showcased investment opportunities available in the country. 

The fourth SAIC which was meant to be held in November last year, was postponed due to a number of reasons including that the country would have a far greater COVID-19 vaccination coverage, making travelling and gathering easier.

Since the start of the conference, South Africa has attracted R770 billion in commitments across a wide range of economic sectors.

Aspen was among the list of companies who raised their hand in the drive to attract investment to the southernmost country on the continent.

WATCH | Aspen investment 

The pharmaceutical company pledged to invest R3.4 billion at the inaugural conference in 2018 and to date, the full investment has been realised.

“That investment means our South African facility in Gqeberha that we made a pledge for is now one, if not the world’s largest manufacturer and supplier of general anaesthetics. It is also the first site for the production of the COVID vaccine on the African continent,” Nicolaou says in an interview with the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS).

The local company, which has been operating for over two decades, has a presence in over 50 countries with its flagship manufacturing assets based in Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape. 

The sterile facility contains state-of-the-art pharmaceutical equipment and systems used to manufacture advanced sterile medicines, including vaccines. The company has played a role in responding to pandemics such as HIV and AIDS, multi-drug resistant Tuberculosis (TB) and most recently, COVID-19.

In the early onset of the COVID pandemic, Aspen was a significant supplier - both domestically and in other parts of the world like Europe - of general anaesthetics and muscle relaxants needed to ventilate patients.

The company was also the first African country to produce the COVID-19 vaccine under contract manufacturing for Johnson & Johnson (J&J), the majority of which have gone into African arms.  Aspen has produced close to 180 million vaccine doses.

“That facility is also the facility that produced the first generic antiretroviral product for the African continent. The first COVID vaccine to be produced in the Southern hemisphere and on the African continent, under contract manufacturing with J&J came from that same facility.”

Putting food on the table

The company, which also has manufacturing operations in East London as well as a chemicals facility in Cape Town, employs around 3000 people at its manufacturing operations.

In a country facing high levels of unemployment, Aspen’s investment has helped many to put food on the table.

“The investment we pledged for in 2018 has produced over 200 new jobs and these are highly skilled, high tech jobs with a significant leaning towards an export orientation and of course, our country needs exports.”

He adds that the work force at the plant in Gqeberha has mainly been drawn from New Brighton and other nearby areas.

“The talent that comes from there is a talent that we’re able to grow and very often that talent becomes globally competitive.”

Providing a conducive business environment

What is encouraging is that while the country and the rest of the world have been battling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies like Aspen who have made pledges, remain committed. This despite the July 2021 unrests seen across the provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

“From the commencement of our existence in South Africa, we’ve always backed South Africa as a manufacturing destination for a number of reasons. First we still have good infrastructure in the country, secondly we have what we find [to be] a responsive local, provincial and national government.

“[The making of medicine] requires close collaboration with the regulator and in this instance, we find the SAHPRA [South African Health Products Regulatory Authority] to be responsive for these national priority initiative types of investment. These are the few reasons we have invested and will continue to invest in South Africa. In fact, we will be making another small announcement at the next conference,” he explains.

The announcement, which will be made at the conference, can only bode well for South Africa given that local and foreign investments play an important role in growing the economy and creating sustainable jobs.

Looking to the future

In keeping up with an ever-changing world, innovation is a critical aspect to growth for any company or economy and the company recently demonstrated this when it received the licensing rights for the J&J vaccine.

The agreement means that Aspen can now package, sell as well as distribute J&J’s COVID-19 vaccines under its own brand.

 “We will now have our own vaccine in Africa called Aspenovax made in Gqeberha for South Africans [and] the African continent.  We will not have a dependence on COVID vaccines externally. We now have our own production base in South Africa. We will make sure that Africans are not left at the back end of the queue when COVID vaccines are required,” he says.

With the fourth SAIC to be held in a few days’ time, Nicolaou is urging investors to take the plunge and invest in South Africa.

 “South Africans are generally hard working people so if you make an investment in South Africa, I think you will be rewarded.

“It is a continent for the future and South Africa still represents the best springboard into the continent. I would encourage anyone to look at South Africa as an investment destination.” –