By ADEBAYO OBAJEMU
It is not always bad reports that we hear about Nigeria, despite the negative global spotlight on Nigeria. In 2018 report by the Gates and Melinda Foundation, gave one of the cheering news on the country, which said that 41% of women in Nigeria are said to be hardworking entrepreneurs, as against about 10% in the U.S. and 5.7% in the UK.
In the report said Nigeria has the highest percentage of female business owners in the world. Another research by Global Entrepreneurship Monitoring’s annual report, (2018), said women are more than men in the entrepreneur space in most African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, and Zambia.
This veracity of this research is further given validation by the fact that the average trader/store owner in Nigeria is more likely to be a woman than a man. It is a common experience that starting a small business in the country is more common for women than men. In some marketplace, there are more female traders than males.
One of the pioneer women in the entrepreneurial space in the country has immensely registered her imprints in the pharmaceutical industry.
Dr. (Mrs.) Stella Chinyelu Okoli, the brain behind Emzor Pharmaceutical, is not just your run of the mill entrepreneur; she has managed to stand out shoulder to shoulder among the giant, effectively etching her brand Emzor and her name in the public consciousness by dint of hard work.
Unless you’re not a Nigerian, that is when you can claim not to have heard of Emzor Pharmaceutical, as without a doubt, a large percentage of Nigerians have at some point or the other, needed and possibly consumed the Emzor paracetamol, a flagship product of the Emzor brand which stands high above several other pharmaceuticals.
Many stellar figures in Nigeria who have made profound contributions have had a very rich cross-cultural upbringing, imbibing rich cultural heritage, theirs and others. Stella Okoli was born to the family of Felix Ebelechukwu and Margaret Modebelu from Nnewi, Anambra in 1944 in Kano and nurtured in the ancient city.
According to record, her formal education started in 1954 at All Saints Primary School in Onitsha, from there she moved to complete her secondary school education in 1964 at Ogidi Girls Secondary School (Ogidi is the birthplace of the literary icon, Chinua Achebe).
Said to be brilliant and outstanding, she moved to the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom from where she graduated in a Bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy. Not satisfied, Stella proceeded to graduate studies in Bio-pharmaceutics which she obtained from the University of London, Chelsea College in 1971.
Upon attainment of Master’s she began her sterling career at the Middlesex Hospital as a Ward/ Clinical Pharmacist, and later had a brief stint as a Pharmacist at Boots Chemist, London. The pull and nostalgia for home were too strong, eliciting her patriotic instincts, as she returned home to take up an appointment at Massey Children Hospital, Lagos before she joined a pharmaceutical manufacturing company, Park Davies Nigeria Ltd (now Pharma-Deko Plc), as a medical representative and later as a sales manager.
Foray into business
She had the desire to go where Angels fear to tread, thus in January 1977, Dr Okoli wanted to not only be a pioneer in an aspect of her career but specifically wanted with strong determination to challenge the patriarchal tendency in Nigerian burgeoning entrepreneurial space by starting a business of her own.
She set up Emzor Pharmaceutical with the initial name, Emzor Chemists Limited, as a small pharmacy retail shop in Shomolu, Lagos. Her artistic sense has become an iconic brand as Emzor was coined from her children’s names (Emeka, Uzoma, and Edward). By 1981, her entrepreneurial drive led her into the drug importation business, where she imported both ethical and over the counter (OTC) drugs to meet the health needs of Nigerians.
The small Emzor Chemist has since become one of the leading pharmaceutical companies in Nigeria, with over 50 products since its incorporation in 1984. When Emzor started in 1977, many of her friends were said to have advised her against it, saying she was embarking on a wild goose chase, a blind alley that would lead nowhere.
They had wondered how she could survive the turbulent world of business, particularly manufacturing. Due to her strong determination, the strength of character and hard work, the brand she created has become iconic and an inspiration 37years on.
Emzor Group has significantly morphed into a string of subsidiaries, such as Zolon Healthcare Limited, a speciality healthcare organisation targeted at providing an intelligent solution to the healthcare needs of people. The company’s specialities include oncology, gynaecology, biotechnology, cardiology and others.
Emzor Hesco Limited is a total healthcare solution provider, with a B2B business model to provide solutions for hospital equipment and services in conjunction with reputable brands and manufacturers from Europe, America and Asia. The company procures, consults, supplies medical equipment, carries out training on best practices and supplies medical consumables among others.
Emzor Pharmacy and Stores is the retail arm for distributing Emzor Pharmaceutical products to Nigerians, while Life Gate Medicals Limited provides training for healthcare workers and medical tourism. She has also emerged as one of Nigeria’s women billionaires in the business world.
Like any business, she faced a lot of teething problems that start-ups normally face. In one interview, she mentioned unfavourable government policies at that time which favoured foreign multi-national companies to the detriment of local companies.
”There have been policies over the years that have favoured the trading multi-nationals, to the detriment and disadvantage of those of us who have invested in the development of the manufacturing aspect of the industry. They are foreigners and could divest, pull out their funds or go back home to their countries.
“I couldn’t go anywhere, hence, I was forced to do the best I could to ensure the quality and the growth of the industry was maintained. We just had to do our best the only way we knew how.”
One of the hurdles according to her was double taxation; drug faking and unlawful importation of drugs were also a challenge.
As one not satisfied with the state of knowledge despite her graduate studies, her hunger for more knowledge gnawed at her and she started attending several courses across the world, to broaden her knowledge and sharpen her leadership skill. Some of these include The Executive Management Programs for business owners at Harvard Business School, Boston (1997-1999); implementing Strategic and Organisational Change at I.E.S.E. Business School, Barcelona Spain (1996); Chief Executive Program of the Lagos Business School.
She has also held several professional leadership positions which include Chairman of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group of Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, member of Economic Summit of Nigeria and member of Health Matters Advisory Board of Nigeria. She served as a Non-Executive Director of Guaranty Trust Bank Plc from April 22, 2010, to July 24, 2014.
She was awarded Doctor of Business Administration (Honoris Causa) by Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. She is a recipient of the Member Order of Niger (MON), and Officer Order of Niger (OON) awards from the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, among others from several local and international distinguished groups.
After the unfortunate death of her son, Chike, in 2005, Stella started the Chike Okoli Foundation in 2006 as a Non-Profit Organisation founded to fight poverty and diseases by raising awareness on the Cardio-vascular disease. She also runs the Chike Okoli Centre for Entrepreneurial Studies at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka and has trained over 1,600 entrepreneurs/students in the science and spirit of entrepreneurship. It has also reached over 5m people across Nigeria on lifestyle interventions.
Stella got married in 1970 to her late husband, Barr. Nnaemeka Okoli with whom she had three children