Read the Conversation

EF: 2020 was the year of diagnostics, and 2021 was the year of vaccines, what will 2022 be the year off?

AK: It will be the year of OTC and a year where patients have taken their own healthcare into their hands. A lot of them are making decisions at a pharmacy. OTC, as we have seen in the last few months, has grown. If we look at that market data, we see that prescription healthcare is growing at 2%, OTC is growing at 1/10 % and certainly highlights the fact that people are making their own decisions about health.

EF: How has leadership evolved?

AK: COVID-19 provided a lot of lessons. It has changed the healthcare and corporate landscape. As leaders, we could not really operate in the same way that we were before COVID-19. We have had to take on different mindsets in terms of workforce allocation, flexibility, and decision-making. Taking six weeks or six months to decide is no longer relevant. The market and the environment are changing quickly which means that decision-making must be very quick as well. We have learnt that we must change and adapt.

EF: With employee safety being a key priority for Organon, what are amongst the company’s other key issues to address?

AK: In terms of employee safety, we have taken a very cautious approach. For 9 months our field force has been out of the field. They have been engaging digitally and they have slowly been going back to the field in the first quarter of this year. Having to then adhere then to all the required COVID-19 containment measures was important for us.

Going forward, our sales force must be agile and tech-savvy. They must be able to build relationships without that face-to-face contact. And how do we deploy them in the market? Instead of having 100 reps in the field, we could do with less, that is doing a lot more using technology. For the other half of our field force, it is integral to equip them with different skills to avoid mass retrenchment. We just need to equip them differently to be able to support the organization in other ways as we move to the future.

EF: Considering that Organon was founded during the pandemic, does this give a competitive advantage in the industry?

AK: In terms of being a modern multinational, Organon is the one. Being born in the middle of a pandemic, setting up virtually in the last year has been a real game changer for us. But at the same time, our workforce comes from an organism like MSD that has got a history and has got a way of working. Many of them have been there for 15, or 20 years. As much as we are a modern, tech-focused, data-driven organization, we still have a workforce that needs to make the transition. We need to walk that path with them. We cannot just dump them and expect them to catch up. As much as we think we've got an edge, we also have a bit of a liability in terms of shifting mindsets and then moving forward.

EF: Can you elaborate on how the company has grown and evolved?

AK: We faced a lot of the same obstacles as other startups, but I think we were fortunate that have the roots that we do which meant that we had the resources to overcome those obstacles. In terms of our local market here in South Africa, we have continued to grow. Last year, we had impressive results. We are looking into the future with big ambitions. With our current portfolio, we are looking at around 55% growth over the next 5 years. We are looking at adding new products to the portfolio. We have had a number of BD deals signed in the last 8 months at a global level, and we are chasing more. Such deals are going to help continue our growth into the future. As a women's health organization, the focus on our portfolio has greatly assisted this growth. MSD is really focused on innovation, HIV, and vaccines biological but now with a focus solely on women's health and the NCDs, we are seeing this high performance and looking forward to the future.

EF: What is the strategic importance of South Africa for Organon?

AK: Organon is unique among multinationals in that it is a lean and direct organization. We have 22 managing directors and each one of us has a direct line to talk to the global CEO, meaning that we are one or two levels away resulting in an easier decision-making process. The agility that you see in Organon is global agility and the structure of the organization lends itself to that.

EF: What are the women's health segments in South Africa?

AK: In terms of women's health in our cluster, that is South Africa including sub-Saharan Africa, we have seen good growth. We are present in both the public and the private sectors. In the public sector, we have seen around 55% growth in the last year, forecasting continued growth in the coming year. We are investigating innovative ways of ensuring that we have new financing models that are going to increase access in the aid of women's health, particularly on a continent like ours, access is key.  
The only way that you are going to grow your business is by providing access both in terms of the availability of a product, and also the affordability. This is something that we are dedicated to. We have engaged with a number of stakeholders and partners across the continent to start the conversation in terms of what is it that women need on the continent. For far too long across the world, women have been told what they need. For us, it's important that we first listen and provide the solutions that are necessary. Those conversations have started. We've partnered with Africa Health Business to have round tables across the continent with the key stakeholders, with women and getting those insights to help us build a business that speaks to those needs and that can address those needs.

53% of our population is women. With that, women also carry a huge burden in terms of the health and socioeconomic problems that we have, such as gender-based violence and teen pregnancies. In families, women are the ones that are the health decision makers. The healthcare of women is essential to the healthcare of the nations.

EF: In the context of women's health, what is your perspective on Universal Health Coverage in South Africa?

AK: It is long overdue. I believe that South Africa needs national health insurance. We have been speaking about it now for over 10 years. It was supposed to start prior to the pandemic but was pushed back due to the finances not being available. National Health Insurance and universal health are things that we need in terms of healthcare financing. The structure of the health industry in South Africa means that 80% of the financing is in the private health sector, which only caters for 20% of the population. And 20% of the funding is in the public sector which caters for 80% of the population. To equalize the availability of resourcing, national health insurance is an absolute necessity.  

With the kind of disease burden that we have, which is both 1st world and 3rd world, we're seeing this boom in non-communicable diseases and oncology and cardiovascular metropolitan diseases. At the same time, we're still carrying HIV, TB, and malaria. Universal healthcare would mean that we can cover the diseases that are at play in this environment. You cannot have one sector holding everything, there has to be cross-collaboration.  

EF: What is the role of healthcare in developing the economy?

AK: It is essential especially in an environment as we have in Africa where a considerable amount of employment is manual and part of the informal economy. To participate in manual labour, you must be healthy and physically fit. With COVID-19 containment measures such as lockdowns, the informal economy has suffered, and people are not healthy enough. When the economy opened, we did not have the expected lift-off due to the considerable health impacts. In Africa, falling ill can push people into poverty. Health is fundamental to the economic progress of the continent.

EF: How can the industry ensure that adequate provision is at the centre of health discourse?

AK: The first thing is to have the right people around the table in the discussions. When the topic is women’s health, women must be in the room and be there at the table making the decisions. If there was a senate or a Supreme Court full of women what has unfolded wouldn't have happened.
The second part is that there must be mobilization of society. We do know that men listen to men. The men who are the allies and who are the eco-allies of gender equity and women's rights need to speak up and talk to other men to make sure that we change the mindsets of our society.
If we take the conversation forward, the next thing that needs to happen is to put these talk shops and policies and turn them into action. Every year there will be conferences on women's health, and nothing comes out of it. There needs to be active and that needs to happen now.

EF: In September, there is going to be a women's health innovation summit in Boston, with Organon as one of the important members of this event. If you were in charge of creating the list of topics, what would you choose?

AK: I would want to talk about gender equity access to healthcare. As much as it is a global problem, I think it is a particular problem on the African continent. Healthcare is the cornerstone of the economy, and the majority of our population is women. If we need to provide access to an appropriate level of care when it's needed.  
Secondly, I would want to talk about the diseases that disproportionately affect women. We accept that there is going to be hypertension and diabetes. But there is a whole area of diseases that have not had a lot of research or funding going into them because they disproportionately affect women.  
We need to focus on those diseases that will make a difference to women. Those are the two things that I would really like to see on the agenda as they have the potential for transforming our society.

EF: What are the contributing factors to Organon’s growth, and is there anything in the pipeline that's coming up that you're particularly excited about?

AK: Our family planning portfolio is a considerable contributor to the company’s growth. There has been a consistent effort from the government to roll out the family planning program in line with the FP 2030 initiatives. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, there was a sharp increase in teenage pregnancies in South Africa. That gave us a wake-up call that you can't be having 20,000 teenagers falling pregnant in high school.
There was a concerted effort from the side of the government to want to address this and we've partnered with them. We do have products on tender, but we've partnered with them in terms of training and in raising awareness.  

EF: How can we optimize the mental health of women alongside health products?

AK: The first thing is to destigmatize mental health; it is not spoken about enough. Many of us are walking around with depression and anxiety and friends and family are unaware. By de-stigmatizing mental health and recognizing that it's not an anomaly to have a mental illness, we are starting the process.

The second factor is education. A lot of medicines for other things have got mental health effects. We do know that contraception, for instance, can have mental health side effects. It can have effects on the body morphology that can then impact your mental health. There are a lot of things that can happen. Once we are aware and we educate the population about it, then they can also be aware and take note. If I'm taking contraception and I'm gaining weight and it's affecting my depression, I do know that I can go look for an alternative. I can talk to people about it, I can talk to my healthcare professional about it.

Those are the main things, de-stigmatizing raising awareness and providing resources to people whether it's in the form of healthcare professional access, reading material, or access to a pharmaceutical company.

EF: Could you elaborate more on how you see the role of education in healthcare within the context of South Africa?

AK: It is one of the key fundamentals that we want to drive. We have to use all the resources at our disposal. We have a sizeable fuel force that does the education at the healthcare professional level. We also have 59 million South Africans that are not healthcare professionals, they must be reached as well. We are going through all the platforms that we have. We have channels on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and soon we are going to be on TikTok as well, trying to reach all the segments of our population in terms of education.  

We will also be starting a YouTube channel in the next month and hosting regular live presentations through Twitter and Instagram to reach the right population. We have had a number of radio segments and we are in newspapers. We are really targeting every segment of the population. Because we do believe that in terms of women's health, you start too early, and we go all the way through to the end of life and try to reach everybody in that space.

EF: What advice would you give to other business leaders in terms of creating a positive social impact?

AK: No individual and no organization can do it alone. We must partner with the stakeholders. We have to partner with the public in order to achieve the common objective, which is healthcare for all, and we must be using every medium at our disposal to do so.  

Working with Africa Health Business has taught us that it is critical to listen to the people with that you are engaging. When we launched a year ago, we collected the voices of women from around the world. we have published this publication about two months ago called “Wall of Voices,” which really speaks to what women view as important from around the world. Contributors were diverse, some were celebrities in high-ranking capital officials, and others were women in the street. But they contributed their voices to this Wall of Voices that actually has shaped what we then now see as what is needed and what is necessary and that's critically important.  
We're going through the same process with AHP in terms of now going to all the African stakeholders, the women in the various countries, finding out what is it that they would want organizations like Organon to do for them, and what is it that they can do for themselves. That is what business leaders actually need to do. They must realize that no one can do this alone and we need active collaborations.  

One of the things I mentioned at the AHP conference was that in the industry we view other pharma companies as competition, but in this space, we can be co-collaborators. We can compete in the marketplace, but when we are trying to change society and make a difference, this is an area where dollars can be put together to make a bigger impact.

EF: With the changing world of work, how do you keep your employees engaged?

AK: We have opted to continue with flexible working. Around 85% of our workforce continues to work remotely outside of the field force. The field force is engaged in the field but 85% of the office-based workers continue to work remotely with the flexibility of going into the office. There was the option of enforcing a one or two-day office work week, but we opted to go with those that want to go to the office and are free to go for five days. Those that want to be at home for five days are free to do so, but there has to be space for collaboration, which people go into the office for. On performance, the pandemic set the baseline for us and so working remotely is business as usual.

We maintain regular meetings and because we started our culture journey remotely as an organization, it has not been such a challenge to continue it remotely as well. It's been well received. We have been able to remotely maintain the workplace culture and we will keep it going.

EF: What will you be celebrating at the end of the year?

AK: At the end of this year, we will hopefully be celebrating good financial results. We also hope to celebrate the establishment of our ESG strategy that we have been working on for the last year. We have been talking now for almost a year about the difference that we want to make, and now is the time that we unveil what it is that we are going to do. On a local level, there is going to be an ESG and philanthropy strategy that we are unveiling, and a number of partnerships that are going to make a difference to girls and women. We are going to be looking into femtech as well and see how we partner and make a difference in that space. We want to celebrate the performance of the organization, but also the impact that we make on the societies in which we operate.

May 2022
South Africa