Read the Conversation

EF:  What was Alpha Pharm´s role during the pandemic?

LL: Alpha Pharm is an ancient name in the country. It is a national pharmaceutical distributor distributing in all spheres of the medicine range and is predominantly designed to work for independent pharmacies. We have a massive footprint with 900 shareholder pharmacies in the group and 420 fully franchised independent stores which trade under the auspices of what we stand for. The pandemic caught us all off guard but we were able to react very quickly. Our first call was to stop the panic by supplying medicine without disruption, which was possible as we had invested a considerable amount in route optimization. We knew all our customers, even the difficult to reach customers. We covered all our bases should something go wrong within our infrastructure and had a third party lined up to get the products to the customer. We supplied a lot of PPE and a lot of cheap essentials even when there were worldwide shortages - such as latex - and even though we suffered a bit, our stores were very successful. Community-based pharmacies are an emotional experience and they were able to educate and calm their communities. The company had protective screens put up in stores, headgear protective screens for the staff. The malls were closed so the community pharmacies were bombarded with people while sticking to the strict rules of social distancing and played an essential role in education, especially in rural areas. They had the information on the new regulations and protocols of hygiene and sanitation expected. We were able to be at the forefront of educating some of the poorer populations of the country.

EF: What were the lessons learnt and did you add new KPIs over this last year to measure performance?

LL: Performance in the business changed because it moved into a different sector of sale, our whole portfolio changed to a pharmaceutical experience of almost an emergency medicine. A big part of the business is our brands, we are strong in vitamins, immune boosters, and general hygiene products. Following the WHO protocols of 80% alcohol, we produced sanitisers through our own integrated manufacturing business. We were able to provide education and have a calming effect while satisfying the new demand trying to future-prove the populations health around medicine. We are a patient-centric business which is very different to a corporate environment; our advanced technological development enabled us in many cases to satisfy one-stop-shop primary healthcare opportunities for our patients -a big jump for us. We were ready and prosperous because we understood the relevance of technology but didn’t forget the human element. We offered some face to face interaction and our pharmacists were an example, many of them have been in the communities for 30, 40 or even 50 years. They have known generations of families growing up and they played a hugely important role and we of course supported them where it was needed. Our business KPI went to the big brother supportive role especially for remote regions where we service up to twice a day with our distribution network and our own vehicles.

EF: In terms of Alpha Pharm product performance, was there a product mix evolution over the last year? 

LL: Alpha Pharm is very different to other corporate companies that offer a front shop mix of a lot of products. We were ideally positioned as a centric type organization that specializes in medicines, we supply medicines to keep people on their chronic medication and this was a key factor. People went into an emotional black hole worrying about getting Covid, so our pharmacists were vital in giving the advice on the right steps to follow, telling them to isolate and follow the rules -a big difference between corporate and community. In community pharmacies, pharmacists know their customers and area very well and were a calming influence. We were able to supply medicines through the crisis as we overstocked antibiotics. The vitamins and immune boosters were sold out because it was almost impossible to read the market. We have divisions with certain specific functions; the Alpha-Clin (Clinic) function was very well received. The Alpha-Doc is our virtual doctor business for consultation -our own development with an integrated system for patients to have virtual consultations from stores (telemedicine). There has been a significant shift from a technological perspective, and the community pharmacy has had a massive footprint increase. This puts demands on us, but we can deliver medicine to all independent pharmacies twice a day. It has been a costly decision in some cases, but we had to put the wellbeing of the citizens first; however, I must say we got a lot of marketing exposure and goodwill that have made our decision worthwhile. 

EF: Could you elaborate on the different divisions and the contribution of each one to the performance of Alpha Pharm today?

LL: We are a wholesale distribution business distributing all pharmaceutical products. A complete line wholesaling business, we supply medication of patent lines or franchise lines for everything predominantly pharmaceutical (80 to 90% of the business). There are different divisions and the pharma-centric model demands all the pieces to work together and talk to each other. We have invested very dearly in our clinic offerings, in their functions, control and reimbursement system and more importantly, they were designed to help achieve our mission of providing affordable healthcare to all South Africans. We have also invested in nurses and equipment, a lot of which comes from our brand. We have our surgical and labels as well as the technology and all the interfaces and the ordering platforms that the pharmacies use as well as the Alpha-Express data and the Alpha-Doc. We are the only company right now that has a dedicated push and pull e-scripting operation with full electronic controlled prescriptions that go into a master data file to distinguish what is affordable, does the reimbursement phase and calculates what the actual person can afford. All this information is offered in real-time while the pharmacist is putting in the order and distributes the medicine to the individual there and then. The reimbursement, if there is one, is notified at the same time before the patient leaves the pharmacy. All this information goes into another division called Alpha-Stats that compiles algorithms for managing therapeutic areas of pharmaceutics. This data is essential for drug companies like Pfizer, which can see what is getting used and why and it is also helpful for drug interactions. My personal interest is in genetics, I believe pharmacology and genetic mapping is the future in the country and the world, to know if a particular drug is helpful for a specific genetic makeup and it is a massive opportunity for the sector. Early diagnostics is the key in my opinion, whether diagnostic equipment or a consultative pickup they are a vital area of our business and fits into our patient-centric model.  Another unit is our own brand where we have a lot of products which our pharmacies sell, a lot of it not generic and are front shop products and an important part of the business. All the structure just fits into each other. We also are innovative in vending; we have a company called Pharma Shop 24, automated vending machines in convenience stores and petrol stations with a system of swiping a credit card, punching in the numbers to get the drugs. We have invested in anything that would work in a community but from a business perspective 90% of the business comes from the distribution and supply of pharmaceutics, the rest of our activities support the business. 

EF: Could you elaborate on Alpha-Stat and Alpha-Doc and what you think their future will look like? 

LL: I see pharmacists playing a huge role going forward, from a contact perspective and from people coming into the pharmacy to perform most of their healthcare needs. I see the pharmacist becoming the conduit, after consultation they can recommend what to do, using our patient-centric model that has the capacity to direct the patient for example suggesting a consult with a cardiologist which can be set up virtually, all in real-time with live vital statistics and with our technology decide the next step for the patient. It can even inform if the patient is deteriorating on the medicine they are taking. With Covid, doctors have lost a lot of patients, as people have been confined they have not been going to their regular appointments or checkups and this has put a substantial economic strain on doctors but the pharmacy has worked all along and this is an important new factor that is also happening into all Africa. I have had discussions with big players in both English speaking and French-speaking Africa on what Alpha Pharm developers and technology have done. With its educational asset, it would be very well suited to the rest of Africa because of its similarities with South Africa. Over the last 4 years, we have invested at a high cost for our business to find the best way to cover services for the people and it has worked and I think there is a huge opportunity for the expansion into Africa for our brands and surgical lines. 

EF: Do you have any actual plans for expansion into Africa?

LL: We have had conversations with one or two big players that have controlling stakes in certain areas of Africa in distribution, wholesale, and clinic environments. Our design is not found in a mall, it is pure medicine delivery –we cater for ill people. We will reap the benefits of what we have done and probably the most significant benefit will come from taking our services to our strategic partners in Africa because our design is excellent, it controls, it stops fraud and most importantly, works for therapeutics as people must get and take their meds. Our processes monitor that people do indeed take their medication –easily done with our technology. We have built an attractive model for Africa to suit a specific group, namely people with big pharmacy chains and they need us to complete their journeys. 

EF: When you look back to this period in your professional career, what would you like your 2020 and 2021 tenure to be remembered for?

LL: The pandemic has aided our business in that it has helped those that were sceptical of technology and new infrastructure. Since last year the world has changed and not that I wished for a pandemic but it has helped prove we are on the right track with our new infrastructure. We see the need for uplifting communities by supporting start-up businesses in rural and unserved areas through financial and professional guidance. They are the future and even though it is challenging because we have to teach finances, ethical behaviour and rules and regulations it has been a very successful initiative. Brand awareness also plays a big role, we have always been on social media but now we are present to a degree we have never before been with lots of gratitude toward people who have so far been overlooked – people thanking a nurse or a small pharmacy technician- the gratitude going to the people who make the business and not to the business kingpins. I do not want ´online´ to overtake my pharmacies but I want technology to encourage the traditional way of doing pharmacy. I want a sweet balance of the online world and being able to interact with a person who belongs to my community, knows my family and my history. We are young in our thought pattern and we are able to educate wiser, older and educated pharmacists of the help technology can be and that it must be considered. The rest of Africa is even further behind us and we have developed all the structures to talk to people that are not educated and here lies the beauty of our model. It is an opportunity for us to find partnerships’ going forward into Africa, the hard work has been already done and I look to finding attractive partners, taking our model and asset to Africa and the rest of the world. Alpha Pharm is our life investment but the pandemic has made us realize the importance of family values again, reconnecting families who hadn’t spoken for a long time, in many cases, it has caused and even forced a renewing of healthy relationships which leads to mental health which leads to good health. 

June 2021
South Africa