Read the Conversation

EF: What do you think should be the key healthcare focuses in South Africa?

RN: The focus should be on lessons learned from COVID-19 and moving forward. One of the key things that we are seeing is the realization from people that we need to pay attention and stay focused on non-communicable diseases, because they remain prevalent, and are very important for us to actually focus on while at the same time not neglecting COVID-19.
We should also focus on mental health, how to support people that might have gone through COVID-19 and suffered from mental health issues, and on the way, healthcare systems have been delivered across the world and in South Africa and making healthcare much more successful whilst learning from the experience at the same time.

EF: How can we keep this momentum on health going from a patient and physician point of view?

RN: The virtual world has been working for over the past two years and has had positives of easily reaching people more frequently and regularly. We use these technologies to reach as many people as possible in order to provide support for people that might be going through mental health issues and provide a support system for careers as well.  
Pfizer has a great focus on making sure that the health and safety of our employees are at the forefront of most of the decisions we are making, and our main focus stays the same, health and safety of our people, making sure we deliver products as quickly as possible and ensuring we have highly effective collaborative initiatives that are actually helping us to move forward and be great participants during the pandemic.

EF: What would your advice be on getting patients back to care in relation to designate diseases, mental health, and non-communicable?

RN: Pfizer works with multiple patient organizations. However, we need to engage them to help us reach as many patients as possible, so collaborating with these groups to engage, and share information about diseases and everything patients go through is important. We are also very active in instilling knowledge to the healthcare workers so that they're able to recognize some of these things that are now coming up.  

EF: What strategies could ensure the patient-centric approach in South Africa?  

RN: Pfizer's purpose is about breakthroughs that change patients' lives. In everything we do, we have been patient-centric. Our approach does not change, we only need to accelerate it and, in many ways, we are on the right track.

EF: Can you elaborate on the portfolio performance and the priorities of Pfizer in South Africa?  

RN: Our priorities are based on how we reach the patient as quickly as possible and make our innovative brands as accessible as we can in the country. Even with COVID-19, our priorities have not changed. Pfizer is divided into six portfolios. We have internal medicine, vaccines portfolio, our hospital business unit, oncology, inflammation & immunology and Rare Diseases. When you look at all six, our focus has been on how we accelerate that development and bring that breakthrough to those patients while executing well on the ground to ensure that we get those products as quickly as possible into the hands of the patient. Looking at collaborations, we have to ensure those collaborations are quite effective and they can produce the required results.  

EF: What example does Pfizer set for industry collaborations and businesses within the sector?

RN: Our pledge and approach are that collaborations are important in the industry and this is one of our priorities. It is an indication of continued relationships that help set up for COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing and the production of vaccines, and it is important when it comes to collaborations having an output. It is also an intention from the Pfizer point of view that we like to be working in the communities where we are at and make contributions in a broader sense than just the direct commission opportunities that you look at.

EF: Producing vaccines to distribute across the nation by a South African-born and bred company is a clear demonstration of collaboration of local commitment. Can you elaborate on Pfizer’s efforts with other local companies?

RN: Biovac is one of many initiatives run from a social point of view. South Africa is focusing on healthcare and how it gets delivered by a great amount. Pfizer has been in partnership with other companies to invest in Unjani Clinics Network, more than 100, which Pfizer has directly contributed to, to have eight of those fully sponsored, and up and running. It's also donated over 60 scanners to allow pregnant women to have them available within clinics, that are run and eventually owned by the women running them. Partnerships like these support health systems strengthening and access to affordable healthcare – this is aligned with the country’s national development plan.
South Africa also has a challenge around the communicable disease, such as TB, and training more healthcare workers is something Pfizer is involved with, with the PHEF to have doctors trained at a master's level to specialize in some of these noncommunicable diseases to understand them at a higher, deeper level.

EF: What can the public and private sectors bring to the table to ensure a high level of access to healthcare?

RN: The greatest example of the power of public-private sector partnerships is the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the country. That was done by having the public sector and private sector working together to roll it out as quickly as possible in the country. When you see that power coming together, to achieve a common purpose, the possibilities are unimaginable.  

EF: What example does South Africa set for the world in terms of these collaborative initiatives?

RN: If all of us are looking at the same purpose, the public and private sector, we can find solutions. That is what it means. Because not only were they able to find ways to collaborate, accelerate and resolve problems quickly together, but it solved a lot of issues between those two sectors.

EF: What advice would you give to leaders regarding employee engagement and maintaining a positive workplace culture?

RN: Leaders need to be visible and communicate even things that previously, they would not communicate on. Being communicators and being visible while creating some kind of security for the workforce. Walking the talk is important so as to lead by example and to create trust, stay connected and boost engagement. A leader who listens and provides feedback, and ensures employees see the positive social impacts of their work.

EF: How do you see the role of healthcare in developing and assisting the economy going to the future?

RN: Considering Pfizer's contribution in that respect, we are currently running over 19 clinical trials in the country. That is a considerable investment, and South Africa was one of five countries across the world that contributed to the COVID-19 pivotal clinical trial.  
South Africa is a place Pfizer is interested in and one that remains a highly strategic market in which we will continue making investments. Those investments drive direct and indirect employment and have a social contribution by ensuring our scientists are part and parcel of this innovation journey and new science that is coming in.

EF: What example do you think South Africa sets as a healthcare hub?

RN: Pfizer has been in South Africa for more than 70 years, demonstrating our commitment to the market. South Africa offers a highly dependable, developed infrastructure and working together with the government has also enabled a number of collaborations in reference. We are also able to find skillsets that we are looking for in order to input and be part of Pfizer's business growth if and when we want to grow. Being a science-based company, we are part and parcel of the scientific environment, nurturing it, but also contributing and lending from that scientific environment as well from scientists we have in the country, which is something a lot of countries can work on making happen.

EF: With your operation in South Africa, what would you like to be remembered for?

RN: From a business perspective, having led a company during the COVID-19 pandemic stands out on its own. Leading an organization through that turmoil and keeping the organization still focused on delivering what it is committed to.  
Under normal circumstances, innovative brands come into developed countries almost three years down the line. However, during COVID-19 the developed world got their vaccines in December, and in March/April, the developing world had vaccines. That for me remains very critical, bringing vaccines to Africa in the shortest time ever.
From a legacy point of view, am I leaving the organization in a better position than when I found it? That will be the legacy that only the team can tell me, as it is not for me to determine it.

Notes from Zee Kara- Public Affairs & Policy Director, Sub-Saharan Africa at Pfizer:  

From a South African perspective, Rhulani is one of the most modest leaders you can come across. Part of his transparent leadership and the culture developed has kept the organization afloat and above, and this has been a key contributing factor to the performance over the past 2 years, as well as bringing equitable access to the vaccines on African soil. Rhulani’s legacy is that of a transformational, transparent and honest leader. He kept us honest, and we kept him honest in that we kept each other accountable and worked collaboratively. The value of equity and ensuring that everyone is seen, heard, and cared for is a value not only internal but also external across the African continent because of Rhulani leading the conversation.

May 2022
South Africa