Sakho at Valda Pharmaceuticals

Alec Yeh - Senegal


April 6, 2010

Rachel would be so proud. Mat, being incredibly lucky and sociable, met this man named Sakho at the bank in Rufisique. It was serendipitous. It turns out that Sakho is the head pharmacist of Valda, a very large pharmaceutical company that actually has its headquarters in Rufisque. And so Mat, Ananda and I made our very own contact.

Mat brought us to the Valda headquarters to meet Sakho. Walking in, I was shocked. It was a gated complex that was more official than anything I’ve ever seen in Senegal. We got to the gate, and the security guard had to phone Sakho to make sure we were authorized to enter. I know in the US, that would be completely normal, but I guess I’m just really not use to that anymore. The security guard had to escort us to Sakho’s office, which was on the far side of the complex. As we walked in, the smell of chemicals just completely overwhelmed us. It was AWESOME. I miss the smell of chemicals. It smelled so clean, so official, so scientific. I could smell the chlorine in the air, along with other various chemicals. But walking into Sakho’s office was really surprising. It was so incredibly nice, and so western. He had a massive computer monitor, loaded with all the latest software, including Windows 7, which nobody uses in Senegal. He even had his own air conditioning unit. But once we sat down, we immediately started talking about Valda.

Valda is an incredibly fascinating company to me. The founder, a Swiss man, started the company right after World War II. Valda has been owned by the same family until about a few years ago, when the director of Pfizer in West Africa (yes Pfizer! My sister works at Pfizer in the States), decided to buy it. But, it’s not owned by Pfizer. It’s privately owned by the director, and has no affiliation with Pfizer. I find that a little weird, not just because the owner for this pharmaceutical works two jobs, but how in the world did he make enough to buy a company? But anyways, today, Valda Afrique services every country in Africa except South Africa (South Africa is always the weird one; they have their own pharmaceutical market there). How incredible is that? I’ve never even heard of this company and it’s a continent-wide company. And on top of that, there’s a Valda in Brazil. The Valda in Brazil services all of South America. In fact, the Valda has a much wider market in South America. Sakho said it’s mainly because the countries there are more developed and therefore have the purchasing power. But that’s incredible. Valda Afrique has this one location in Rufisque, and the entire complex can’t be more than five buildings. They have a total of around 65 employees. 65 employees for the all of Africa?! In comparison, Valda Brazil has a total of 20,000 employees. What? I don’t understand the huge discrepancy.

As for the products, Valda make an incredible range of things. They make Yotox, which is the insecticide that everybody uses in Senegal. They make tetracycline, which is used for skin and eye infections. They make so many types of antiseptics, more than I even knew existed. They make elixirs and oils that help things from indigestion to infections. They also produce huge amounts of condoms. But the funny thing is, when he told us how many they produce (which was like 2 million or something), I was like, that’s it?? For the all of Africa?? I assume there has to be other producers of condoms, or people just have a lot of unprotected sex here. Which is possible considering the high birthrates and venereal diseases. But you also have to remember, more people here have sex to have kids. However, their biggest product are mints. The mints fight bad breath and they act as cough drops too. Though that’s the biggest product, I think the best product is AquaTabs. They’re tablets that clean water. And it costs about two cents in US currency. Each tablet purifies 10 gallons. That’s amazing, and hopefully people will actually use them. Overall, it’s incredible the amount of things they produce considering how small the complex is. I can only assume that, though they service the whole of Africa, minus South Africa, they don’t produce HUGE amounts. Or maybe they do and they’re just incredibly efficient. That’s possible.

Valda Brazil on the other hand, makes more sense to me. 20,000 employees for South America sounds possible. They also produce more products that are fruit flavored (apparently South Americans really like fruit flavors while Africans prefer minty flavors). But overall, the two Valdas produce almost the same thing. Valda Brazil also imports all of its Gum Arabic from Valda Afrique, because Gum Arabic is a huge export here. If you don’t know what that is, it’s used in like EVERYTHING. From medicine, to printer ink, to candy. Oh, and as for the environment, most companies don’t really care. But Valda apparently filters its waste before dumping it into the sewage system (that barely qualifies as a sewage system). I’m impressed with their awareness.

After he gave us his spiel, we asked him some questions about Valda, and about him. Concerning Valda, I asked him about money. The total revenue, not including expenses, of Valda a year, is approximately 8 million dollars. That seems really little to me. No wonder that dude could buy Valda. Their total operating budget is 1.2 million dollars. So they make a decent amount of money. But even more interesting to me is that though they make all these medical products, I’ve never seen a single thing at the Poste made by Valda. I mean, the mints I see all the time, but those are hardly medicine. They make tetracycline which we sell at the Poste, yet we don’t sell Valda’s. I don’t understand why we wouldn’t sell a Senegalese product at a Senegalese health clinic. When I asked, he responded with, “That’s a good question. The reason is we don’t like to work with the Senegalese government, or governments in general. You try and sell them something, and you get a whole bunch of paperwork and regulations back. We just prefer not to.” They do deal with some governments, but he said they mostly deal with private distributors.

That just absolutely baffles me, for two reasons. One, why wouldn’t a Senegalese company, now owned by a West Africa man, not want to sell to help out the continent, or at least Senegal? So there’s some paperwork involved. Just hire some people with your 6.8 million dollar a year profit to help you with the clerical work. Number two, it just shows how incredibly inefficient the government is. Obviously, if your government is so annoying to deal with, companies aren’t going to invest in your economy. Valda is one company out of the entire world market. And you can’t even get a Senegalese company to invest in the Senegalese government an people. SO FRUSTRATING. But, this led to the question about non-profit work. Sakho told us that Valda does do some non-profit work. Valda gives out some medicine, when permitted, to the talibes, and to those in need. Valda also works with USAID, which is why they created the AquaTabs. But, Sakho said that that’s like 1%, the other 99% is all about profit. It’s a little sad to me, but then again, it’s a company, not a charity. And Sakho believes very deeply that handouts won’t do anything, which is very true.

The final question I asked intrigued me the most. I asked if he has health care provided by Valda. He said yes. He said his insurance covers 100% of all costs. But his case is VERY VERY rare. Valda gives their other employees about 70% coverage, which is still quite good. He explained to me that the only health insurance provided is either in private companies like Valda, or in the government. Government workers, according to Sakho, get 80% coverage. Basically, health care is only accessible to the formal sector (employed by an entity; most people work out of their homes), which means a tiny portion of people actually have adequate health care. The others pay out of pocket, or they have community-based health insurance, which is a relatively new thing in developing countries. As you can see, I’ve been reading a lot about health care.

I think Valda’s a very interesting company, because of how un-Senegalese it seems. But it seems like it does good, even though it’s for-profit. As for Sakho, I think he’s a great guy. But he also made me a little uncomfortable. The way he described his lifestyle just seemed so out of touch with reality. He told us he hates Rufisque and only stays in Dakar. When we described to him places in Senegal, such as Sangalkam, he had no idea what we were talking about. He drinks only bottled water. He refuses to go to public clinics, and only sees private doctors. He doesn’t use any traditional medicine. He has a huge TV that he watched pirated movies on. He drives a brand-new SUV. Yet, the only country he’s every known is Senegal. For a Senegalese man, he’s so not Senegalese, to me. It’s interesting to see, and makes you curious how many other people live like that.

Alec Yeh