One key debate around the world regarding the health of developing nations is whether such  nations should manufacture their own drugs or continue to import. Of course, the reasons against importation are many including high cost, dependence on foreign products and non-contribution to the country’s development.

Entrepreneurship has always been about filling the gaps, providing what is needed, making things better. But entrepreneurship is also about answering questions: ‘what if?’

Stella Chinyelu Okoli is the Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Emzor Pharmaceutical Industries Limited and through entrepreneurship answered the question ‘what if a developing nation manufactured its own medicines?’

After completing her Pharmacy degree in Bradford University and an MSc in Biopharmaceutics from University of London in 1971, Stella worked in various positions, Middlesex hospital and Boots Pharmacy in London and in Part Davis Nigeria before she opened Emzor Chemists as a small retail outlet in Nigeria. She has since taken Emzor from a small chemist shop in 1977 to a multi-billion naira manufacturer of pharmaceutical products and other health products. She has also held several professional leadership positions including Chairman of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group (PMG) and the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN). She is a member of the Economic Summit of Nigeria and of Health Matters Advisory Board of Nigeria.

In 2010, Okoli also  became a non-Executive Director of Guaranty Trust Bank, one of the leading banks in Africa.

Perhaps what is most encouraging about Stella Okoli’s story is not the accolades or money she has earned for herself as an African woman, but rather the determination it must have taken to succeed in the manufacturing industry. While fake drugs, electricity and other economic challenges continue to pose massive problems in the industry, Emzor has maintained its position as the leading indigenous company in pharmaceuticals.

For Stella, choosing to manufacture drugs locally was important for developing local capabilities and competencies, creating jobs and providing affordable yet high-quality pharmaceutical products on the Nigerian market.  There is no disputing that she has managed to achieve that and gone further, establishing offices in Mali, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana and India.

As a woman, Stella’s role is not limited to the boardroom, and her experience as a mother has been bittersweet. In 2005, she lost her son, Chike Okoli, five days after his 25th birthday to an undetected coronary artery disease. Chike Okoli was a talented lawyer and budding entrepreneur and his loss was devastating for the family.

In response, Stella began the Chike Okoli Foundation (COF), a non-profit non-governmental organisation which works to fight poverty and disease by encouraging entrepreneurship and raising awareness on cardiovascular diseases. Her passion for entrepreneurship has also led to the creation of the Chike Okoli Centre of Entrepreneurial Studies (COCES) located in the Nnamdi Azikwe University, Awka. Stella’s commitment to enterprise and the ability of Africans to pull themselves out of poverty was passed on to her son, and despite his untimely death, his dream for empowering others through entrepreneurship lives on.

In January 2012, Stella Okoli was awarded Honours for her service to enterprise and industry at the 17th ThisDay Annual Awards which celebrates ‘Nigerian women of distinction and lifetime achievers’. Although Stella describes her son as one who “saw opportunities where the untrained eye has looked and failed”, the same is true of her.

Where others saw pharmaceutical manufacturing as a difficult and unpredictable business, Stella saw possibility; where others saw pain over the loss of a beloved child, she saw opportunity: the chance to give other young men and women skills to improve their lives. Stella Okoli is indeed a woman of distinction and lifetime achiever.

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