Given the very large size of population, increasing health awareness, and growing purchase capacity, Bangladesh is supposed to be a major consumer of pharmaceutical products in the world. The high and expanding demand has been met largely by the local pharmaceutical companies which took advantage of Bangladesh's Least Developed Country (LDC) status that got it exempted from patent protection as well as by producing predominantly patent expired and low-cost generic drugs. Originally buoyed by the National Drug Policy 1982, access to low cost active ingredients mostly from India and China, enhanced production capacity at the local factories, and admirable know-how and commitment of the pharma entrepreneurs and professionals, Bangladeshi companies have prepared them well over the last three decades to locally produce many low cost medicines for the mass people and by doing so the country did not require to import to meet most of its pharmaceutical need while many other Low and Middle Income Countries (LMIC) of comparable population size and economic standing have to still import pharmaceuticals of substantially higher amount and value. For example, Nigeria imports US$ $859 million and Vietnam imports $1,775 million worth of medicines -- 3.2 and 6.6 times higher respectively compared Bangladesh's meager $ 270 million import a year.
The local pharma companies certainly played a major role in helping Bangladesh achieve many of its health indicator milestones for which Bangladesh has been widely praised in the world platforms and many research articles were written to dig out the secrets and solving the puzzle of Bangladesh's outstanding performance and success in improving its population health. However, the role of local medicine manufacturers remained generally unacknowledged and unappreciated by most local and international policy makers, advocates, analysts as well as the global health experts and researchers. Higher income, better education and greater health literacy of the Bangladeshi population did help the local pharma companies to grow as more people were encouraged and were able to access, buy and use modern medicines.
Bangladesh started exporting pharmaceutical finished products and several of the local manufacturers established their footprints in the global market. Though not remarkable in any scale, the growth of pharma export has been gradually moving upward. However, with this very slow progression rate, it will be a long while for Bangladesh to develop itself into a recognised and decent size exporter country of pharmaceuticals in the world market. It is high time to re-strategise and the local drug manufacturers must undertake a more comprehensive, systematic and critical look at the global medicine market, segment the market, target a few countries, and then stay focused and persistent in growing their businesses in those particular markets. Now, the critical first step is how can these target countries be identified?
Business decisions must be data driven and data should produce the evidence base for the decision makers to act. Market data need to be gathered continuously, synthesised meaningfully and in a timely manner. Export data is made available by the Export Promotion Bureau and according to the data, Bangladesh exported medicines to 118 countries in 2019 [Period: July-June 2019-2020], 121 countries in 2018, and 103 countries in 2017. However, looking closely at the 2019 figures, only 21 countries made up 88 per cent of the total export value and the other 97 countries together took $16,985,812 medicines-- worth only 12.51 per cent of Bangladesh export share. Strangely enough and amusingly, to 9 of these countries, the export value was equal to or less than $100 and still got listed in this export database. Similarly, in 2018, Bangladesh exported equal to or less than $100 worth of medicines to 10 countries.
While probing thoroughly about the top 21 destination countries where Bangladesh exported most of its products in 2019, a not-so-pleasant picture emerges as the local manufacturers were able to export more than $10 million worth of medicines to only four countries-- Sri Lanka, Myanmar, United States (USA) and the Philippines. The next major destinations were Kenya, Cambodia, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Among these eight countries, in terms of types and needs of medicines, socio-cultural difference, geographic distance, economic standing and regulatory framework, the USA is of a very different type. The other importing countries have similarity in terms of demographic composition, health conditions, disease patterns, and economic standing of their populations. Their pharmaceutical product need and use, buying power and behaviour, and market size may be comparable to some extent and can be clustered and reviewed collectively.
Taking one step further, when Bangladesh's standing with respect to meeting the import needs of these countries was analysed, a clearer insight is revealed about where it stands now and how much room is there to grow. Collating data on these countries' total imports from an available data source [World's Top Exports - an independent educational website], Bangladesh is found to have captured a share of 7.40 per cent and 4.53 per cent of overall pharmaceutical imports of Myanmar and Sri Lanka respectively. Myanmar imported a total of $434 million worth of products in 2019 and Bangladesh provided $19. 6 million of it leaving $415 million that Myanmar must have imported from other countries. Likewise, Sri Lanka imported a total of $276 million worth of products in 2019 and Bangladesh provided $20.5 million leaving $256 million that Sri Lanka imported from other countries. For the other destination countries-- from Bangladesh's point of view-- Bangladesh captured only 1-6 per cent of their total share: Afghanistan (5.7 per cent), Somalia (4.6 per cent), Cambodia (3 per cent), Jamaica (2.2 per cent), Kenya (1.9 per cent), Nepal (1.4 per cent), Mauritius (1 per cent) and the Philippines (0.9 per cent). In general, these countries were bringing in pharmaceuticals mostly from other countries to meet their needs.
For the four developed countries in the list of 21 in which Bangladesh was able to penetrate, Bangladesh's share was less than trivial: USA (0.02 per cent), Denmark (0.08 per cent), Great Britain (0.01 per cent) and Australia (0.03 per ent).
Certainly, the local companies' ongoing business strategies have not yielded what they were eagerly craving for. The companies appear to have done very poorly in terms of studying and understanding the global pharmaceutical import market, selecting the right target countries. They also did not concentrate on a few particular countries where they could grow their share substantially. So, the local manufacturers did not make an impact in terms of capturing a decent market share in any given country in the word as yet (Table below).
Export data from the Export Promotion Bureau of Bangladesh; Import data from World's Top Exports--an independent educational website
Hasnat M Alamgir, MPharm, MBA, PhD is Professor, Department of Pharmacy, East West University, Dhaka, Bangladesh