Dora Akunyili is the Director General of Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC). She is known around the world, and particularly admired as a hero in Africa for her toughness and courage in her successful fight to rid Nigeria of counterfeit drugs. Her sister died due to fake drugs. Her office has been burned down, her laboratories vandalised, and her house broken into. She has even been shot at. When she started her job, about 80% of the drugs on the Nigerian market were fake. She has reduced that to 10%, which she still calls unacceptable.

NAFDAC has more information on her including the lengthy list of her awards.

She continues her courageous fight. More details about her biography and efforts are here:

Dora Akunyili’s battle against counterfeit food and medicines in Nigeria is removing dangerous fakes and saving lives. Although the struggle has nearly cost her own life, she is determined to fight on.

Dora Akunyili, director general of the Nigerian National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), has been shot at, attacked, seen her office burned down, her laboratories vandalised and had her house broken into. She has been intimidated, harassed and blackmailed and her staff have been beaten up. Just last month, in an investigation at a market, her investigators and police were attacked and six cars were destroyed. But none of this has stopped her fight against counterfeit drugs.

Director General of National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC)

Her worst day came on December 26 2003. Driving near her village, she was shot at from another car. A nearby bus driver was killed, and she narrowly survived: “The bullet scraped my back and burned my scalp like a hot water bottle.” The gunmen were later brought to trial and proven to have links with drug counterfeiters.

Since her appointment to NAFDAC in 2001, Akunyili – who has a PhD in pharmacology and still supervises graduate students at the College of Medicine – has tackled the threat of counterfeit drugs head on. When she started, about 80% of drugs in the market were fake, companies such as Boehringer, Merck and Sandoz had all withdrawn from the country, and local manufacturers were closing down because they could no longer compete. Worse, she says, the counterfeits were causing illness and disease: “People were dying like rats. My own sister died thanks to counterfeit insulin and that hit me. All families in Nigeria have experienced the effects of counterfeits.”

Akunyili was appointed by President Olusegun Obasanjo after developing a name for her honesty: in 1999, she was given £12,000 by her then employer for surgery in London, but when the surgery proved unnecessary she returned the money to the chief executive. He told her: “I did not know there were Nigerians with integrity.” Her reputation spread and one Sunday, out of the blue, she had a phone call from the president who said he wanted someone to clean up NAFDAC, the agency which regulates and controls the import, sale and advertising of all drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, processed food and drinks for Nigeria’s 131 million people. After initial confusion (“I thought it was a con-man”) she went to a meeting the following Tuesday and was given the job, even though “some ministers and politicians were very much against me because they wanted their own people”. Like many of the counterfeiters she fights, she comes from the Igbo tribe.

Today, the piracy rate for pharmaceuticals has come down to 10%, a figure that Akunyili says is “still unacceptable”. Although she says the campaign has “succeeded much more than we ever expected,” she thinks it is “realistic” to reduce the rate to single figures. The death rate in hospitals has fallen, multinationals are returning and 24 new drugs manufacturing outfits have been established. In the four-and-a-half years to September 2005, N10 billion ($80.5 million) worth of fake drugs and substandard products were destroyed and some 50 people convicted of fake drugs-related crimes in court. And, says Akunyili, the counterfeiters are on the run: “The hunter has become the hunted.”

NAFDAC’s extraordinary success in challenging the counterfeiting problem has come about more through determination and patience than through spectacular ideas. “Knowledge of the problem is half the solution,” says Akunyili, who introduced a NAFDAC number for all drugs and food products so that consumers know they are buying an authentic product. Advertising encourages them to check the number and expiry date. This simple measure saw the number of products without a NAFDAC number drop by 80% between 2002 and 2004.

The Agency has also focused on stopping counterfeits coming into the country. Since many come from India and China, the Agency now analyzes goods in those countries before they are exported. It works with importers and banks, and staff go to markets to buy samples and test them. NAFDAC also undertakes systematic surveillance at all entry points to the country. Factories producing drugs must be certified; market stalls are subject to inspection; hawkers on buses will be thrown off. Bakeries have been closed down for using potassium bromate as a bread improver while makers of fake vegetable oil and packaged water have been raided. Above all, Akunyili has made it clear that she will not tolerate any corruption within NAFDAC.

NAFDAC’s achievements have also brought personal recognition for Akunyili: last year she was the sole recipient of the Grassroot Human Rights Campaigner Award from the Human Rights Defence organization in London and was also presented with the 2005 industrial award by the International Pharmaceutical Federation in Cairo, Egypt. Her CV lists a further 260 awards and recognitions given to her in Nigeria and overseas.

NAFDAC’s work demonstrates how developing countries can tackle counterfeiters. But, says Akunyili, further work needs to be done. In particular, the law needs to be strengthened as drugs counterfeiting remains more attractive to criminals than gun running or cocaine dealing. Recent efforts have also focused on addressing the problem throughout the west Africa region: many counterfeiters who were driven out of Nigeria initially fled to Congo. A forum of west African drugs authorities was held in Abuja three months ago to ensure that “counterfeiters will not find a safe haven anywhere”.