Konji Sebati brings passion for medicine to transform pharmaceutical industry

2019-05-31 05:31

Konji Sebati’s motivation behind joining Ipasa was mostly due to the need for harmony between pharmaceutical companies and governments

Konji Sebati has come a long way from being a laboratory analyst at one of the country’s major pharmaceutical firms to heading up their association.

City Press met up with the chief executive of the Innovative Pharmaceutical Association SA (Ipasa) at the organisation’s offices in northern Johannesburg to get to know the former ambassador to Switzerland and France.

Born into a family of three siblings in Orlando West, Soweto, Sebati went to school at the nearby Selope-Thema Primary School before being shipped off to boarding school at Hwiti High School in Mankweng Township in Limpopo.

“My mother wanted me to go to boarding school there because my father is from there,” she said.

Her mother was a nurse at Baragwanath Hospital and her father, though he passed away at a young age, was a health inspector.

“My parents were both in health. So, in some way, there was that influence from health.”

After matriculating from Hwiti, she enrolled at the nearby University of the North (now University of Limpopo), but only after unsuccessful applications to study at the only black medical school in the country at the time, the University of Natal.

“Medicine has always been what I wanted to do and a major influence was Dr Mamphela Ramphele. She was from my father’s village in Mara near Makhado in Limpopo, and she was my mentor from when she was in high school in Bethesda. She was very bright and articulate. Her parents were very close to my grandparents,” Sebati said.

Though she was studying a Bachelor of Science degree, she kept applying to study medicine. After graduation, she joined Adcock Ingram in Johannesburg as a laboratory analyst.

“My heart wasn’t there, but it was a job. My heart was still set on studying medicine,” she said.

In 1976, when the country was teetering on the edge of civil war, Sebati’s stars aligned as she got an opportunity, through one of her mother’s patients at the hospital, to enrol at Kenya’s University of Nairobi through a UN Educational Training Programme for Southern Africa scholarship.

She had to apply through her relatives in Botswana as apartheid South Africa was suspended from the UN.

After graduating from the University of Nairobi, she went on to do her medical internship at Jomo Kenyatta Hospital.

Sebati described how, “for the entire six and half years I was in Kenya, I never came home because the police were already harassing my mother. I was close with a lot of people who were very political and my family were afraid for me and there were a lot of questions.”

I was tired. The things that doctors complain about today, like shortages of equipment and staff, is the reason I left back then

She only returned home when her brother died. After the funeral, she got a job at Bophelong Hospital in Mafeking (now Mahikeng) after being recruited by then Bophuthatswana’s health minister.

Four years later, in 1987, she was appointed as regional director in Ga-Rankuwa in charge of 19 clinics in the area.

While she was there, she also acquired a diploma in health service management and primary healthcare.

In 1993, she decided to leave public service to join Roche as a medical adviser.

“I was tired. It’s funny because some of the things that doctors complain about today, like shortages of equipment and staff, is the reason I left back then. I had seven doctors and 19 clinics, and to get even a stethoscope was a huge task.”

It’s not easy, but it’s getting better because, of the 25 companies in the country, I think 11 are led by South Africans

After Roche, she was recruited by Pfizer as a medical director in charge of clinical research, a position she kept for seven years before being transferred to the company’s head office in New York in the US.

“When I was in New York, I was recruited to join [then] president [Thabo] Mbeki’s government as the ambassador to Switzerland in 2005 and, in 2008, I was moved as ambassador to France and later to Portugal when the new president came in,” she said.

While she was still in Portugal in 2010, she was recruited to join the World Intellectual Property Organisation (Wipo) in Geneva, Switzerland, to head a new health division called Global Challenges.

The organisation was meant to facilitate the sharing of intellectual property in health with developing countries.

Read: Fighting the big pharma bullies isn’t easy

In 2014, she retired from Wipo and, while still deciding what to do in her retirement, she was headhunted by former Ipasa president Timmy Kedijang to join the organisation as its chief executive.

“Kedijang was actually my medical intern many years ago in Bophelong,” she said.

The motivation behind joining the 25-member organisation was mostly because there needed to be harmony between pharmaceutical companies and governments.

“The industry has had many challenges before, but it has really changed. The biggest challenge has to be the perception that we are the biggest contributor to high health costs in this country, which is not true. The majority of our products are available to more than 80% of society,” said Sebati.

To just be a good corporate citizen is a business case for why pharmaceuticals should transform

She admitted that, although all her members are multinationals, transformation was very slow at best, despite the fact that it was a business imperative in the country.

“It’s not easy, but it’s getting better because, of the 25 companies, I think 11 are led by South Africans in the country. To just be a good corporate citizen is a business case for why pharmaceuticals should transform,” she said.

Transformation in the sector was going to take some time, Sebati explained, but getting the wheels moving, as well as oiling the relationship with the state, was part of the legacy she would like to leave at the organisation.

A keen traveller and ardent jazz fan, Sebati enjoys spending time with her family.

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May 24 2020