Aspen boosts exports to Zimbabwe

Nicolaou was part of the business delegation that held meetings in Zimbabwe on Monday with the political leadership of the recently formed inclusive government. The delegation was led by Business Unity SA (Busa).

Nicolaou said the company needed to find the right model to expand its presence in Zimbabwe. "We have to decide whether we are going to do this through a distributor or whether we will license products out. It is too early to say at this stage, because there are still going to be follow-up meetings."

Aspen has been exporting to Zimbabwe for more than a decade, but the volumes declined sharply over the past two years due to the economic meltdown there.

Stavros said it was difficult to establish a volume trend because the buying pattern and the products mix had changed due to the economic disruption in the country.

"Over the past 12 months there has been about a 30 percent drop in revenue. There was no currency to pay us and the medicines became unaffordable," said Nicolaou.

"We sold prescription generic products and some antiretrovirals. But as donor funding pulled out, the purchasing has been on an ad hoc basis."

The country has a lot of commercial opportunities for health care firms. Nicolaou said statistics from Zimbabwean Finance Minister Tendai Biti show that at least 4 000 people died of diseases every day.

"Zimbabwe is a high-burden disease country and the most important thing is to address their health care needs. It’s not just about the commercial interests. We have made a number of donations when there was the cholera outbreak," Nicolaou said.

Netcare, the other health care firm in the delegation, declined to comment.

Meanwhile, Jerry Vilakazi, the chief executive of Busa, said the organisation was confident that Zimbabwe was on its way to recovery.

"There is a clear political will and commitment from all those in the inclusive government," said Vilakazi.

He added that Busa had decided to be proactive as the private business community in South Africa and work with the coalition government as well as the private sector in Zimbabwe.

An investment protection agreement would be signed in two or three weeks, undertaking that the rules of the game would not change in three months or 12 months down the line.

An investment conference to promote investment in Zimbabwe will be hosted in South Africa before June.

Aspen fell 0.26 percent on the JSE yesterday to R49.50. Business Report (SA)