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Kate Isa: Revolutionising Laboratory Science In Nigeria

By Njideka Agbo
24 April 2022   |   6:00 am
“This is too good to be true,” Dr Dora Akunyili, the then Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), said as she held up a simply bound proposal titled “Sanitising the Procurement Processes for NAFDAC Laboratories.” “It is indeed true. And it is doable! This is not the first…

“This is too good to be true,” Dr Dora Akunyili, the then Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), said as she held up a simply bound proposal titled “Sanitising the Procurement Processes for NAFDAC Laboratories.”

“It is indeed true. And it is doable! This is not the first time this proposal has been submitted to this agency, but finally, somebody is taking notice,” Mrs Kate Isa, founder of Katchey Company Limited, replied.

“How soon can you show me your resources for supply chain management?”

“Any date you choose in November,” Mrs Isa responded.

This was the end of August 2001, and the newly appointed DG, working on her deadline, wanted it done in September, the following month.

Several meetings later, grappling with the realities of the Wall Street crash and insufficient funds, Isa was on her way to London to arrange the logistics. Weeks later, Katchey would reequip the NAFDAC labs across Nigeria, and Dora would later refer to Katchey in her public speeches as one of the key factors that enabled her to achieve the great success she recorded in her fight against fake drugs and substandard products. She once remarked, “Kate, you know, some people, once you get comfortable with them on quality, would start sneaking in substandard products, but you have demonstrated integrity.’”

Serendipity

Incorporated on April 20, 1989, Katchey started with the sales of computer accessories. As a graduate of computer software engineering from the University of Lagos and employed in a computer company, it was only natural that Kate would start a company that acted as a supplement to what she had a passion for. And life was indeed good. Working in an environment that encouraged constant training outside the shores of the country, having to compete successfully with foreigners, and bringing value to the table, Kate thought the world of her job for the six years she was there.

That was until her desire to become even better led to a question that changed her life.

“Yes, I travelled around the world for training sessions, but it was linear so I asked him (her boss), ‘what is your career plan for me?’ and he replied, ‘what do you mean?’

“I said, ‘if I work hard the way I have these past several years, where can I expect to be?’. He said, ‘it depends on what you are working hard on.’”

And so the soul search began.

Her first action plan to enrol for an MBA at Harvard Business School was met with subtle resistance from the company, including an offer of a promotion.

Kate believes that her dedication to the job spurred the management to move in this direction.

“Everywhere I went when I was in that company, I went like an owner. I would work sometimes until 2 am and even extend my work hours into the weekends. Before they think of a new product, I will open my big mouth and say , ‘why don’t we do this?’” she said, chuckling.

“I find that a lot of people in Nigeria today work as employees. They don’t have an ownership mindset. They just work for their salaries.”

Kate went on to Harvard Business School where she obtained an MBA. She returned to her old job but was offered the same position she had prior to 18 months of HBS. She resigned and decided to be the forewoman in the home she and her husband were building.

Fate took its chance.

“One day, my husband came home with a list of chemicals, and he said a friend of his needed them supplied.” That friend was the DG of NAFDAC. She took the list, but couldn’t fathom what they were. Not one to be deterred, she brought alive the old saying, ‘curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.’ As soon as she got help to understand it, she got to work. Simon Stell, who was in charge of British Drug House, Nigeria, astonished by the quantity of her demand, told her, “Should I bother wasting my time quoting it?” To which she replied, “Well, I wasted my time sourcing it, so, yes.”

NAFDAC would use this for six months, and BDH would become impressed with her management and execution of the work such that they would terminate all existing partnerships in the country to deal exclusively with her company on laboratory chemicals and consumables.

BDH would not become the only impressed manufacturing partner. Katchey’s reputation for excellence and commitment to customer satisfaction would attract other manufacturers to them.

But just as Katchey hit that milestone, Kate’s curiosity was taking another leap. She realised they needed to get into the instruments market.

It was during this time that fate would inspire a love story with NAFDAC.

The year 2001

It is the year 2001 and Kate is convinced that people would stop travelling abroad to get accurate results of their products if Nigerian labs are properly equipped.

Fortunately, the new DG of the agency responsible for regulating and controlling the manufacture, importation, exportation, advertisement, distribution, sale and use of food, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, and chemicals in Nigeria shares the same bias.

“The reputation (Nigeria’s) was so bad such that when you wrote to manufacturers for the supply of their products, they didn’t even respond,” recalled Isa.

“So Prof. Dora decided that her crusade would be to fight fake drugs and, to effectively fight substandard and fake drugs, we needed to have labs whose test results nobody could successfully contest. She saw that her labs were major barriers to accomplishing her goals, so she decided to fix the labs.”

In a top management meeting, Prof Akunyili communicated that she desperately needed a crown agent in Nigeria to manage the supplies into their laboratory network nationwide. Mrs Eke, one of the directors present at the meeting, told Prof Akunyili, “I know a Crown Agent in Nigeria. The name is Katchey” and proceeded to submit a copy of the proposal Mrs Isa had repeatedly sent to various parts of the Agency. Coincidentally, the proposal’s theme was just what Prof Dora needed.

“I find that being honest with myself and God – I answer to a higher authority – always pays off. Even the people who don’t like us, the day they really need that quality, they have no choice than to come to us because we are known for uncompromisable quality. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s lonely, but I tell you it always pays off.”

A New Beginning For Katchey

Now 32 years, with an offshoot in Los Angeles and another in London, Kate’s dream to ensure Nigerians get accurate internationally acceptable laboratory test results is coming alive with the establishment of Katchey Laboratories, their independent analytical lab. Come May 5, 2022, Katchey’s Independent Analytical Laboratory Complex, a subsidiary of Katchey Company, will become Nigeria’s first internationally accredited independent analytical lab. This independent analytical lab has satisfied the required ANAB audit. ANAB (ANSI National Accreditation Board), based in the USA, is one of the top two accreditation bodies in the world that ensures the quality of analytical laboratory tests.

The Analytical Lab which remarkably is also the only currently active ANAB accredited lab in sub-Saharan Africa offers testing services to support different sectors of the economy including Pharmaceutical, Food and Beverage, Agribusiness, Environmental, Oil and Gas, Forensics & Human Genomics, Research & Development, among others.

Speaking on the need for this certification, Kate said it will save forex, cost of shipping and time. The emergence of Katchey Laboratory Complex is important in the ecosystem, especially with the imminent realities of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). 

“Nigerians will be at a disadvantage unless the manufacturers are geared up to be able to get accurate certification on the quality of their products. Manufacturers, especially agribusiness owners, whose samples fail to meet the required standards have access to our advisory services and ways to resolve the root causes of the quality challenges and what to do to make their products acceptable for export.”

Not resting on her oars, Kate will also be hosting the Groundbreaking Ceremony of the Proposed Katchey Complex. The proposed Katchey Complex is part of Katchey’s forward and backward integration strategy and is in response to the perceived gaps in the science and technology ecosystem in Nigeria. The 7 storeyed complex will house Manufacturing of Laboratory Equipment and Consumables, Independent Analytical Laboratory Complex, Training Centre for Laboratory Analysts and Bio-Engineers, Offices and Warehouses. 

With a closer look at the lives of Kate’s family, one can easily identify the entrepreneurial uniformity in their zeal and preparedness – values her mother impacted on her and her siblings.

Defining Roots

Growing up in a home where her mother, a teacher by profession, worked as a contractor, a farmer, and was active in the real estate business would water the grounds for Kate and her siblings to become multi-preneurs just like their mother. It is of little wonder that both she and her sister (Ngozi Nzegwu) were chosen among the Nigeria Women Annual: 100 Leading Women this year.

“I would say you become like the people around you, which is why, as parents, it is important to inculcate the right values in our children. I knew that mediocrity was not going to be a part of my makeup. Substandard doesn’t work for me. Shortcuts are not options for me,” she said.

“When you engage men on the premise that they are seeing you as an individual, you have to bring value to the table. They start seeing you as a solution provider. In my world, it’s not about my femininity, it’s about the value I bring.”

Her mother’s entrepreneurial spirit also served as the motivation for the fund she has established to help young women start businesses that ensure they remain financially independent and support their husbands.

Describing her mentorship approach as “maternal,” Katchey has sponsored staff, including corps members, for training, and conferences, among others, outside the country.

“I want them to be global citizens, confident anywhere,” said Kate. “In addition to that, we have paid the tuition of our staff who wanted to do courses outside of our scope. I see that as part of my investment in their lives.”

Kate believes that every gift a person has been endowed with must be used before he or she leaves Mother Earth.

“It is a shame to have the capacity and not put it to use. If you have made all the money that you would need for the rest of your life, and you know how long you will live, and that it will be secure wherever you have put it, then you can retire, but if your life is not about you, then you do not have the option to retire as long as you are able to work, because you can never have enough money to retire. After all, you will always have somebody else who would need to be empowered.”

Kate Isa was recently elected the First Female President of the Scientific Products Association of Nigeria (SPAN).

Kate is happily married to Abdulrazaq Isa, the Chairman of Waltersmith Petroman Oil Limited and both are loving parents to two adorable children: Amina Ezinneka and Zaq Chidiebere.