Bowing to the baobab

LISA WITEPSKI

AN accent on the phenomenal bounty of the baobab tree – in terms of both nutrition and medicinal uses – has helped Vida Pharmaceuticals carve a distinct niche in a highly competitive industry.

The world of ancient healing may seem aeons away from modern medicinal advances, but Patricia Mathivha, founder of Vida Pharmaceuticals, has successfully merged both. 

Patricia explains that she always knew she would be involved in healing but, since the University of Limpopo, where she studied, did not offer degrees in medicine, pharmacy was her next choice. 

Having experienced several areas of the industry – from retail to hospital dispensing – Patricia realized early on that her career would have a business angle. If she could somehow involve her passion for pharmaceutics, so much the better.

Her first step was to apply for a job as a production pharmacist with a well- known industry player. “My interview was scheduled to take place in Port Elizabeth, on a day that I was supposed to be on call at the hospital where I was employed, a few months after completing my community service. I arrived in Port Elizabeth at 6.30 am, giving me an hour to prepare for the interview. I had scheduled it at that time so that I wouldn’t have to sleep over. By the time I left PE later that day, I’d been told the job was mine!”

Patricia’s first view of the company’s compression facility, where tablets were manufactured, convinced her that she had found her calling: she, too, wanted to manufacture pharmaceuticals. “I didn’t know how I would get there, but I was determined to learn. I treated every day as a school day.”

Eager to familiarize herself with every aspect of pharmaceutical operations, from marketing to strategy, Patricia set herself a goal: she would take on a new role in a new organisation every two years, so that after 10 years she would have gleaned enough knowledge to go it alone. Ultimately, a post in external relations gave her enormous exposure to all areas of the business, allowing her to fast track her objective by four years.

Patricia knew the company she established would be different from all others. “My approach hinges on identifying gaps – whether brought about by a lack of resources or by issues that haven’t been answered by current frameworks – and addressing them,” she explains. She was prepared to take her entry into the industry slowly, and to allow the company to grow organically. 

By 2016, she felt that she had consolidated her learning to the point where Vida Pharmaceuticals was ready to launch. However, she knew that it would take time to build the robust team she wanted in place before she was ready to embark on research and development or manufacture new products. It would also take time to become registered – but the company had to find a way to generate income in the meanwhile.

That’s when Patricia turned to the baobab. She had already consulted with community members when researching products that could be developed from indigenous plants, and so knew that the tree had much to offer, especially in terms of nutrition. Patricia joined forces with the CSIR to ensure that all products had been thoroughly tested and therefore had a firm scientific grounding, and in 2016 was ready to start formulating. First up was a cereal, followed by a snack bar. Since then, Vida has introduced a range of smoothies and weight loss supplements; and is now working on sweets that will allow kids to benefit from the nutritional clout of the baobab while enjoying a tasty treat.

Patricia says that it took hard work to educate consumers about the benefits of the tree, especially as the fruit looks decidedly unappealing to a market accustomed to the bright colours of bananas and oranges. However, their growing interest is indicated by the growth in the natural foods sector, making it important for Vida to differentiate its products. “We’ve done this by drawing on my pharmaceutical background. We can state with pride that our range has been scientifically formulated to ensure all nutrients are available in a sustained release format that ensures optimal benefits.”

While Vida’s superfoods range may initially have been planned as a stop gap before its pharmaceutical and veterinary products come online, it has become an integral part of the company. With a formal launch of the full range of superfoods planned for stores across South Africa in 2021, Patricia is looking forward to a busy and exciting year.

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