Doing it Naturally

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 15 April 2015

Natural medicines remain an important alternate remedy in Myanmar as local and foreign pharmaceutical companies look to gain a foothold in the market. A pioneer in the field of alternative medicine, Dr. Khin Maung Lwin founded Fame Pharmaceuticals in 1994. He graduated from the Institute of Medicine 2 (Yangon) in 1984, served in the Myanmar Army Medical Corps for more than five years and has also pursued post-graduate studies in the United States and the United Kingdom. Dr. Khin Maung Lwin spoke with The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Hsu Mon about the alternative medicine market in a country better known for its counterfeit drugs.

What were the major challenges when you first began producing alternative medicine products in Myanmar?

It’s been 21 years since I founded Fame Pharmaceuticals. Before I started my own factory, I worked with the government-owned BPI [Burma Pharmaceutical Industry]. Now it’s called the Myanmar Pharmaceutical Factory. The BPI welcomed the private sector to work with them. So we bought raw materials and equipment from foreign countries and provided them to BPI. We shared 50 percent of the finished goods [we purchased] between us. I also distributed products to states and divisions. I worked with BPI for 10 years and gained experience and knowledge. The major challenge was competing with fake medicines on the market. We could not compete with the price. Even though we knew they were fake, we couldn’t do anything. People were buying them and I had a terrible feeling about that. But this challenge remains today.

How well are your natural medicines performing on the market among the many varieties of medicine available?

There are two types of medicines in Myanmar. The first is TMHS [traditional medicines and health supplements] and the second is drugs from foreign countries. Even imported drugs include traditional medicines. We can calculate that about one third of imported drugs will be TMHS. Local manufacturers only produce traditional medicines here. Against both foreign-made health supplements and locally-made traditional medicines, we have about a 30 percent share of the market.

What are some of the difficulties in competing with other local medicine manufacturers?

I registered my products with the Department of Traditional Medicine and obtained a license. But we aren’t directly competing with other local companies; we’re going for organic products and they’re going for traditional medicine. We are the only company producing organic medicines here. Now organic products are becoming more popular in Myanmar. People are acquiring knowledge about the side effects of using chemical fertilizers. Organic farming is becoming popular too. It is not only about food but medicines too. We produce our products from organic farming without using fertilizers—so-called organic medicines. That’s why we have no competitors in the market, including even foreign TMHS companies.

Do you have your own organic farm?

We started our first organic farm in Pyin Oo Lwin Township, Mandalay Region, in 2003. It’s about 55 acres. But we couldn’t certify it then, because we don’t have a certification body here. We couldn’t just say by ourselves that it was an organic farm. We needed third-party certification. So we founded the Myanmar Organic Association here in 2006. The Myanmar Organic Agriculture Group under the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry checked over three years and approved us as an organic farm in 2010. So then it was only approved by a Myanmar independent body not by a foreign body, that’s why we contacted the Germany-based International Federation of Organic Agriculture about certification in 2010. Finally, we received a certificate from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) last year.

Do you think people in Myanmar prefer imported drugs over local, natural medicines?

Yes I do. That’s why I am currently talking to people from around the country on the benefits of natural medicines. Just promoting awareness that if we continue to use chemical fertilizers, our generation will soon be harmed. We will have to transform: number one, consumers and number two, farmers. If they keep using these chemical fertilizers, they will poison their bodies. I am currently promoting awareness on the side-effects. These poisons circulate from the soil, flow into streams after rains and then marine animals also suffer. There are a lot of difficulties in setting up organic farms. I’m writing books that promote the benefits of organic farms as well as appearing on talk shows via Myawaddy TV and also holding talks in universities.

What are the most sought-after natural medicines in Myanmar at the moment?

Number one is Uro Crush medicine. Many people are suffering from renal disease. Myself and my master Dr. Khin Tun were working on research about this disease. Three patients are currently suffering from it in Thingangyun General Hospital. This medicine is most in-demand and we can’t produce enough of it. All stocks have been sold out even before we’ve produced more. Demand is huge. Other popular medicines are also related to urinary diseases.

Products derived from organic farming can be expensive, how do you balance price and demand in the market?

Our products give value for money. I know that organic farming is quite expensive to set up. I have just spoken with farmers who want to set up organic farms. But low demand for organic products here, combined with high production costs, means the product prices are also high. Organic foods are also smaller than other generic foods. That’s why we need more public awareness about this. But for us, we don’t have competitors, so our fixed price becomes the market price at the time. People want the best medicines because they want to be well as soon as possible, that’s why they often don’t mind the price.

Do you export your organic products to foreign countries? How will your business be impacted by the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) due to come into effect at the end of 2015?

We have to compete with other ASEAN countries first. There are few organic TMHS medicines in the other 9 countries, so we have a possible market. We’re always in touch with these other countries to discuss the issue. That’s why we’re starting to export these medicines to ASEAN countries, as well as defending our market too. We opened a showroom in Singapore in January. The biggest market in the world is the United States, so as a second step, we’ve appointed an agent in the United States to distribute our natural medicines. It’s not that easy to sell our products there, although we’ve had our farm approved by USDA now. It is just the first step to launching our products there soon.

We are producing 76 items. We will sell 10 items in the US market first. We will also sign a memorandum of understanding with one of Thailand’s medicine distributors. Seven countries [Kuwait, India, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand] already sell FAME products through local distributors. What I want to say is we won’t just defend our products to compete with other countries in the AEC, we will counter-attack. We’re now preparing everything from prices to packaging and quality to be able to compete. If we can offer good service as well as quality, we will be ahead of the game.

This interview originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.