Hamza Usman G'09 on Providing Safe, Affordable Medicine In Karachi

Hamza Usman G’09 turned a gap in the pharmaceutical market into a force for social good, laying the foundations for safer, more professional pharmacies in Pakistan’s biggest city. 

Hamza Usman

In my six years as an entrepreneur, I’ve learned that marketing matters; not only does it determine if your company sinks or swims, but, if done right, it can also have a positive impact on society. After graduating from AUP in 2009, I pursued a career working with Pakistan’s largest marketing services group, which eventually led me down the road of entrepreneurship with my own retail brand: Pharmacie Plus. Not only have we grown into a successful chain-store business, but we’ve also had a marked impact on good business practices across the Pakistani pharmaceutical industry.

Setting up my own company would not have been possible without the education I received at AUP. In August 2008, I arrived in Paris; it was exhilarating to be around so many people from different nationalities and backgrounds. There was a world of experiences and opportunities to discover in the City of Light. The following months would lead to eye opening coursework, lifelong friendships and memorable experiences. My program at AUP catalyzed my career; it combined a strong foundation in theory and application, strengthened by real world case studies. Much of the theoretical work in the Branding course with Professor Peter Barnet or Material Culture and Values course with Professor Julie Thomas taught me about consumer perception and how it influences people’s lives and consumption habits. Once the program ended, I used the connections I had built at AUP to land an internship with Young & Rubicam in Paris before heading back home to Pakistan after many years abroad, unsure of what lay in store. 

A Pharmacie Plus store in Karachi, Pakistan

Hamza Usman Pharmacy in Pakistan

The Karachi skyline. Photo: Muhammad Jawaid Shamshad

Karachi skyline

Hamza Usman pharmacy

Three years later, an opportunity found me. Karachi is Pakistan’s largest city, yet at the time it had no chain-store pharmacy and no brand dedicated to patient healthcare at a retail level. I learned that over 30% of medicines sold in Pakistan were counterfeit; in a city of over 20 million people, only a handful of medical retailers were considered “genuine.” Doctors would often advise that medicines only be purchased from a place that was considered credible. Further study revealed that less than 22% of so-called pharmacies had a refrigerator to store medicines properly – and even fewer employed a full-time pharmacist. 

I realized things needed to change. Karachi deserved a dependable pharmacy chain that would prioritize consumer health and counter the misconceptions fueling the counterfeit medicine industry. Inspired by my experiences in France, Pharmacie Plus was born. We began as a single brick-and-mortar pharmacy that emphasized consumer health and well-being, centering on transparent procurement, climate-controlled medicine storage and top-notch service. In order to do this, we followed appropriate cold-storage methods, tracking batch numbers and expiration dates, and communicated the importance of genuine medicines and proper storage methods to our consumers. To provide better service, we even had an in-house nurse with a custom-built consultation room to conduct diagnostic tests and provide vaccination services, which later evolved into a small clinic for medical practitioners. 

Our goal was to start a dialogue with consumers about their health needs and educate them about the many problems in the Pakistani pharmaceutical industry. 

– Hamza Usman

Our goal was to start a dialogue with consumers about their health needs and educate them about the many problems in the Pakistani pharmaceutical industry. Our priority was not to focus solely on sales but to develop long-term relationships with loyal customers and brands. We were the first business to reach out to many local organic cottage industries in order to retail their products in areas like health and beauty, homeopathy or diet. We brought the issues of genuine medicines and medicine storage to the public and highlighted some of the corrupt practices prevalent in the industry, differentiating ourselves from our competitors by promoting health and well-being.

Today, our biggest challenge continues to be consumer behavior regarding discounts. Medicine prices have been artificially restricted by the government, meaning there have been no price increases in line with inflation since 2001. As most consumers are accustomed to purchasing medicines at stores that offer large discounts, a terrible “discount culture” has saturated the market; it is common to see recommended retail prices slashed by as much as 20%. At Pharmacie Plus, we only purchase medicines from licensed distributors, which means our margins are limited; other retailers purchase low-quality, fake, expired or repackaged medicines at a cheaper rate and turn those savings into “discounts” for consumers. The expectation of a discount is a challenge that plagues us daily, but it’s not possible to cut prices without compromising our business integrity. That’s simply not something we are willing to do. 

Our strategy has therefore been to challenge these expectations as much as possible, creating a brand that reflects our legitimacy. We have invested in comfortable shops that are climate-controlled, thereby displaying our seriousness toward storing medicines appropriately in a clean environment. We ensure customers can browse an additional inventory of health and lifestyle goods, cosmetics and specialized items to increase the value of the in-store experience. By focusing on good customer service, we ensure brand loyalty and keep up with our lower-priced competitors. Though we have faced resistance, over time, customers have begun to tell us how much they appreciate what we do; they often emphasize how the medication they’ve purchased from us is an improvement over what they were buying before. It is gratifying when friends and family commend me on our work or laud their latest shopping experiences in our stores.  

Competition has increased now that other pharmacy chains have entered the market. It is satisfying to see how much of their brand positioning is “borrowed” from ours (often verbatim). This is an immense source of pride for us as we were the ones to raise the issue of genuine medicines in a country where a lack of knowledge and information had led to unhealthy practices. Similarly, we were also able to bring the issue of medicine storage to the forefront in a city mired by heat and humidity – an aspect our competitors are starting to embrace more and more.  

Launching a company from scratch forced me to consider how I wanted my brand to be perceived by consumers – it enabled me to prioritize the values I wanted to represent and how I wanted customers to appreciate that ethos. The best advice I can give to other AUP students is not to be daunted when entering a new space; oftentimes, challenging market norms and daring to be different is enough of an edge to create consumer awareness. I am exceptionally thankful to my family, my friends and, ultimately, my team for pulling through these past years, which haven’t been easy, but have definitely been fulfilling