Innovation at heart of pharmaceutical multinational

In the three years that Frenchman Thibault Crosnier Leconte, country chair of Sanofi South Africa, has been in the country, his team has achieved pioneering results in the provision of drugs. Sanofi has collaborated with Government, the private sector and start-up companies

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South Africa has a unique disease burden being communicable diseases, however non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and mental health are on the rise. Diabetes is the 2nd leading cause of death in South Africa. Adding weight to this healthcare burden, the IDF Africa region has the highest percentage of undiagnosed people—3 in 5 people living with diabetes do not know that they have it. People with diabetes are at an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Here lies the challenge for South Africa: health conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease are not isolated to an income group or geographic region. Patients require treatment throughout South Africa. Government, already strained with the task of delivering healthcare to the masses that are not on a medical aid, faces a dilemma. Only 16.4 percent of the South African population (9.4 million people) had medical aid scheme cover in 2018, according to the 2019 General Household Survey (GHS) by StatsSA. Therefore, it is imperative for the private sector to partner with government because government on its own cannot address the challenges of inequitable access to healthcare.

Thibault Crosnier Leconte, country chair of Sanofi South Africa, shares his ‘realistic optimism’ about the future of South Africa. “While the economic situation is tense, there is a massive potential for growth,” he says. “The new administration is bringing in reforms and is focused on attracting investment to stimulate economic growth.”

Continuous investment

Sanofi South Africa is comprised of the South African, Botswana and Namibian divisions.The seven-storey structure in Midrand, Johannesburg, is strategically located: directly opposite Gautrain Grand Central Station. Besides being one of the largest employers in the pharmaceutical industry, Sanofi is one of a few multinational companies with a local manufacturing plant. The company prides itself on being socially and economically relevant to South Africa. The Pretoria factory, recognised as a global centre of excellence in the production of tuberculosis (TB) products for the South African and global markets, employs 250 people from nearby Mamelodi, also a strategic decision.

“Our long-term vision is to educate employees and develop their skills. Our employees are key assets,” shares Leconte. “We have on-boarded 193 learnerships, of which 122 became permanent employees. Sanofi is particularly proud that 10 have become first line managers.” Sanofi regards the recognition of gender balance and diversity as essential to successful transformation. In the past three years, Sanofi South Africa has increased the gender balance at top management level from 14 to 35 percent.

Leconte cautions that transforming an economy and developing a skilled workforce is a long journey.

“Sanofi has taken a conscious decision to invest in skills development and training to have a meaningful impact on the transformation of the workforce. The long-term impact should be transforming the economy. The pharmaceutical industry is used to long-term cycles”, he adds. “This is among the reasons that Sanofi is so successful. To have a sustainable impact you must create value consistently.”

A multitude of solutions

“We have a big portfolio, addressing TB, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other heavy burden diseases, mental health and consumer health. Sanofi provides a broad spectrum of medicines, including treatment for oncology, rare diseases and multiple sclerosis.”

Sanofi South Africa is the number one multinational in the South African pharmaceutical industry. “Our presence brings many different solutions. We bring innovative and affordable products. In the public sector our TB and mental health drugs are affordable, and we ensure continuity of supply.”

“Mental health is also a high disease burden,” Leconte explains. “Seventy percent of the local population is not diagnosed with mental health. This year we engaged with the Department of Health to roll out a mental health education programme to upskill healthcare workers including medical officers and nurses nationally.”

Innovation is essential. This includes finding a way to ensure that TB patients complete their course of treatment. TB remains the number one killer in South Africa. The country is presented with a unique situation. This is no longer the case elsewhere in the world. Leconte is very proud of a new product that Sanofi has developed to treat TB. “Rifapentine is going to be a game changer. Whereas TB treatment used to take over 12 months, Rifapentine will reduce treatment to once a week over three months. This is significant.”

Children are especially vulnerable. As country chair, Leconte is proud of the inroads the pharmaceutical company is making to ensure that South Africans have access to affordable vaccines. “Partnerships are crucial. Creating value for health professionals, the healthcare system, the company and employees. We have several partnerships; including transferring technology to Biovec for our Hexavalent vaccine. This is a six-in-one vaccine for several diseases including diphtheria, tetanus and polio.” The long-term partnership brings innovative vaccines to protect children from infectious diseases. The multinational has changed its approach in recent years. Digital health is revolutionising the industry. It kills inefficiencies and extends reach. “Now a rural doctor facing a patient can exchange questions with a specialist in urban areas. This reduces the number of cases needing physical referrals to specialists. The questions act as a filter to help doctors make the correct assessment. Cases can be solved at primary or secondary level. If needed, there will still be referrals to specialists.”

Shift from curative to preventative care

“Sanofi South Africa is dedicated to healthcare beyond supplying drugs at an affordable level. We are building new skills and careers within the industry. There must be a shift from curative to preventative cure.”

As the man at the helm of Sanofi South Africa, Leconte has the expertise gained from almost 20 years with the pharmaceutical multinational, including supply chain. Prior to heading up the South Africa operation, he worked in Russia for nine years and before that, Northern Europe and the UK. “I studied business and engineering and realised very early on the impact that healthcare has,” Leconte shares. “Now in top management, as I learn, I gain more responsibility. I have a passion for having the unique opportunity to make a difference into the lives of people – on so many different initiatives.”

Blessed with a suave appearance and a sharp intellect, Leconte is attentive and polite. “Listening is a key fundamental of leadership,” he shares. “The world is changing so quickly. A leader needs to consult to make the best decisions. When an organisation is big, you must unleash talent and empower people.” Leconte encourages staff to offer solutions for out-of-the-box innovation.

Sanofi South Africa has had the honour of being certified as Top Employer in the country for 14 years consecutively by Top Employers Institute.

What is the secret? Excellence in working conditions, development of talent and continuous improvement of human resources practices. The company differentiates itself as an innovative and progressive organisation. “We look forward to more health breakthroughs.” 

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