Global healthcare giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) began operating in Cambodia almost two decades ago via local distributors before setting up a legal entity in-country in 2013.The Cambodian arm of GSK covers the company’s pharmaceutical and vaccine products and employs about 50 people across the country. Here, Deborah Gildea, GSK’s general manager in Cambodia, discusses the operations and ambitions of the largest pharmaceutical company in the Kingdom.
Why did GSK decide to come to Cambodia?
Lamb: GSK has a long history and a significant presence throughout Southeast Asia. Although Cambodia has a dynamic economy and young workforce the country’s healthcare system has developed more slowly than other parts of the region, and we believe that GSK can play a significant role in developing the healthcare market here and in expanding patient access to quality medicines and vaccines.
Is it important for GSK to provide access to medicine in developing countries such as Cambodia?
Lamb: Yes. We are a global healthcare company dedicated to improving quality of life… regardless of where [people] live, or their ability to pay. This is evidenced by GSK being ranked number one in the Access to Medicines Index since the index was first published in 2008. The index rates the top 20 research-based pharmaceutical companies against access indicators for the developing world.
In Cambodia we have repeatedly reduced the prices of some of our key antibiotics, introduced a range of high quality, low priced medicines to meet the needs of lower income patients and expanded our distribution coverage to ensure that we can reach every province in Cambodia. In addition to this, we reinvest 20% of the profits that we make in Cambodia into a number of health infrastructure projects.
A report by the Access to Medicine foundation that you mention found that multinational pharma companies are granting more licences to companies from developing countries to make and distribute generic versions of their medicines. Is this something that GSK has explored in Cambodia?
GSK has a strong track record in improving capability in countries through technology transfers and other knowledge sharing. However, this cannot be a blanket approach as each country has different needs and different capabilities. This is not an area of focus for us in Cambodia in the short term but we will continue to review this as the healthcare environment matures here.
How easy or difficult is doing business in Cambodia?
Lamb: Setting up a business in Cambodia is relatively straightforward. One of our key challenges is dealing with the fact that the local infrastructure – such as internet connectivity, use of electronic payments etc – is still limited, particularly outside of Phnom Penh.
Another challenge is attracting and retaining talent in what is a very tight local labour market. But, having said that, one of the biggest pluses for me is that I’m fortunate enough to lead a fantastic team of local employees. Their thirst to develop and grow, along with their willingness to embrace new ways of working, is inspiring.
What advice would you give to other multinationals considering beginning operations in Cambodia?
Lamb: If you have not worked in a developing country before, you will need to expect the unexpected and be very patient when things do not quite run to plan. Overall, though, the positives of working in Cambodia far outweigh the challenges.
Has the growing British business community been helpful for GSK as relative newcomers?
Lamb: Everyone has been extremely welcoming. It’s very helpful to be able to ring someone up for some advice when you meet a new problem. Most issues have come up before and it can save a lot of time to learn from those who have gone before you.
Furthermore, the profile of the British Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia [BritCham] is strengthening rapidly following Olivia Widen’s appointment as executive director last year. This is giving a stronger voice to UK businesses in Cambodia and should encourage more of them to consider Cambodia as a market to invest in.
Do you think that Cambodia offers good opportunities for British companies?
Lamb: Certainly. Consumers in Cambodia hold products from European companies in high esteem. Many people typically associate established brands with quality. For historical reasons French products are often the first choice, but British products come a very close second.
By Jeffrey Lamb, Head of UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) Cambodia.