" AfRO Shines A Light: Florence Mulenga "

11.04.2020

In March, IPSF-AfRO Media & Publications subcommittee had a chat with Florence Mulenga, future director-general of WHO, a budding pharmacist, medical inventor and multiple award-winner. Florence is shattering glass ceilings and rewriting the narrative for pharmacists and pharmacy students, not only in Zambia, but in every part of the world. In this interview, Florence takes us through her journey as an inventor: the highs and the lows. Savor this interview to know the source of her inspiration, grit and gumption. Enjoy. Stay challenged. 

 

IPSF-AfRO: Good afternoon, Florence. I hope you are having a great day. And I hope Coronavirus is  under control in Zambia. 😊 Thank you so much for accepting to be interviewed by us. 😊😊

Florence: Hello πŸ˜‡ Thank you for reaching out to me. It's an honour. Fortunately, Coronavirus is largely under control in Zambia, only three confirmed cases so far.

IPSF-AfRO: I see. Could you tell us about yourself? Who is Florence Mulenga? 😊

Florence: My name is Florence Mulenga. I turned 21 in January and I am currently pursuing my bachelor's degree in pharmacy at the University of Zambia. I am the only child of Evelyn Kabesha (mother) and Cosmas Mulenga (father). My father died when I was four. My mother and I have always lived with her siblings who are like my own siblings so I've never really felt the absence of siblings. I completed high school at the age of 15 in 2014. I love writing, I have a very wild imagination. I write poetry, fictional stories, etc. I love photography and public speaking (it allows me to make a huge positive impact on people), and I think I would make a really good actress if given a chance...lol. I am a Christian and I serve in the media department. I have two other additional names which I gave myselfπŸ˜…. Jedidiah (got it from the Bible) and Mumba (stole it from my mom). I am passionate about science simply because it fascinates me each and every day.

IPSF-AfRO: This is interesting. 😁 I see you are a multipotentialite. How do you manage to integrate your diverse expressions so effectively? Which year of study are you in?

Florence: I am currently in my fourth year and our program is five years. There's a popular saying: You'll never work a single day when you're doing what you love. I really love the things I do, that's why I can integrate the diverse interests. People love football so they watch football at leisure. I love writing so I write/read/watch stories that broaden my writing/science/photography/public speaking skills at my leisure. It's just basically how you love to spend your free time. So it's just me basically doing what I love to do. And they just all blend into one boat. Unlike school, I'm not graded for it πŸ˜…, so I do it however and whenever I feel like.

IPSF-AfRO: Fantastic! I can imagine how rounded a student you are, given the exposure and learnings you have given yourself. 😊 Why did you choose to study pharmacy? Have you identified your specific interest in pharmacy or healthcare generally? In which area would you like to practice?

Florence: When I was in high school, I wanted to study medicine but my interest was drugs (how to make them and how they work). I had zero knowledge of pharmacy. I never knew you had to study pharmacy to know what I wanted to know. The moment I knew, my oh my! I knew that this was what I wanted. My area of interest is industrial pharmacy (drug design and development) and pharmacoeconomics.

IPSF-AfRO: Interesting! Why those areas? 😊

Florence: It actually shocks me to know that only few people are interested in knowing how to design and develop drugs, but hey, people have different desires. We all can't do the same things. I feel I can help save many lives if I had that kind of knowledge (drug design and development) at my fingertips. For Pharmacoeconomics, I want to be able to work with the World Health Organization in comparing the value of one pharmaceutical drug or drug therapy to another in order to advise how best we can improve the quality of life especially for the less privileged.

IPSF-AfRO: Interesting! I see that you are motivated by a desire to offer solutions to the world. That's both laudable and enviable. 😊 So tell me, which of the following do you prefer?

Swimming or Jogging?

Writing or Speaking?

Solitude or Public gatherings?

Home-made meals or To eat out?

Florence: πŸ˜‡ Thank you. Oh wow, I love such questions: 

*Definitely swimming (but I don't know how to swimπŸ™ˆ).

*Speaking. . . I love writing but I prefer speaking out what I've written because you get to know exactly how I meant to say it.

*Solitude. . . Something about having some peace and quiet once in a while. It helps you think more. 

*Definitely home-made meals. . . My mother is the best chef I've met in the world.

IPSF-AfRO: Lovely! By the way, Happy Mother's Day to your mum. March represents the International Women's month. How do you perceive the role of womenβ€” at home, in the workplace, and in national and global development?

Florence: Thank you so much on her behalf. πŸ˜‡ Happy Mother's Day to your mother as well. β™₯ I actually think women are more powerful than they think. In a home, you're literally the economist. You manage all the resources in a home. Because of this natural ability, women are capable of running a company, a nation and the entire globe efficiently and effectively with the right education and platform.

IPSF-AfRO: I agree with you, Florence.  Do you think the women are ready for the demands of gender equality?

Florence: Look at someone like Malala who is willing to take a bullet for girls to be educated in her country, I definitely think women are ready for the demands that come with gender equality. Malala says that the bullet that was shot to her head actually made her more fearless. You can imagine how ready she is to take on the world πŸ‘‘ and face the demands of gender equality. But when it comes to physical strength, I've seen a lot of women step back. Of course, I don't think most of us are ready because of our biological makeup. But my simple advice is that if you know something is beyond your physical strength, don't go for it simply because you want to prove a point. Go for it because you're passionate about it and be humble enough to ask for help from a man where needed but don't be lazy. Try it out. And when you know you can't manage, ask for help.

IPSF-AfRO: Nice perspective, Florence. Thank you very much. Which persons do you admire and look up to?

Florence: I look up to a number of people for different reasons.

1. Life inspiration: My mother; she's very hardworking. She has fed a lot of people and has sponsored a lot of people through school by running small businesses she started on her own from scratch. She brought an end to bullying at her high school and up till now, there is no bullying at her former high school. She stands up for what is right, regardless of whom she's standing up against. Academically, she did a certificate in Early Childhood Teaching and graduated with a distinction. My mother was basically my teacher when I was growing up. That's the reason I started high school earlier than most people in my country. 

2. Invention Inspiration: Dr. John S. Pemberton invented Coca‑Cola in 1886 in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Pemberton tried it out on customers at his local chemist, Jacobs' Pharmacy, where it proved so popular it immediately went on sale at five cents a glass. To me, this is mind blowing. From 1886 till now, People are still drinking Coca-Cola. His invention hasn't changed much ever since. ToMeaning, he came up with something for generations to come. His people must be doing something right. 

3. The Director General of World Health Organization: Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus; You would have to read his profile, to get the goosebumps I get, to be inspired by him. One of the major inspiring qualities about him is that: Tedros was elected as Director-General of the World Health Organization by the World Health Assembly on 23 May, 2017, becoming the first director-general who is not a medical doctor. It gives hope that becoming the DG of W.H.O doesn't require you to be subjected to one type of health program. You can become the DG even if you did another health program. 

4. Apostle Fredrick Kaluluma: He has led many youths to Christ with his unique ways of running a church. His words are wise and He he is a mentor, not only spiritually but academically too. He always teaches us the importance of education as a Christian and how learning never stops. I advise people to listen his podcasts. 

Angelina Jolie inspires me because she has a heart for refugees and I have a heart for refugees too. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is actually one of my favourite departments in the UN. Aya Chebbi who is currently the AU youth envoy,  Natasha Wang Mwansa who is a youth and health advocate, the Chibuta family (This family has always taught me the importance of education and I have seen it in their lives). . . All these people inspire me too. 

IPSF-AfRO: Amazing lineup you've got there! I see now the reason for your grit and intelligence. I see that your interest in science motivated you to design a prototype which provides health solutions to asthmatic patients. Could you tell me more about your project? 

Florence: Oh, yeah. . . My invention is a body spray that prevents asthma attacks. You use it as a body spray but the ingredients are meant to target the receptors in the respiratory tract causing anti-inflammation, decongestion and minimal relaxation of the bronchial muscles while leaving you with a fresh smell. My invention has been restricted to the concept phase because of the number of registrations I have to do in my country. But even at its concept  phase, I won a couple of national awards and nominations for it. Because of the concept, I was also sponsored to pitch my idea in Capetown, South Africa at the Africa women innovation and empowerment forum at the same time. I won an award as the best student startup in Zambia at the FemBioBiz Acceleration program and also at the Zambia entrepreneurship summit. I was also nominated for the Southern Africa startup awards. Currently, I have been nominated for the national youth awards (an initiative by the Zambian government).  I am currently in the patenting phase of my project.

IPSF-AfRO: Wonderful!!! Congratulations on your awards and nominations, Florence. This is truly remarkable. Your invention does bring with it an interesting perspective. I admire the fact that you are breaking boundaries as a pharmacy student, thereby charting a unique and enviable path for yourself. What challenges have you encountered as an inventor cum pharmacy student?

Florence: I've faced many challenges actually. The first one being finances of course. You can't just wake up and produce a pharmaceutical product and it goes directly into the market. I need to go to a pharmaceutical research center. I need certain expertise to come on board. I need to test the product once we produce it, see what to work on and add more innovations to it. We have to do clinical trials. But when you look at all these steps, I'm a student and it's quite cumbersome to go about these steps when you have school to think about. It's also challenging when you don't have that financial support. But I have been moving step by step because one should never give up. Registering the idea is one of the steps, then pitching the idea to pharmaceutical companies. I am very much ready for those willing to partner. I've been able to overcome these challenges by taking one step at a time and staying calm. In the early days, I panicked because I was worried about how I would achieve the goal. But right now, I am calm and am taking things one step at a time. Whatever opportunity I find, I grab a hold of it and make use of it, for example this interview. One day, someone might get interested and decide to partner, That's me grabbing a hold of opportunities.

IPSF-AfRO: Bold steps you've taken so far, Florence. I do hope you get the partnerships you require to scale your inventon. Could you share with me how you started out with your invention? How did you translate your idea to a reality?

Florence: A competition called FemBioBiz (a southern African biosciences business-based competition) was advertised on social media and the girl who won in 2018 talked to us about it. Her name is Godfridah Masaiti and she literally inspired us to participate. She was a pharmacy student by then but now she's a graduate. I told myself it was time to get out of that shell and make use of my pharmaceutical knowledge. I prayed about it and the idea came to me when I was about to give up...lol. I thought about how asthmatic people rarely get to use deodorant and I thought that it was an injustice to them. I thought: How can I incorporate my pharmacognosy and  pharmacology into creating a body spray that can smell good and act as a medicinal product at the same time? Throughout the competition, I didn't need a prototype. All I needed were scientific explanations to prove that it could work. The judges were experts so they could tell if something might not work. During my spare time, I tried making a prototype but it was too raw for my liking. It needed to be refined and I needed certain resources which I did not have. Thus far, I have been pitching my concept, trying to see how I can work with the available materials. But not all the materials I need are readily available. So right now it's a matter of making use of the opportunities I get to reach to the next level of my findings.

IPSF-AfRO: I like that you are taking your steps, one opportunity at a time. How do the active ingredients reach the respiratory tract if they are administered as aerosols on the skin?

Florence: Because of less research, I don't want it to go on the skin at the moment. For now, it ought to be on your clothes especially so that there's constant inhalation without much effort while carrying out your day-to-day activities. The active ingredient targets the Ξ²2 (beta2) adrenergic receptors, causing smooth muscle relaxation. This will lead to a mild dilation of the bronchial passages. We don't want excessive dilation because this is just a prophylaxis (prevention). It will be more useful in managing chronic asthma. A few other active components have been added as well for anti-inflammatory and decongestion purposes.

IPSF-AfRO: Well done, Florence. I see your invention shows antihypertensive tendencies. Can it be used be hypertensive patients?

Florence: I wanted to extend my research to hypertension as well but I was advised to focus on one thing, which is asthma. Once we are successful with one step, we can move on to the next research, which is hypertension. There are too many receptors to target when it comes to hypertension. Too many side effects to  look out for. It needs its own research and full attention. So for now, I can only share my research on asthma.

IPSF-AfRO: I think that's a wise call, Florence. If you had the ability and resources to solve a major problem in Africa, what would that be and why?

Florence: I would like to solve the issue of homelessness, especially amongst refugees. The reason is simple, most refugees don't know where to start from. Their whole life is taken away from them. If I had the resources, I would partner with the UNHCR to build a huge modernized refugee camp. It would be the biggest camp in the world. We would help them start their lives afresh. I can go on and on about this but my point is, if I had resources, I would solve the issue of homelessness, not only among refugees but also among other people who genuinely don't have shelter.

IPSF-AfRO: You truly have a heart of gold. I pray you achieve your purest desires. Was there a point in your life when you experienced the impostor syndrome? If yes, do you mind sharing the experience?

Florence : Many times actually. I always felt like I didn't deserve all the awards but I overcame it when I learnt about "Grace". . . Grace is undeserved favour from God. If I felt I deserved the awards, it wouldn't be called Grace. So to me, all this you see is called Grace.

IPSF-AfRO: Hmmmm! Indeed, we all need grace. Nonetheless, I must say that those awards and nominations are reflective of your hard work. Have you been active in your local pharmacy students association? If yes, kindly share your experience. 😊

Florence: I would say I am an advocate. I've advocated for pharmacy through the association and that's how most pharmacy students knew about me before my project.  I am not so active when it comes to leadership roles. I once vied to serve as the Vice-president of my association but I didn't win. I gave up not because I didn't win but simply because the leaders that stepped in really took our association to the level where I wanted to see it at. To me, that was my major goal, to see our association active and involving the people. The leaders delivered, so I'm at peace. 

IPSF-AfRO: I see that you like to fill a void of leadership, if you find one. Seeing that Africa isn't where we want her to be, what role do you think you will play in building the Africa of our dreams?

Florence: As a pharmacist in Africa, I want to ensure each African country has a powerful pharmaceutical industry, manufacturing its own medicines. We have the potential but we don't believe in ourselves. I want us to gain that full confidence of manufacturing our own medicines. Only a few countries in Africa are doing that. Each African country should also have strong pharmaceutical research centers. We have so many plants of pharmaceutical importance like vincristine but we would rather other people carried out research for us. I say, Let's carry out our own research and make our own medicines. We can always ask help from outside Africa when we are stuck, there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, we can learn from them and grasp the concepts. We should be encouraging our governments to invest in such because once you start making your own medicines, it may seem as a loss at first because of the billions involved but within a few years, the economy starts to grow. Drug export then becomes a viable source of income for us. Africa has all the resources. We just lack machinery. It is our duty to advise our leaders to look into these things so that we help with the economic growth rate. I believe the pharmaceutical business is the second richest business in the world. Let's work on production, so that as we save lives, we also help to boost the economy.

IPSF-AfRO: Well said, Florence. I couldn't agree more. I must appreciate you for your time and thoughts in this interview. Do you have any final words for IPSFites?

Florence: Thank you so much. I had a lovely time. Let's continue to have a oneness that never dies, And let's stay motivated and determined to keep learning and save lives from the knowledge we gain. Learning never stops. . . .

IPSF-AfRO: Apt! So apt! You are so full of wisdom. I had a great time with you. I was challenged by your thoughts. I look forward to what you will achieve in Africa going forward. I wish you the very best with your invention.

Florence : Thank you, Ms. Taiwo Olawehinmi. Great thanks to IPSF for giving me such an opportunity. I am greatly humbled by this. I remain sincerely grateful. Kind regards.

IPSF-AfRO: Do you mind sharing your social media handles? I'm sure people will love to connect with you. 😊

Florence: Sure thing. I'm only active on Facebook and LinkedIn though. πŸ˜…

Facebook: Florence Jedidiah Mumba Mulenga

LinkedIn: Florence Mulenga

IPSF-AfRO: Thank you so much. All the best, Florence.

 

This interview was conducted by Taiwo Olawehinmi, on the auspices of IPSF-AfRO Media & Publications subcommittee. We do hope that Florence Mulenga's story gave you a watershed experience, challenging you to be fearless and undeterred in the pursuit of your goals, while living for the greater good of others, of Africa.