An online pharmacy is one that accepts orders via a website (or app) and then delivers the purchase through the mail or any other parcel delivery service. While this may sound similar to ordinary online retailing, the pharmaceutical industry is much more highly regulated in most countries including Zimbabwe.  Manufacturers, importers and retailers are all expected to adhere to certain rules and regulations. This article is supposed to only serve as a primer for those who already run fully registered pharmacies and want to add an online component or those who want to open a pharmacy that will solely operate over the internet. I will focus less on the requirements for starting a conventional pharmacy—those who want more information on this can look at this StartupBiz article, which also happens to be an excellent accompanying read for this one.

Educate yourself on the laws and regulations

As I mentioned earlier, this is a highly regulated line of business and you should educate yourself on all the various laws and regulations which you must avoid falling afoul of. As with most things that have to do with eCommerce, Zimbabwe does not yet have clear and explicit rules for online pharmacies. This may leave what some may at first think are loopholes. Do not be tempted to exploit these: as demonstrated by the recent butchering that cryptocurrency startups suffered at the hands of the RBZ, victories against regulatory agencies are rare and mostly reserved for bigger and better-funded companies like Econet. Smaller companies will be squeezed dry by their legal counsels before the court battles have even begun.

To run a pharmacy the licenses you need include those from the Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe, the Health Professions Authority and the Pharmacist Council. You should also be aware that there are certain restrictions against advertising prescription medicine. There are even more restrictions against importing medicines e.g you cannot import unregistered ones and you still need a license for importing those that are registered. This means that those exporters from neighbouring countries who are always offering you “sweet deals” will not be as useful in this line of business.

Now let us explore three of the models that you can use in the operation of your online drugstore. It is possible that regulations do not apply equally to them, but the relevant regulators may disagree so consult with them or seek the services of a lawyer just to be certain.

Option 1: Skirt around the legal definition of “pharmacy”

There are plenty of substances, medications, tools and devices that appear to be only (or mostly) sold in pharmacies because they would be out of place anywhere else. In Zimbabwe what immediately jumps to mind are what we call “over the counter” medicine. While you still need to do your research on how exactly the regulators feel about these, we all know that aspirin based pain killers like Cafemol and Pain-eeze are sold even by street vendors. You can start by selling these online and it is unlikely that you will get into any trouble. Other potential (but unverified) candidates include latex gloves, syringes (and their needles), pregnancy test kits, protein supplements, laxatives and medications for the common cold.

Your main strategy will be to avoid the legal definition of a pharmacy and thus some of the responsibilities and obligations that come with it. While you will still need to follow regulations in sourcing your inventory, selling to the public will come with fewer if any regulations.  This also means that you cannot even remotely suggest you are a pharmacy in your marketing efforts otherwise you will found yourself fighting off several government agencies at the same time. You should also do your best to avoid being duped into selling to minors—this will get you in trouble no matter how tame you think those products are. In a country fortunate enough to have little to no hard drugs on the streets, pharmacies are the first port of call for teenage delinquents.

Option 2: Register your pharmacy in full but don’t fill prescriptions online

There are plenty of medications out there that while not requiring prescriptions can still only be sold by registered pharmacies. If you do not want to deal with prescriptions but still want to operate more professionally (and with more products) than the previously suggested approach, you can register your pharmacy complete with a physical location that meets the minimum requirements demanded by regulators. While such a facility will still need to meet the requirements demanded of a conventional pharmacy including a resident pharmacist, you can still protect yourself from the legal consequences of unscrupulous people (and minors) submitting fraudulent prescriptions—it is harder to spot fakes when you are interacting with customers online so you can reserve filling prescriptions for physical visits.

Option 3: Operate a fully-fledged online pharmacy

In this case, your online pharmacy will sell almost everything sold by its physical counterparts and also fill prescriptions. Some of the most reputable international pharmacies operating online also employ physicians who not only offer consultations to patients but also verify prescriptions and recommend medications—the so-called pharmacy initiated medications.

Prescriptions can be photographed or scanned for submission. Optionally you can offer attending doctors the option of securely signing into your platform and directly entering and submitting prescriptions for their customers.

Choose a delivery solution

Medicines and medical devices, whether over the counter or not, have storage and handling guidelines. The most important of these when it comes to deliveries is temperature. You must choose packaging and delivery options that will not subject your products to temperatures outside the recommended ranges. In general, Zimpost does not allow sending of medication using either its postal or courier service. Therefore your best options are those services which offer what they like to call express delivery (and its other differently worded counterparts). What is most important is that your package will not be exposed to sunlight or any other source of heat which will compromise the effectiveness (and even safety) of its contents before it reaches its intended recipient.

Putting everything together

Since this will be an eCommerce operation, you will need to get a website developed. This means buying a domain, paying for hosting (usually monthly), integrating payment solutions and paying a good developer to build your platform. While aesthetics are important do not confuse a designer who makes beautiful looking websites with one who is good at creating applications. A poorly designed platform, no matter how good looking will subject you to more customer complaints than you can handle.

 In Zimbabwe, Paynow is currently one of the best solutions for handling online payments. You can also accept payments from outside the country allowing diasporans to directly pay for their locally based loved ones’ medication.

You should also state and prominently display your licenses and certifications on the site. This will build trust and confidence among the public, most of whom will be hesitant about engaging your services.

How to handle marketing

Since the law does not allow you to market prescription medication to the public you will have to market your pharmacy instead. You can however still market your “over the counter” products.  Buy Facebook and Google ads, engage local bloggers, buy advertisement space on the websites of popular local publications such as the Herald and Newsday. You can also use the usual tactics of providing doctors, nurses and health institutions with stationery, office supplies and calendars.

As mentioned earlier this article is just supposed to pique your interest and give you a glimpse of what is possible in the modern world. However, none of the information contained here should serve as a substitute for more comprehensive research or legal advice. Do your best to abide by the law and when you are unsure of anything, directly consult the various regulatory agencies mentioned here or your lawyer. If you have any questions, suggestions or additions do not hesitate to email me.