Loading ...

Nabil Mellah, iconoclast businessman

After earning his medicine degree at 23, Nabil Mellah built a solid pharmaceutical company, jostling the bureaucracy he never stopped criticizing. He loudly said what other businessmen were quietly thinking, at his own peril.

Photo de WikiStage Tizi Ouzou

When Nabil Mellah left the Wikistage in December 2018, he did it while moonwalking – the famous Michael Jackson dance –, under laughs and applause from the audience. It’s been over two years now since he disappeared from the media and business scene due to his imprisonment for “breach of exchange regulations” and “money laundering”, a case brought by the Ministry of pharmaceutical industry. Suddenly, nobody is laughing anymore. 

Nabil Mellah, 50, has always taken pleasure in performing communication tasks, with laughing eyes and a playful tone, serving anecdotes to journalists on a silver plate, with the added perk of a sober assessment of the economic situation, the business climate in Algeria as well as the bureaucratic aberrations. His analysis is often stamped with humor, interrupted with loud and booming laughter. An “ease” marinated in audacity, some would say, “pure folly”, others would think. 

He knew, however, that this freedom of tone came with a price. Following each media appearance, his administrators had to prepare themselves to receive visits from tax or commerce agents. Also, he used to say, to make sure “that nothing is left to chance, to scrupulously follow laws and regulations”. 

He used to comment on other businessmen who, due to their allegiances or due to fear of retaliation, chose to keep quiet. Facing the many pitfalls put on their paths, many Algerian investors who saw themselves too few to speak out, kept their suffering quiet. Nabil Mellah shined in business circles by loudly saying what others quietly thought. “I’m one of those dogs who bark all the time”, he stated amusingly. 

Here’s a compilation: “I tried one time to call an executive at a ministry. No answer. I called again 30 minutes later. I pretended to be Mr. “X” from the French Embassy, I was connected to that person immediately. Well, I, Nabil, the Algerian, fuzzy hair and brown eyes, green passport, I felt humiliated”, he confided in an interview to TSA in 2014.

“In this country there are two categories of people: those applauded and those who applaud”, he said in one of his recent Radio M interviews.

“Before anything else, we ought to solve the political problem in order to finally work in anticipation and planning and not in what I call “improximation”, that skilful mixture of improvisation and approximation and which cost Algeria dearly in all fields in recent years”, he stated in El Watan in 2019.

When at 16 years old he obtained his baccalauréat with excellent distinction – he was among young candidates who were honored by then president Chadli Bendjedid -, he chose to study medicine and obtained his diploma at 23.

Widely followed on social media, he is the inventor of the “tiribarkisme” neologism, which was very popular before the Hirak on Twitter. He worked hard to detect each slippage and every incongruity of Bouteflika’s Algeria. 

“He is brilliant and passionate, he loves Algeria and press freedom. He is also a professional and an uncompromising observer of Algeria. His analyses of the political and economic situation have always been relevant and he has always tried, on Twitter and on media outlets, to shed light on the regime’s excesses. He calls those “tiribarkisme””, said Abdallah Benadouda, a radio producer and a childhood friend of Nabil Mellah. 

At the same time, Nabil Mellah joined the “Mouwatana” movement, along with lawyer Zoubida Assoul, politician Sofiane Djilali and the activist Amira Bouraoui, asking Bouteflika to not seek a 5th term. Merinal’s boss is also one of the shareholders of Interface Media, the parent company of Maghreb Emergent and Radio M. 

Origins of a success story

Son of a former moudjahid, a retired engineer of the popular national army (ANP) and of a pharmacist, Nabil Mellah grew up near Algiers and was raised – according to his own words – with the “bligha” (the flip-flop used to hit kids). 

“I have known him since we were 6 years old. We all knew back then that Nabil was gifted with an above average intelligence. I was jealous and admiring of his school results”, said Abdellah Benadouda. 

When at 16 years old he obtained his baccalauréat with excellent distinction – he was among young candidates who were honored by then president Chadli Bendjedid -, he chose to study medicine and obtained his diploma at 23. He then took charge of the family pharmacy in La Glacière (Bachdjerrah) to develop his project of creating a pharmaceutical lab. 

The rest of the success story is well known: the Merinal company was born in 1997, its production unit was built in 1999, it became operational under license in 2002 and launched its first generic medicine in 2004. “Since the production unit became operational in 2002, Merinal chose a development strategy focused on generics and building up a product range belonging to the company”, states the company introduction written by its communications department. 

Nabil Mellah wanted Merinal to be perceived first and foremost as a producer of medicine, with eyes on international markets. 

He fiercely defended the interests of national producers, especially through the National Union of pharmacy operators (UNOP), for which he acted as general secretary for over ten years, then president from 2011 to 2013.

One of his main concerns during 2007 and 2008 was the prohibition on imports of any medicine made by local companies. “It was this battle that gave the decisive impulse to our activity and which resulted in our country having a solid and efficient pharmaceutical industry today, covering over 60% of national needs in medicine”, underlined the UNOP in a statement supporting Nabil Mellah. 

“Algerians don’t love each other anymore. Instead of looking for what unites in others, we look for what separates us”

Nabil Mellah

Despite all of this, when he left his position at UNOP, he couldn’t hide his disappointment. “In fact, this is useless because Algeria’s problem is not economic, it is political. We can put out the best propositions, it would be useless because the problem resides elsewhere”, he said in essence in many media appearances. 

His company, however, did not stop progressing, becoming through the years one of the most important actors in the Algerian pharmaceutical industry, one that can boast about being in line with international standards. 

Merinal hoisted itself up to become the third biggest medicine producer on the national market in terms of volume, behind Sanofi and Saidal, putting out a yearly 50 million sold units according to numbers published by the company. It also widened its international presence.It successfully passed the exports challenge (to 10 fellow African countries) since 2007 due to the temerity and ambition of its CEO.

A new investment was approved in 2019 by launching a second production unit in Khemis El Khechna. The latter was presented as one of the largest pharmaceutical compounds in the country with a production capacity of 150 million boxes per year, and covering many pharmaceutical specialties in different therapeutic fields (cardiology, gynecology, neurology, psychiatry…). A major share of this production would be meant for exports. 

In the long run, this industrial and distribution complex will create no less than 600 direct jobs (Merinal now employs 1000 people).

To develop his activities while preserving his independence, Nabil Mellah had to try his hand as a tightrope walker, and at “avoidance” policies. He made sure that the allowed budget would not exceed 5 billion dinars in order to avoid his company being subjugated to the National Investment Council (CNI).

“The power of the 9iw”

Merinal is also tied to a number of universities through conventions, they receive and train hundreds of interns. Nabil Mellah came to the “Wikistage Algiers” conference that took place at the Algiers Opera wearing jeans and a baseball cap, and explained that the worst crisis a company can face – other than a financial crisis – would be “a value crisis”. 

He put forward in front of the audience the main qualities a company boss needs: confidence, goodwill, humbleness and exemplarity. “OUr goal today is to take our country as far as possible, because I hope that you will stay in Algeria!”, he told the many students who came to see him speak. 

He underlined that “humbleness is foundational to progress” and lashed out at “chitta” (boot-licking) which, according to him, had become a “value” of Algerian society. “Algerians don’t love each other anymore. Instead of looking for what unites in others, we look for what separates us”, he deplored. He praised what he calls “the power of the 9iw”, the only thing that can dompt oversized egos, according to him. 

Nabil Mellah tried to implement the precepts he mentioned during his talk into his company, according to his collaborators. testimonies about the human values and the love Nabil Mellah holds for Algeria are numerous. Abdelkrim Boudra, a former spokesperson for the Nabni collective speaks of Nabil Mellah as an “example of the entrepreneurs we dream of for the new Algeria”. 

“He has always been independent and critical. When he was at FCE – a while before he resigned -, he opposed the advocacy for removing IBS and IRG for companies”, he said. “Nabil Mellah wrote to express his opposition, even though those taxes cost him billions. He was also very humble. Entrepreneurs of this kind are very few!”. 

Many of his supporters underline his commitment during the pandemic. “We would like to remind everyone that, during the solidarity campaign that public authorities organized to face the dire situation caused by Covid-19, Merinal was on the front line: the financial value of its contributions, of different kinds, exceeded 140 million dinars”, according to the testimony of UNOP.

Menial also sponsored the young fencer Meriem Mebarki in 2017. The athlete represented Algeria at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. ON its website, Merinal made an Albert Einstein quote its own: “Do not try to become a man of success, but a man of values instead”.