Africa’s biggest pharmaceutical manufacturer Aspen Pharmacare has decided not to declare a dividend for the first time in almost a decade, as part of its measures to reduce its debt levels, it said on Wednesday.

Aspen has seen its share price drop 36% in 2019, after a series of blows compounded investor concerns about its high debt levels. Its share price closed on Wednesday at R84.93, less than a fifth of its R448.68 peak in January 2015.

“Taking into account our prioritisation of deleveraging the balance sheet, existing debt service commitments during the 2020 financial year and the short-term requirements of ongoing capital projects … the board has decided it would not be prudent to declare a dividend at this time,” Aspen said in its full-year to June financial statement.

Aspen was hit by, among other things, the delay in the sale of its infant milk business to French dairy company Lactalis and a £8m (R146m) fine it agreed to pay the UK's National Health Service after admitting to anti-competitive behaviour to the UK authorities. Its talks to sell a European business also fell through.

Aspen reported a 15% decline in headline earnings per share to 1,254c, down from a restated 1,475c in 2018.

The group said it had cut its net debt to R39bn, a significant improvement on its position at the end of December, when net debt stood at R53.5bn.

In the second half of the financial year, Aspen disposed of its infant milk business and sold a portfolio of products in Asia Pacific, which together yielded pretax cash proceeds of R12.3bn and a combined profit of R5.4bn.

“Despite the challenging environment, we have achieved most of our short-term goals, including the completion of the disposal of our nutritionals business and a portfolio of products distributed in Asia Pacific. We will continue with active assessment of value realisation opportunities to accelerate deleveraging our balance sheet,” Aspen CEO Stephen Saad said in an e-mailed statement.

Aspen said it was continuing to review its European business and exploring the scope for new partnerships in the territory. It expected to further reduce net borrowings during 2020, it said.