Young entrepreneurs see opportunity in manufacturing ICU beds

Mungai Gathogo (left) and Joseph Kamau, skilled welders based in Githunguri, explain the different features of their viral unique locally made hospital bed, during an interview with Standard, on Monday, July 13 2020. The two, are one of few artisans who have come out to showcase their skills amid concerns over lack of isolation facilities in counties.[David Njaaga, Standard]

Mungai Gathogo and Joseph Kamau have always been ones to spot opportunity long before others can.

In 2017, aged just 22, Gathogo contested for the Kiambu County senate seat while Kamau, Gathogo’s longterm friend and collaborator in their current venture ran for the County Assembly seat of Githunguri Subcounty.

Both were unsuccessful, but that did not deter them, as Kamau tells Standard.

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the duo saw a worthwhile opportunity. They swiftly registered a manufacturing and supplies firm, kicking off by supplying face masks and sanitizers. However, just a few months in, the business lost its profitability.

“Everyone got into that business and it became saturated. So we thought about doing something else, an innovative thing where we would not have competition. That is when we decided to make beds,” says Gathogo.

Just three weeks ago, the Gathogo and Kamau ventured into manufacturing hospital beds, ideal for the Intensive Care Unit and High Dependency Unit, never mind that neither of them had prior experience in manufacturing.

“We are just entrepreneurs. When you see an opportunity you quickly rush into it,” Gathogo tells Standard from their workshop in Githunguri, Kiambu.

Kamau nods in agreement, adding, “We knew there is a need for these beds. Procuring this bed from China takes between three weeks and one month. Another advantage is that here we can modify the bed depending on the preference of the client”.

Mungai Gathogo (left) and Joseph Kamau, skilled welders based in Githunguri, explain the different features of their viral unique locally made hospital bed, during an interview with Standard, on Monday, July 13 2020. [David Njaaga, Standard]

The duo’s bed is a high-end multipurpose one, complete with heavy-duty wheels, a drip stand, table stand to allow patients to have meals easily, space for the storage of an oxygen tank and hideaway bed rails. The bed is adjustable to the liking of the patient and can be disassembled for easier portability.

The adjustment of the bed is made possible by a manual adjustment mechanism, but Kamau and Gathogo tell Standard that they are currently working on adding an electric mechanism so patients can adjust the bed on their own, aided by Paul Wangaroro, their friend who is a mechanical engineer.

The entrepreneurs tell Standard that they already sold the prototype for Sh 150,000. However, the other beds are priced at Sh 65,000, which allows them to make quite a profit, considering that the estimated cost of producing each bed ranges between Sh 40,000 and Sh 45,000.

Gathogo and Kamau assemble the beds from scratch at their workshop in Githunguri, Kiambu County.

“The only components we source for elsewhere are the wheels and the raising gear,” notes Gathogo.

Since posting photos of the innovative prototype on Facebook on Sunday night, the response has been overwhelming, the duo tells Standard.

By yesterday afternoon, they had received more than 100 inquiry calls from potential calls, including hospital administrators, medical personnel and county governments, some calling from as far as Lamu.

The duo says they are confident that they will receive numerous orders due to the current urgent need of ICU beds in several counties across Kenya. Kamau and Gathogo also express optimism that they can efficiently fulfill all the orders they get. While they are currently leasing their equipment, including a spraying machine and welding machine, they tell Standard they are certain that with their own equipment, they can produce at least 10 beds daily, while increasing the number of their employees from three to more than 20, including welders, carpenters and painters.

But while Gathogo and Kamau just started manufacturing beds barely a month ago, Meshack Otieno, a self-taught welder based in Juja, Kiambu County, has been assembling beds for the last two years.

On Friday evening, he posted pictures of his ICU beds to an unexpectedly ecstatic reception on social media. Not long after posting the photos on the Facebook account of his ‘jua kali’ workshop, it was reposted across numerous Facebook groups and pages and made its way to other social media platforms like Twitter.

It has been an overwhelming last few days, Otieno reveals. When Standard visited, Otieno’s workshop was teeming with clients and about five engaged workers. So far, he has sold seven beds and is assembling more.

“I have gotten numerous orders already. I have not counted them, but they are many,” Otieno says. With a smile, he also reveals that even a certain county government has shown interest, although he admits that he is unsure if they will follow through and buy from him.

Since 2015, Otieno has been welding gates and doors. It was not until 2018 that he got the novel idea to assemble beds, thanks to one of his clients, who owned a hospital in Murang’a.

“My loyal client imported a bed from India. He then asked me if I can make such a bed. He asked me to make him a similar bed then he would pay later. He paid but did not collect the bed,” Otieno narrates the advent of his hospital bed assembly business.

When the client failed to collect the bed, Otieno opted to put it on display along the Thika Road highway. It did not take long for passers-by to start expressing interest in purchasing the beds.

“A police officer asked about a bed for his bedridden father. He told me his father’s story and I felt empathetic,” Otieno says, adding that his main motivation for assembling the beds is to help the sick.

He says he designed the bed according to the model he was shown by his client in 2018, but also to ensure comfort and efficiency for patients.

However, the bed assembly business never caught on. Since 2018, he had sold around just 10 beds.

As the Covid-19 crisis in Kenya worsened and the government imposed a curfew, Otieno temporarily closed his business. But in June, with times becoming harder, he opted to return to work and focus on making beds.

“I did not think Covid-19 would bring me business. I do not want to profit off the illness, because I am also a Kenyan,” Otieno notes, adding that he just wanted to showcase his beds with the Facebook post, rather than advertise them.

Otieno’s beds have similar features as those of Kamau and Gathogo’s beds, although they look sharply different at first glance. Otieno’s beds feature a metallic body with guard rails, a mattress, a mechanical lever, wheels, and a separate table stand that goes for Sh 6,000. Due to the metallic body, Otieno says the bed can comfortably hold even heavy patients.

Otieno retails his bed at Sh 25,000 but clarifies that profit is marginal.

“To be honest the profit is only Sh 1,000. Clients are complaining about money, so I just want to make a small profit for myself after catering for labour and other expenses

Currently, Otieno has five employees but at his full capacity of manufacturing 50 beds a day, he says, he can employ more than 20.

 “Do not import these items from abroad. We should not rely on people from other countries yet we can make them here,” Otieno pleads with the Kenyan government. His sentiments are shared by Kamau and Gathogo, who tell Standard that they are keen on conquering the market in Kenya and East Africa.

“This is a longterm plan. There is a Level 4 Hospital coming up at Githunguri. We want to be their main suppliers because we are from here,” notes Gathogo. They reveal that they plan o grow their business past Covid-19.

With support from the government, the young men hope they can grow their businesses, improve the economy by employing more workers and help the government and local hospitals with affordable solutions.

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