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Youth step up to meet demand for ICU beds

Health & Science - By Gloria Aradi
Joseph Kamau (left) and Mungai Gathogo point out some of the unique features of their hospital bed to Standard reporter Glora Aradi at their workshop in Githunguri, Kiambu County, on Monday. [David Njaaga, Standard]

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

In 2017, aged just 22, Gathogo contested for the Kiambu County Senate seat while Kamau vied to become the ward representative for Githunguri Sub-county.

The long-time friends and collaborators were unsuccessful, but that did not deter them, as Kamau tells The Standard.

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the duo saw a business opportunity. They registered a manufacturing and supplies firm, kicking off by supplying face masks and hand sanitisers. But a few months in, their profits took a big hit.

“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.

Three weeks ago, Gathogo and Kamau started building hospital beds ideal for the intensive care and high dependency units, never mind that neither of them had prior bed-building experience.

“We are just entrepreneurs. When you see an opportunity, you quickly rush into it,” Gathogo said from their workshop in Githunguri where they assemble the beds from scratch.

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

The duo’s bed is a multipurpose one, complete with heavy-duty wheels, a drip stand, a table to allow patients have meals easily, space to store an oxygen tank, and hideaway bed rails.

It is adjustable to the needs of the patient and can be disassembled for easier portability.

The bed is adjusted manually, but the two entrepreneurs say they are currently working on adding an electric mechanism to give patients full control.

To do this, they say they are relying on the expertise of their friend Paul Wangaroro, who is a mechanical engineer.

After they posted photos of the prototype bed on Facebook on Sunday night, Gathogo and Kamau say the response has been overwhelming. “The prototype sold for Sh150,000. But the other beds will be priced at Sh65,000, which will still allow us to make a profit.”

The business partners say the cost of building a single bed is anywhere between Sh40,000 to Sh45,000.

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

By yesterday afternoon, they say they had received more than 100 inquiries from potential clients, including hospital administrators, medical personnel and county governments, some from as far as Lamu County.

Lease equipment

The entrepreneurs are leasing their equipment, including a spraying and welding machine. They say that with their own equipment, they can increase the number of employees from three to more than 20, including welders, carpenters and painters, and produce at least 10 beds daily.

In nearby Juja, Meshack Otieno has been assembling similar beds for the last two years.

On Friday evening, the self-taught welder posted pictures of his ICU beds to a warm reception on social media.

When The Standard visited the workshop, Otieno revealed that he had been swamped with orders over the past few days and sold seven beds. “I have gotten numerous orders already. I have not counted them, but they are many.”

He said one county government had shown interest but he was unsure if they would follow through and buy from him.

Otieno said he has been welding gates and doors since 2015. But it was not until 2018 that he got the idea to start assembling beds, thanks to one of his customers who owns a hospital in Murang’a.

“My loyal client imported a bed from India. He asked me to make him a similar bed, paid for it but never collected it.”

Otieno put the bed on display along Thika Road and it did not take long for passers-by to express interest in it.

“A police officer asked about a bed for his bed-ridden father. He told me his father’s story and I felt empathetic,” Otieno said.

But the bed assembly business never caught on with just 10 beds sold in two years.

As the coronavirus crisis worsened and the government imposed travel restrictions and a curfew, Otieno temporarily closed his business. But with times becoming harder, he returned to work last month and focused 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,” he said, adding that he only wanted to showcase his beds on Facebook rather than advertise them.

Otieno’s beds feature a stout metal base to accommodate heavy patients, guard rails, a mattress, a mechanical lever, wheels, and a table stand that retails separately for Sh6,000.

One bed costs Sh25,000 with Otieno saying that his returns are slim. “To be honest, the profit is only Sh1,000. Clients are complaining about money so I want to make a small profit after catering for labour and other expenses.”

Otieno has five employees but says he can hire more than 20 and push production to 50 beds every day. He has one simple plea to the government: “Do not import these items from abroad. We should not rely on people from other countries yet we can make these beds here.”

His sentiments are shared by Kamau and Gathogo, who say they are keen on conquering the market in Kenya and East Africa.

“This is a long-term plan. There is a Level 4 hospital coming up in Githunguri. We want to be their main suppliers because we are from there.”

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