Dr Ahmed Kalebi (pictured), founder and chief executive of Lancet Group of Laboratories in East Africa is one of the few happy businessmen in today’s economy. When the Covid-19 pandemic is forcing many businesses to crumble, Lancet is doing well for itself. It is among the labs accredited with testing for coronavirus. The Pathologists Lancet Kenya started operations in 2009 as a single reference laboratory in Nairobi and over the years, grown into 35 branch laboratories and service points across the country. With over 25 subsidiary lab companies in Uganda, 10 in Tanzania and two in Rwanda, it is one of the largest independent laboratory service provider in the region. For Dr Kalebi though, the journey to the top began in Kibera slums from where he drew some of his most enduring business lessons.
You say your humble beginnings made you. Just how humble were they?
I’m a product of scholarships all the way from primary school to my postgraduate studies. I was raised by a poor single parent in Kibra, and right from my first years in primary school, others always pleaded my case. The late Sheikh Mahmud in Kibra took me to a headmaster and asked that I be allowed in school without fees. In secondary school, I was sponsored by various NGOs and while at the university where I faced financial difficulties, I was supported by various well-wishers. Education CS George Magoha was a dean at the university and he asked me back to class instead of sending me home for non-payment of fees. My postgraduate studies were sponsored by the government and my fellowship by the British Division of International Academy of Pathology. It has been a bag of blessings that I’m forever grateful for.
Did you have to go to business school too to get the knowledge to run a multi-national business?
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No. Most of what I’ve done from business management and leadership perspective has been learnt on the job. Unfortunately, there is very little that we got taught about business in medical school and for me, the necessity of getting things done has been my greatest teacher.
How did the idea of starting a lab come about?
It was borne out of a desire to set-up a state-of-the-art lab similar to what I had seen in South Africa, UK and Canada during my fellowship training in 2006-2008. Back then, I was employed in the Ministry of Health where I worked at KNH as a postgraduate doctor in pathology then subsequently as a pathologist in Garissa. Seeing the huge disparity between the set-up in Kenya and other better-resourced countries, I embarked on a blueprint to revamp the National Public Health Laboratory. At that point as I was about to complete the fellowship, I was dismayed to find out that it was going to be a lengthy process to embark on a project under government. Luckily, senior directors at Lancet Group of Laboratories in South Africa learnt of my plans to set-up a lab and approached me with an offer to fund and support my plans in a private setting.
Does that make Lancet Kenya part of a franchise?
Pathologists Lancet Kenya is a duly registered Kenyan company as a traditional medical partnership between myself as the local shareholder and Lancet Group of Laboratories as the other shareholder (representing other pathologists in South Africa). Last year, we got Cerba Healthcare from France as the additional shareholders in a joint venture with Lancet South Africa. So we are now a subsidiary of Cerba Lancet Africa joint venture.
How do you maintain work-life balance in such a busy environment?
Apart from my board of directors and international partners, I have a very supportive family. My wife is my personal manager who literally handles all my affairs other than direct pathology work. That has enabled me to stay grounded while my four children have been my bedrock on whom I derive my reflection on what is worthwhile in life. I do spend quality time with family as a priority and try to keep a spiritual connection for my beliefs and life philosophies.
9 BUSINESS LESSONS I HAVE LEARNT
1. STAY FOCUSED ON YOUR GOAL NO MATTER WHAT
I grew up in poverty. Without positive thinking and determination, I would never have pursued the opportunity to do pathology and would probably have resigned to being condemned by the negative sentiments I initially received. Always keep your eyes on the goal, have a positive mental attitude and never say any task is impossible.
2. DON’T WASTE OPPORTUNITIES
Life is always full of opportunities. It is a matter of seizing the moments, trying out things and going for whatever one is capable of with all the energy. My passion was in pathology and the opportunities were there. My view is that unless you have something better preoccupying you now, any opportunity that comes your way is worth trying out.
3. BUSINESS GROWTH SHOULD BE STRATEGIC, NOT RUSHED
Our growth as Lancet Group has largely been opportunistic. The business snowballed from word of mouth and networking. Obviously, we strategically weigh opportunities, try them out, sometimes we succeed and at other times fail. After feasibility and business case analysis, we have declined numerous opportunities. However, if the business case is right, we have succeeded based on the partnerships and collaborations we enter into. In business, success requires resilience, perseverance and a long-term view.
4. MAINTAIN PROPER STRUCTURES FOR A HEALTHY BUSINESS ECOSYSTEM
For any business to thrive and be sustainable, one must develop and maintain proper governance structures and best practices. Once a business takes a life of its own, it is no longer about an individual or the few individuals who started it or own it. It is key that you ensure proper management and adherence to laws and regulations that govern your business.
5. LEAD FROM THE FRONT, DELEGATE WHERE POSSIBLE
A leader’s involvement in the day to day affairs of a business depends on the nature of the business and the style of the business leader. My approach is to mentor and empower others to do as much as possible, only getting involved when I need to. If others in my team can do it better than I, then I let them do it. That said, I would get directly and closely involved in a matter until I’m satisfied that those I delegate to are able to run with it better.
6. DEVELOP A BUSINESS MODEL THAT OUTLIVES THE FOUNDERS
I can rightly say that from the fifth-year mark, I have been confident that the structures and teams within these structures are able to run the business in my absence. Currently, I have a board of directors at the helm and a broad management team in each country empowered to operate autonomously leaving me to provide leadership. It is my desire to see through a succession in leadership as the company transcends to new levels.
7. LOOK FOR THE SILVER LINING IN ANY DARK CLOUD
While Covid-19 has completely turned the world as we knew it, it presents some business opportunities to entrepreneurs. We are moving into a new age with new needs, and these needs are opportunities for enterprising minds. Entrepreneurs just need to look around and identify the opportunities that range from how people live, school and work to how businesses and societies interact. Frankly, life may never be the same, and that in itself presents great opportunities in innovation, research and development.
8. MISTAKES CAN BE COSTLY
The key to avoiding mistakes in business is to ensure the quality of services with accurate and valid results. The margin of error in healthcare is smaller than other fields. In fact, in laboratory diagnosis, we cannot afford to make errors because our results determine how people get managed. If and when we err, corrective actions must be instituted after a root cause analysis. That said, the common business mistakes made are often in taking shortcuts and compromising quality which can eventually impact a business negatively
9. STOP LEARNING AND YOUR BUSINESS BECOMES EXTINCT
Running a business is a continuous learning process. Every customer brings in new challenges daily. These require new exposures to information than will empower a business to meet those challenges. This is part of the excitement of any business endeavour. When a business gets to a point where there is no need to learn and try new things, that moment defines the death of a business. It will no longer be an evolving entity but doomed to extinction.