What do you get when you put together a woman whose education is in computers and a man who’s into electronics? You get a pharmaceutical business! Anyway, that’s what happened when John and Hilda Wanjohi joined forces and created Sofben Ethicals.
I visit Sofben Ethicals in its tiny office downtown Nairobi. It’s Mrs. Wanjohi who greets me, and I ask her if she’ll show me the premises. – This is it, she says and raises her arms and points to the walls. Okay, but where do you keep your stock, your supplies, I want to know. – Right here, she says and pats the two steel file cabinets in the corner of the room. New as I am in this business I realize, that you don’t need a posh office, a warehouse, secretary and what not to get going and start materializing your dream.
Mrs. Wanjohi pulls out the drawers. They contain all kinds of medicine and ointments: some is for skin allergy, some is gel for wounds. There’s medicine to improve fertility, antibiotics for infections, medicine for your muscles and to fight HIV. You name it. It’s John Wanjohi who does the travelling and buys their stock in Dubai and Egypt.
– We have really grown, says Hilda Wanjohi, we started out of nothing, no computer, nothing, and the little we had was in the car, so that we could get around easily. Today we have all this and three sales persons!
Sofben Ethicals began to grow for real in 2003, when the couple got in touch with micro finance. The company has already repaid two loans from Growth Africa and MYC4. They are applying for a new one allowing them to buy more stock for their over 50 customers. And they’ll be back for more I’m told.
– We work hard, but competition is tough, and some of our customers are not so reliable when it comes to paying for our goods, even though we offer them good discounts. At the same time we must have everything in stock all the time. Also I’d really like to learn more about medicine. But Growth Africa has been good for my husband and me, ordinary banks are not for folks like us, Mrs. Wanjohi tells me.
Sofben Ethicals is into both retail and wholesale, and the plan is to get bigger in the latter and to expand the business to outside Nairobi.
So far their business is providing the couple and their three children with a comfortable life outside the capital. The loan officer from Growth Africa who’s with me says that their business is good, but that their products are a bit on the expensive side, and that they need to do more marketing.
PS: Sofben Ethicals is a down to earth small time business as are so many in the developing countries. But the pharmaceutical industry as such is huge and influential and has often been criticized for exploiting the third world both with regards to prices and products. If you are interested in the subject and like John le Carré you should read his book “The Constant Gardener”, which takes place in Kenya. Sounds boring? Naah, it’s a thriller and a love story as well, it has it all. Hereby highly recommended.