East Africa: Dawa Group’s journey from a trading business to a leading pharmaceutical manufacturer

This article is an excerpt of an African Hidden Champions case study titled An emerging giant: Dawa Group’s journey from a trading business to a leading pharmaceutical manufacturer. African Hidden Champions is an initiative by Africa Foresight Group and KfW DEG.

With a footprint in 11 countries, revenues of US$60 million in 2020 from over 1,000 product lines, and supply capacity of over 110 million packs of medication, Dawa Group has a vision to become a reference for pharmaceuticals in Africa. The current Dawa Group has its origins in Medisel Kenya Limited which, in 1994, was founded as a pharmaceutical trading business in Thika in Kenya and has now become a leading manufacturer and supplier of pharmaceuticals in East Africa. The business aims to have at least one of its products in every pharmacy and fulfil the African continent’s pharmaceutical needs.

Through its consolidated group of companies comprising Dawa Limited (pharmaceutical manufacturing), Medisel Kenya Limited (distribution and marketing of pharmaceutical and other healthcare products), Kel Chemicals Limited and a real estate arm, Dawa Group has contributed to the healthcare sector and other allied sectors in Kenya and beyond. Out of the 110 million packs of medication produced by Dawa Group, around 70 million end up in Kenya. With a population of 55 million people, this is more than one pack per person.

Dawa Group delivers health products (human pharmaceutical and animal health) through three plants and warehouses (two in Nairobi and the other in Thika), two depots in Nairobi and Mombasa and two international liaison offices in Shanghai and New Delhi. The business is involved in multiple steps of the human pharmaceutical and animal health value chains – production, sales, warehousing, logistics and distribution – either directly through its subsidiaries/divisions or indirectly through strategic partners such as Germany-based Merck. The purpose of this case study is to share the growth story of Dawa Group. This paper unveils the management challenges and opportunities that two determined Kenyan businessmen faced; and the bold decisions they took in order to grow a pharmaceutical business.

The journey: Three decades of the Dawa Group

Dr Raju Mohindra, who currently serves as the chairman for Dawa Group and the chair of the strategy committee, is a consultant radiologist by profession. He teamed up with Dr Ajay Patel, who is a pharmacist, to form Medisel Kenya Limited in 1994. Dr Mohindra’s mother was already importing pharmaceuticals to Kenya and Dr Patel’s family had been in the business of retail and trading since 1948. The founding members started out in the niche market of trading generics and medical devices, which then became the springboard to formally launch the pharma business Medisel.

Market penetration approach of Medisel Kenya Limited

Medisel started in the generics and disposables market segment by first trading in products already available on the market. Trading in generic products allows a company to supply drugs created to be the same as existing medicines manufactured by innovators. These generic drugs are similar to innovators’ medicines in dosage form, safety, strength, route of administration, quality, and performance characteristics. A disposable device is any medical apparatus intended for one-time or temporary use for medical and surgical procedures. To better understand the market and increase sales, the company leveraged internal resources and skills for sales and marketing effort, with the founders travelling across Kenya to sell their products. The internal sales and marketing efforts were led by Dr Mohindra himself. In a recent interview, Dr Mohindra recounts the travels he embarked on in the early years of the company by saying, “I used to travel throughout Kenya talking to pharmacy owners and ensuring that we supplied what the market wanted.”

Medisel formed a marketing team that initiated strategies, such as visiting doctors and pharmacies across the country and understanding products that were in high demand, but were not readily available. This way, the company became a credible alternative to competition from multinationals with quality products imported from the Chinese and Indian market. This “think global act local” approach of the company, gave it more visibility amongst players in the industry. The approach adopted by the founders of the business made Medisel an integral part of the local pharmaceutical ecosystem. As a result, the business was able to leverage considerable local knowledge in a highly competitive market.

In the face of increasing competition in the segment and with an ambition to grow further, the business began importing generics and branded products. By the year 2000, Medisel Kenya Limited started building relationships that led to the importation of pharmaceuticals (generics) and disposables (syringes, needles catheters, and intravenous sets) from India and China. Even though the generic product range was growing, and the importation of branded products had started, Medisel still controlled a small percentage of the entire market. This led to an initial market penetration of about 2% by 2002.

Increased competition and price wars

The price sensitiveness of the average Kenyan consumer was a major challenge for Medisel. In Kenya, imported pharmaceuticals are duty-exempt due to World Trade Organisation (WTO) protocols, a regulation that creates a significant influx of imports. This led subsidiaries of Dawa Group to sell products at slightly lower rates in a bid to increase sales volumes in a price-sensitive market. As profit margins declined and several competing products also emerged from Asia, the original operating model of volumes and mass-market concentration was no longer sustainable.

Growth through acquisition

By 2002, the local pharmaceutical manufacturing industry in Kenya was recording gradual growth. This was a result of several years of pushing the “buy local” agenda, which had been launched to drive more growth of local industry and jobs. The creation of COMESA and the East African Community (EAC) also opened up the regional export market which intensified international competition.

In 2004, the state-owned business Dawa Pharmaceuticals, which had been under receivership, became an attractive target for acquisition and a potential catalyser for Medisel’s expansion into manufacturing. Medisel acquired Dawa Pharmaceuticals, an originally joint state-run pharma business between the Governments of Kenya and Yugoslavia. Back in 1974, Jomo Kenyatta, the first President of Kenya, had sought technical and human capacity support from the government of Yugoslavia in the establishment of Dawa Pharmaceuticals. KRKA, which was the Yugoslavian company, also intended to expand into Africa at the time. The company used a government-led approach to make a rapid entry into Kenya. As KRKA was a well-known company in Europe, the Kenyan subsidiary also started contract manufacturing for Beecham Bencard, which was eventually bought by GSK.

The main reasons that eventually led to Dawa Pharmaceuticals being put under receivership were high expatriate expenditures, theft, inefficiency, and royalty payments. Medisel successfully outbid competitors for the purchase of Dawa Pharmaceuticals by securing funding from local banks. The management team of Medisel saw Dawa Pharmaceuticals as an asset that would enable Medisel to become a manufacturer of pharmaceutical products. The transaction involved the full purchase of Dawa’s assets and the more well-established product ranges of the company. Faced with the decision of what name to give to the company, Dr Mohindra and Dr Patel decided to keep the name Dawa because Dawa Pharmaceuticals had become a household name. An additional incentive was that Dawa means “medicine” in Kiswahili.

Building a manufacturing brand

Although Medisel Kenya Limited had already established itself on the market, recording revenue of $2 million before the acquisition in 2004, the absence of manufacturing capacity, however, limited the ability of the business to grow further.

Prior to the acquisition of Dawa Pharmaceuticals, Medisel was unable to penetrate the non-governmental organisation (NGO) subsector and government tender markets, which favoured locally manufactured products. As a pharmaceutical trader, Medisel could also not regionally export the products it had been importing from India and China for regulatory reasons. Lastly, Medisel’s growth had been stifled by suppliers that denied them access to certain products. This led the business to recognise that reinvention was the lifeline of the industry. Lack of guaranteed access to certain products was a threat to their growth and sustainability if they did not quickly reinvent themselves and create their own brands. The business had a keen interest in the NGO tender market which demanded a range of pharmaceutical products such as syrups and liquids. These products were usually expensive to import.

All these factors led to the decision by management to develop its manufacturing capacity and its own brand of products. The manufacturing capability was needed for Medisel to penetrate the NGO subsector and to enable exports. The decision to develop branded products meant that Medisel was no longer dependent on other companies or agents. Moreover, the manufacturing business benefited from better margins on its own branded products. The plan was for Medisel to double in size.

Growth strategy post-acquisition of Dawa Limited

Dawa Pharmaceuticals at the time of the acquisition was a sleeping giant. The company was not optimally run and required revamping. The non-existent manufacturing experience of Medisel posed red flags to the future of the newly created Dawa Group. Investment in the infrastructure and skills of the management team were undertaken to turnaround and transform the newly acquired manufacturing entity. Dawa Group sought to expand its reach by manufacturing products required by target institutions, including government and NGOs. The unique value proposition for government clients was the ability to provide products that were captured under the government’s extension and essential drug list and are used frequently countrywide. The manufacturing business gradually expanded its product portfolio to penetrate the NGO, institutions, and the export market.

A decade of impressive year-on-year growth

While Dawa Limited progressed with manufacturing, Medisel Kenya Limited, now a division within Dawa Group, continued to import products met by high local demand that were not yet available on the local market, for example injectables. Medisel’s revenue between 2005 and 2014 grew at an annual rate of 26% reaching Ksh1.51 billion ($17 million). Overall, Dawa Group recorded an annual top line growth rate of 29% between 2005 and 2014, with revenues reaching Ksh2.86 billion ($32 million). Dawa Limited, the manufacturing business, contributed 34% of total revenue after just 12 months’ post-acquisition. By 2014, Dawa Limited accounted for 47% of total group revenue.

The growth of the manufacturing business was attributed to management’s decision to build its own brands. The development of brands meant that Dawa Group controlled the intellectual property associated with its brands. This strategic decision, coupled with the export focus of Dawa Limited, ushered Dawa Group into new markets including Uganda, Zambia, Malawi and Rwanda. Branded products, to date, continue to propel expansion and growth opportunities for Dawa Group with steps already taken for Dawa to expand into the West African market.

The manufacturing business also positioned Dawa as a reliable supplier to the government and other large institutional clients, for instance NGOs that procure pharmaceutical products in the East African region.

Dawa Group’s business and revenue diversification agenda has made the group more resilient. The group has become less product-centric and more centred on value creation for the patient. Dawa Group is working towards increasingly being recognised for its focus on niche areas including the manufacturing of drugs for lifestyle-related conditions such as supply of medicines for non-communicable diseases. The group focuses on other niche therapeutic areas such as oncology and plans to develop a plant for manufacturing vaccines.

Using stakeholder management strategy to improve its branding

Dawa Group has implemented a robust stakeholder management strategy that allows the pharmaceutical manufacturing and animal health divisions to leverage their positions as “local manufacturers”. These subsidiaries ensure that they understand the players in the respective value chains and build relationships and patient-centred solutions. The critical success factor has been having access to and building relationships with governments, non-government actors as well as key opinion leaders, and further developing relationships with key users such as physicians, clinical officers and pharmacists.

The company also supports community and professional networks and initiatives including sponsoring seminars held by the Kenyan Association of Physicians and Kenya Pharmaceutical Association. The overarching goal is to make the products of Dawa well-known in order to combat competition from India, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other local manufacturers and to position the Dawa brand as a trusted brand for customers, users and prescribers. Whilst making a conscious shift from the focus on price and commoditised products to focus on health-value brands that build trust, the leadership team has organised the product portfolio along niche health and lifestyle lines. These include cardiology, gastroenterology, neurology, and concentration on new niche areas including non-communicable diseases, therapeutic areas, oncology and vaccine manufacturing.

Stabilising the rapid growth

Over the years, the pharmaceutical market in Kenya has become very competitive with about 30 local manufacturers. To consolidate its gains in this competitive market, Dawa Group has built strong relationships with key opinion leaders. Strategic relationship building, coupled with targeted marketing for wholesalers and pharmacies, as well as medical practitioners have supported growth.

Dawa Group is following several diversification strategies. The group has invested in the chemicals industry, with a plan to grow in the sulphuric acid and aluminium sulphate manufacturing market for water treatment. Dawa Group also invested in real estate as a means of supporting cash flow and acquiring good locations for factories.

To remain relevant and sustainable, the group recognised the need to channel its efforts towards professionalising the business, reviewing its cost structure vis-a-vis other players and aggressively marketing its wide product range to the medical community.

The future is investing in “one health” across Africa

Dawa Group is bullish with ambitious targets for the next 10 years, hoping to be present in 25 markets and to achieve revenue growth of over 10% a year to reach $200 million top line by 2030.

Currently, the group is operating across 11 countries (Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Somalia, South Sudan, DRC, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi) across Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. Kenya is the main market, with 84% revenue contribution, predominantly from the sale of generic and branded drugs.

The development of the pharmaceutical market in Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia has made these markets attractive for generics and some branded products. Generic products account for 56% to 62% of total pharmaceutical products in these markets. These four markets account for 14% of the total revenue of Dawa Group.

The group is planning a geographical expansion to 14 new markets. In particular, the group has an eye on growth into francophone West Africa, a market strong in branded generics and with a more enabling ecosystem for branded pharmaceutical products. Dawa Group has already made headway in developing partnerships to push branded products into the region. Manufacturing and trading of branded products is expected to be the key value driver for the group as it expands, as opposed to the low-cost generic products trading that is still the mainstay in Kenya. ‘

Achieving the pan-African dream

Dawa Group is investing $15 million in the refurbishment of its manufacturing facility (expansion of floor space and higher volume machinery) over the next three years. The envisioned state-of-the-art facility will have fully automated lines and larger capacity to meet the growing demands of the African market.

As Dawa Group forges ahead, high levels of regulation and lack of economic trade integration will be barriers to its expansion. The group continues to implement a strategy of ensuring regulatory alignment for expansion and the company is working on regulatory compliance for the new target markets of immediate interest in Africa. Since Dawa Group does not enjoy the kind of government support that its Asian rivals get, it must rely on its understanding of the unique conditions in Africa as a source of competitive advantage. The leadership team of Dawa expects improvements in the movement of goods across borders not only in East Africa, but on the entire African continent. The group also continues to be an advocate for regulatory harmonisation, engaging with stakeholders across the EAC (East African Community) in developing technical guidelines that can be made uniform across participating countries. While the EAC does have a Medicines Regulatory Harmonisation (EAC MRH) initiative, processes for trade with other EAC members such as Tanzania and Uganda are still extremely lengthy and bureaucratic, particularly when compared to the SADC (Southern African Development Community) or ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States). Governments and regulators need to build regulatory capacity as well; for instance, there is currently no regulatory framework for the manufacturing of vaccines in Kenya.

As a key market player for more than 25 years, the group intends to leverage sustainable processes and practices to project and meet the growing lifestyle changes and health demands of value chain end-users for the future. The leadership team believes the business has a role to play in contributing to the community and to host countries beyond being a business venture with commercial obligations. The leadership team has established linkages with the Ministry of Health in Kenya and occasionally advises on policies in the country through participation in various health committees. They also support the government through capacity building and training of public sector staff.

To achieve the “pan-African dream”, Dawa Group consistently asks itself: What more can we do for patients in Africa? The leadership team looks beyond medication to identify ways to contribute towards patient support programmes and work with medical communities to support medical research. A sustainable future will be made possible by the investments they have made which include:

  • Investing in talent and new machinery;
  • Developing a quality road map for various work streams in the business with a focus on building a culture of quality through training and orientation;
  • Pursuing an ambitious strategy to expand the product portfolio by entering new markets and building strategic partnerships; and
  • Following an omni-channel commercial approach to build new touch points with customers by increasing the digital dimension, leveraging customer relationship management (CRM) systems, building a system of e-learning, and retailing for customer profiling.

To achieve this dream and become a reference pharmaceutical company for the entire continent, Dawa Group must build a life science business that transitions beyond its founders, and grow brand equity with distributors and factories dotted across Africa.