Kenya has thousands of pharmacies, with the majority being mom-and-pop stores that are sometimes unregistered and operating illegally. But the tide is slowly turning with the emergence of locally-owned chains that promise quality products and professional service.
Roselyn Anyango is a co-founder and director of Neem Pharmacy, a chain that operates five outlets in the capital Nairobi. Anyango and her husband started the business in 2002, together with other partners who have since exited.
She says a growing number of consumers are taking measures to prevent illnesses and improve their well-being, as opposed to only visiting a pharmacy when they’re already sick.
“For example, you get someone who is going to the gym to keep fit and they want to know what their diet should contain, and what supplements they should take. They are asking more questions and reading a lot about their health. So people are willing to invest more in their well-being. As a retailer I have to think of how to help our customers. We have an in-house nutritionist and I am hiring again now because there is a lot of demand for nutritionists at our outlets,” says Anyango.
“We also see people who have a history of chronic illness in their family are very aware that they are at risk and are making efforts to avoid catching those ailments. In previous years, many people would get such diseases and be undiagnosed for several years until they start presenting symptoms. So people are a bit more proactive today and that means we have to continuously learn and stay ahead of our game so we can serve our clients by giving them the information they require and help them manage their health.”
Anyango is also seeing a growing interest for natural and organic beauty and wellness products.
“That is a new trend – people come and tell you they want a product that doesn’t have this or that chemical. Although we are not big on beauty, we are stocking what people are asking for, which is mostly organic soaps and natural hair and skin-care products.”
To capitalise on this trend, Neem has signed up as the East Africa distributor for a Spanish wellness products manufacturer. The items are stocked at Neem’s five outlets and in other independent pharmacies.
Anyango says she was motivated to become an agent after attending a training programme targeted at woman entrepreneurs about five years ago. One of the modules focused on business expansion. This has helped her realise she could grow the company by boosting her product portfolio.
Building a pharma retail chain
“I realised there is a huge variety of products in the wellness and supplement space. Even though there were other players here, it was still an area that we could grow into.”
When the first outlet was established, she did not imagine Neem would one day expand to another four outlets.
“At the time we just opened in the mornings and closed in the evenings. It didn’t matter whether we took care of documentation or not. We didn’t have systems in place.”
“From the trainings I attended I learnt the importance of branding and the value of having business cards and proper work email accounts. I began to appreciate the importance of being visible to your customers. There are so many pharmacies here, so what differentiates me from the rest? I started asking my customers about what they thought we were doing right and we began capitalising on that,” says Anyango.
“I began to empower my staff and delegate duties to them so I could focus on strategy and expansion. The trainings made me grow my company and brand better.”
Room for growth despite unfair competition
One of the challenges in Kenya’s pharmaceutical retail sector is the existence of illegal traders. Some retailers, Anyango says, do not meet regulatory requirements, while others stock cheap counterfeit drugs.
“I have learnt that the challenges I face now, somebody else has overcome them already,” explains Anyango. “There is always room for growth. So it is important to continuously learn and see what other people are doing. You can never sit back.”