Vijai Maini: The man who built Surgipharm across EA

Saturday April 16 2022
Vijay Maini.

Surgipharm Limited outgoing Managing Director Dr. Vijai Maini displays packet of medicinal tablet at the firm's offices in Westlands, Nairobi on March 10, 2022. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NMG

By Elizabeth Merab

The private sector in Kenya has been the backbone of the manufacturing industry and some of the big and successful companies across all sectors go back to pre-independence days or have their foundation set by those that operated then.

One such company is Surgipharm, a healthcare company, which although started in 1985, just over two decades after independence, its co-founder Dr Vijai Maini, begun his pharmaceutical career in colonial Kenya.

Dr Maini, 78, retired in December 2021, and is proud to be leaving behind a company that over time has expanded to have subsidiaries in Uganda and Rwanda, and attracted Imperial Logistics, a South African company which in 2017, bought 70 per cent of Surgipham Kenya. The Ugandan and Rwandan subsidiaries are independent and fully owned by Surgipham.

So how did a grandson of an Indian immigrant build a pharmaceutical empire in a sector that was set up and dominated by multinationals through colonial white settlers?

When Dr Maini’s grandfather disembarked from the ship from India at the beginning of the last century, it was not to establish a family of entrepreneurs, let alone successful ones but he was simply running away from the embarrassment of having failed his exams. For this, he sailed across the ocean to Mombasa, in a foreign continent.

It was that personal decision that gave rise to a generation of entrepreneurs, among them, Dr Maini.


Almost 50 years later, Dr Maini was born in a bungalow at what is now Third Avenue, Parklands, in Nairobi in 1943, where the Aga Khan University Hospital stands today.

He went to City Primary School, before joining the Duke of Gloucester School, Nairobi which was founded as a Railway Educational Centre in 1906. It was later renamed to Jamhuri High School.

After his A levels, he travelled to the United Kingdom to study Pharmacy at the University of Sunderland in the northeast of England for three years. After graduation he started working at a pharmacy in London, but had to come back to Kenya after an unfortunate event.

Even as a young man in his 20s, Dr Maini wanted to set up a pharmacy in the UK but as he explains it was not easy.

"My first try in setting up a pharmacy was during the colonial period because there were no pharmacies or very few pharmacies that were Indian-owned. They were all naturally owned by Englishmen. And I remember is that in some areas where Indian immigrants began to settle, these pharmacies used to have notices displayed in Hindi with instructions on what to do with your doctor’s prescription. Before I could make concrete plans however, my younger brother, who was studying in Dundee in Scotland at that time, developed cancer of the lungs," recalls Dr Maini.

"So I gave up my job in London to take care of him. He unfortunately passed away only eight weeks after admission into hospital. Now, my parents were alone in Nairobi with nobody to support them emotionally. So, I packed my bags and left the UK for Nairobi to be with my family. And that is how my journey in the pharmaceutical sector started in Kenya."

"My first job was at the Howse & McGeorge which had a shop on Moi Avenue. I was employed as a relief manager. Whenever a branch manager in Nakuru, Kisumu, Eldoret, Mombasa, or Kampala went on leave, I would hold brief for them,” he said.

Howse & McGeorge was a pharmaceutical chain owned by the James Finlay Group, which has been in the tea industry for decades.

Later in 1970 after getting married, travelling for work became a challenge, so Dr Maini took up a job with a family-owned company where he worked as a pharmacy manager for 15 years.

As an employed pharmacist, Dr Maini was slowly learning the ropes of the industry while at the same time playing badminton professionally and collecting trophies along the way.

In 1985, at the age of 40, Dr Maini together with the current Surgipharm sales director Vipin Shah set up Surgipham Ltd which has grown to become one of Kenya’s and the region's biggest pharmaceutical companies. Now in its 37th year, it supplies both public and private health facilities.

Having started with only six workers operating in 4,000 square feet rented space in Nairobi's central business district, the company currently occupies 55,000 square feet, distributing medical products countrywide with a workforce of over 330.

It was this success that attracted a Imperial Logistics of South African which invested in the company.

The now-retired pharmacist, Dr Maini prides himself on having built a business based on ethics and done by the book, and which has stood the test of time and staved competition from big multinationals to achieve an estimated annual turnover of more than Ksh10 billion (about $100m).

"From the onset, the intention was to set up an import and distribution pharmaceutical company, with one of the objectives being to ensure there is an effective distribution system. That means the whole country should be able to access pharmaceutical and healthcare products from us at very short notice. We can supply products anywhere in Kenya within 24 hours. If we receive an order today, by three o'clock, it will be at the doorstep in Eldoret."

“We realised at that time of setting up the company that there was a gap in the supply chain and we wanted a company that would be efficient to serve the requirements of customers,” said Dr Maini, who headed the company from its inception in 1985 until his retirement last December.

When they started the company, most of the drugs were imported under patent and inaccessible to a majority of Kenyans who needed them. Multinational pharmaceuticals companies had rights to sell the drugs under their brand name only.

"That gave us the opportunity to work with companies that manufacture good quality, generic products. We saw there was a need and therefore signed up with a few generic manufacturers who could offer the same quality and standards as the original products," he said.

The introduction of generic drugs meant choice for patients. "At least now Kenyans had the ability to buy a similar product at an affordable price," he proudly states.

Despite bringing onboard generics that have arguably cut the cost of medicines, the cost remains high and often treatment and management of certain diseases in Kenya pushes many families into poverty.

For this, Dr Maini notes that; "When we import drugs, we, along with the manufacturer, agree on a formula that depends on the exchange rate. Using a certain exchange rate, we would make only a certain percentage as a distribution module and then push the manufacturer to push it down. And then we put up the price list based on what we call a trade price, which is supposed to be the price to the hospital or pharmacy and the recommended retail price which they should be charging the patient."

But sadly today, the retail price varies depending on the hospital.

"The private hospitals for example, now, because they purchase big volumes, sometimes negotiate with the manufacturer directly, and certain concessions are made. So, we would pass them that concession, which is cheaper than the retail price. Now, as far as the end price is concerned, we expect these hospitals to put a suitable margin on this and charge that to the patient. But we have no control over this," explained Dr Maini, on the expensive cost of drugs which makes healthcare in Kenya out of reach of many.

As to whether the industry is run by a few companies that operate as an oligopoly, Dr Vijai argues that unlike before, most big local pharmaceutical importers and distributors have more than one supplier. Although the pharmaceutical supply chain has improved, it also faces many challenges.

First, Dr Maini says some pharmaceutical and surgical products are being priced out of the reach of ordinary Kenyans through taxation. "For instance, why are knee, hip replacements, and trauma products subject to value added tax? Or why are nutritional products used in the intensive care units subject to Customs duty?"

Another challenge is the cold chain for products like vaccines and those used in oncology. products.

"Today, because of climate change, we have been forced to air-condition our warehouses. Products that used to be kept at room temperature now need to be put in an air-conditioned room to maintain their viability," notes Dr Maini. This means added operational costs.

Dr Maini is currently enjoying time with family and grandchildren. He plans to travel to the UK with his wife on vacation.

"After that, will get down to sorting out some personal matters that took a back seat when I was fully engaged at Surgipharm. Then I will really see how to cope with retirement," he said.

The father of two reminisces about his time in the industry and the legacy he leaves. "It has been an exciting journey. And hopefully, one day we will say look, I have been able to access antibiotics with a prescription and not walk into a pharmacy and say, 'give me this because I took it the other time.' ”