Changing lives a prescription at a time; the road to funding a viable pharmacy.
The minute he stepped into medical school, Victor Achoka was focused on one thing only. The long hours of study, the constant learning and relearning of scientific concepts only strengthened his belief in his higher calling.
By the time he finished his studies, Victor already saw his name in the bright lights of academic stardom. If all went according to plan, at least in his mind, he would discover a wonder drug that would cure cancer. There were no two ways about it. Humanity had suffered for too long with the disease and it was surely time for science to triumph.
15 year after he graduated, Victor hasn’t discovered the cure for cancer yet. The disease is still picking off family members at will, but his path in life has not strayed too far off serving humanity through a chain of pharmacies that straddle the belly of the Rift Valley and beyond.
“I still have people at heart,” he says. “I still make the lives of the sick and vulnerable better each day.”
After graduating from the University of Nairobi in 2005, Victor landed a government job as a community pharmacist in Nakuru. But a year later, perhaps pushed by a spirit he was yet to identify as the entrepreneurial bug he quit the public sector.
“I walked into the office one day to a redeployment letter. I was being transferred to a place I had never been to. Instead of reporting and doing my work half-heartedly, I resigned and sought employment in the private sector,” Victor says.
Private sector was good to him. The money wasn’t bad either.
“A good friend of mine and a mentor employed me as a manager in one of his pharmacies where I helped him set up new outlets,” Victor says.
In 2010 for instance, Victor opened a retail pharmacy for his new boss and saw the sales move from Sh10,000 a day to more than Sh200,000 a day.
“This got me thinking,” he says. “I saw the money. I was making it for someone else. So I started entertaining questions in my head on whether I could make some of it for myself,” he says.
Every evening after work, he would make plans about being his own boss. The business traits he would keep and the ones he would shun. Slowly, a little notebook in which he wrote down ideas for his future business started filling up.
But just as he was about to take the plunge into business, fate threw a curve ball at him. And like the ever-willing ball player, he hit it with all his strength. Another job offer came up with a multi-national company- Laborex. Victor took it.
“This was a blessing in disguise,” he says. “As a General Manager for the company’s local office, I travelled a lot and interacted with individuals who were in the pharmaceutical trade for decades. I learnt a lot during this period.”
As good as the job was, he only lasted one year. The restlessness in him was too much. Eventually he resigned in and founded Zen Pharmaceuticals, an almost bespoke chain of pharmacies in different cities in Kenya.
“It was a leap of faith,” he says of the 2015 move that changed his life forever.
“I sold off some assets I had, borrowed from my mother, reached out to my former boss who advanced me medical stock on credit and I set out on this journey,” he says.
Looking back, he can’t help but smile at the trajectory his entrepreneurial journey has taken.
“I have learned lessons. I have lost friends. But most importantly, I have made friends who have ensured my business stays afloat.”
One such friend is Business Partners International (BPI), whose relationship with Zen Pharmaceuticals, Victor says, has been lifesaving.
“My business is founded on empathy, trust and ethical standards. What this means is that I cannot turn a client down because they do not have money at the time of need,” he says.
As a result of this passion for his community, many times Zen Pharmaceuticals would advance drugs to hospitals or other medical facilities on credit.
Business, just like life can be unpredictable and often, those who owed Zen money defaulted, resulting in an unfortunate chain of events that would also strain relationships between him and his suppliers, staff, and even landlords.
Soon, his profitable business that counted a store in Kisii, four in Nakuru, one in Nairobi and another in Naivasha was having cashflow constraints. The plans that he had made in his little note book all those years ago were unravelling. Fast.
“I realized much later and in the hard way that in this business, cash is king,” he says. “In 2017, just two years in business that had undergone incredible expansion, I needed cash. Urgently.”
This is when Zen Pharmaceuticals was introduced to Business Partners Africa- a specialist SME risk financing company.
“BPI assisted the pharmacy by injecting much needed capital into the company, and enabled us to breathe and focus on what we know best- selling pharmaceutical products,” Victor says. “This financial backing helped our business survive.”
Since being founded, BPI has provided over USD114million in specialized business finance to small and medium business owners. Part of this money has helped Zen Pharmaceuticals stay afloat. And that way, although he has not found the cure for cancer yet, Victor is still touching lives in his own small way, one prescription at a time.
“Apart from the much needed capital, BPI’s technical assistance program helped me understand how to manage my cashflow better and understand that although I remain compassionate about the people I serve, there are certain business tenets that hold true,” he says.
From a dream, Zen Pharmaceuticals now operates a chain of 7 stores.
“Our value proposition lies in quality as opposed to quantity,” Victor says.