Ms Florence Lakot is the November 2021 recipient of the Professor Dr JJ Otim Development Award. She received just over 350,000 Ugandan Shillings to support her business, the Shalom Medical Center which is located along Kalongo-Kitgum road.
The Medical Center’s mission is to improve the healthcare and wellness of the community by providing customers with the best products, services and advice to meet their unique needs at the most affordable cost possible. It provides pharmaceutical products, mainly the Class C drugs like Panadol, antimalarials, antibiotics, other painkillers and a range of other drugs in this class for which her business is licensed to operate.
Ms Lakot studied pharmacy from Gulu University at certificate level and this background influenced her choice of business. She was inspired to start this business by the high cost of some essential drugs where many sick people were exploited because of ignorance, poverty and greed by unscrupulous drug shop operators.
A case in point was Coartem being sold at 10,000/- per dose which is extremely high if one who earns about 4,000/- per day has to buy one full dose. These factors motivated her to take action to offer the best medical services and sell drugs at the cheapest price possible based on the six tenets (rights) of safe medication administration:
- has to be of the right patient
- right medication
- right dose
- right time
- right route
- right documentation before dispensing the drug to the patient
Ms Lakot started the business with a startup capital of about five million Uganda shillings. The business is just under two years old now and she is happy that it is moving in the right direction.
Interview with The Kalongo Times
Mr Obonyo Alex from “The Kalongo Times” sat down for an interview with Ms Florence Lakot to discuss how she was running her business, its impact on her life and how it was contributing to the socio-economic growth and development of Kalongo Town council.
He started out by asking her to expand on the medicines she sells.
You talked about Malaria and families with patients particularly children who are affected experience catastrophic health expenditure in managing the condition as one of the factors that ignited your thoughts to try and do something for the community and this is quite a noble cause. Can you tell us of other products that you deal in. Malaria being a killer disease in this part of the country, Uganda as a whole and in many developing and third world countries of Africa, tell us about some of the other products you are dealing in?
Like I said Shalom medical center operates in class C drugs as per the current license we have, and this mostly covers the essential drugs like antimalarials, painkillers, antibiotics, antipyretics of various brands and others with exception of class A and B drugs. We also deal in medicated cosmetics.
We have started the process of registration and acquisition of a license to operate as a fully registered pharmacy that would enable us to broaden our service base and range of products for the community we serve.
How have you managed amidst a population composed largely of semi-illiterate customers who may come in need of a particular medication for their condition that might not have been properly diagnosed. How do you manage such cases?
This is not always easy as you need to respect patient rights but also balance by doing the right thing (hinged on the six rights of safe medication administration).
Many times, they do not easily understand and you have to labour and convince them of the reality of taking certain actions that can complicate further their health condition; you ought to allay their fears and make them understand with concrete reasons why they have to go to the hospital first. It is often a struggle to convince them especially when they are in distress and pain and need urgent relief.
Normally for cases that would require proper management we give medication to quell the pain and enable them to reach the hospital. We also counsel them and then refer them to the hospital of Dr Ambrosoli Memorial or the health centre for proper diagnosis before dispensing the medication.
A scenario of a thirty-year-old or so walking in with a fractured or dislocated limb and you see that he needs an x-ray but such a person would come with little money that is sufficient for only one dose of Panadol and yet expecting you to help in all ways possible to manage his/her condition is a typical example. We do not have beds, diagnostic equipment and do not run laboratory tests nor do we have the supplies necessary to manage such conditions.
We can only provide what is available in the form of first aid and thereafter refer them to the main hospital.
You said you started in January 2020, how have you progressed so far with the business?
Ms. Lakot Florence of Shalom Medical Center Progress is not bad, Shalom Medical Center has been able to move, we started small and has now grown two-fold in a space of close to two years now. We opened with a startup capital of Uganda shillings five million (5,000,000ugx), now we have stock worth Uganda Shillings (10,000,000ugx).
Besides the business growth, how has it impacted on your life and the lives of others in the community?
I am so glad to be in this business though at the beginning I was hesitant because I had in the past ventured into business which did not work and eventually collapsed, so when I thought about this line of business, I feared that it would also not see its next birthday and I may not recover from its effects, but again I felt it an obligation with my professional background and results of assessment done on the ground, I decided to try my luck once again and so far, not I am not complaining.
I have realized that besides the money that is good, there is helping people which makes me feel more complete with internal satisfaction than just having the money alone. The business has employed staff who work and earn a living thus supporting their families.
I feel happy when many mothers and their children who come in despair are able to get the treatment they need and later testify of having been healed as a consequence of our modest intervention. Many of such mothers may not have enough money for hospital bills and admission.
In particular cases, you realize that you can handle some of these conditions they present themselves with. We try to help them by ensuring that only what is appropriate is provided to them and in this they avoid unnecessary expenses and save money for other commitments.
This is a business that you can easily exploit because of the vulnerability of the patients but we operate with integrity and professionally and therefore any monies we get in return for our services should be honestly earned. Like I said the patients usually return when they feel better to appreciate us. In this way they become our ambassadors promoting our business.
You have talked about helping hands in your business, how many people have you employed besides yourself to help in the operation of the business and what is the time frame in which you operate?
We have a total of six staff, two support staff and four professionals. We open the business at 6.30 am in the morning and close at 8.30 pm in the evening. This time schedule has been arrived at as follows;
Opening early at 6.30 am helps to target mainly those who might have come to the main hospital and on several occasions have experienced a shortage of drugs. In incidences where children are taken ill during the night with malaria and taken to the hospital, they may remain without the necessary treatment e.g artesunate that has in many cases been out of stock; such a patient would have to wait until they are able to have access to the drug shops to purchase the prescribed drugs; thus, necessitating Shalom Medical Center to open early.
Delaying closure up to 8.30 pm enables patients who come late to the hospital or others who may need the service in the evenings to also have access to procure their medication.
As is common with most businesses there are the up and down side, Are there any challenges you have experienced in the course of running your business?
Shalom Medical Center is not exceptional to the challenges of running businesses. It has registered a number of challenges, some of which are stemming from poverty of the mind and of the pocket.
Some people are still stuck with a mindset that is always negatively critical of any new development and would want to oppose creative ideas especially when they do not agree with it and think it infringes on their space; some others also do not understand that what you are doing is offering a service; to them, it is like a must to follow their orders and give or do what they want regardless of what is right to be done.
Some customers at times come to purchase medication with money that is barely sufficient to purchase a complete dose for a prescription and yet they insist on getting something to take back home. This is where the right of patients come in but yet as a professional you need to be extremely cautious to give value for money without endangering lives.
Some parents send children to buy drugs even when they may not be in a position to explain clearly and many times with inadequate money. At times the child is the patient coming alone with insufficient money.
Much as we are in business to make a profit, sometimes we are forced to do some charity, especially in dire situations when they are very sick and also unable to meet the bills. In such instances, we have to balance to avoid running out of business but at the same time giving back to the community as part of our corporate social responsibility.
How about the products you deal in, do you experience any challenges with issues of quality, costs, transport, cold chain and any other?
As I stated at the beginning, we deal in Class C drugs and yet sometimes, patients are referred from the hospital to buy drugs from outside because of stockouts e.g anti-rabies. In such instances, we liaise with other pharmacies in the nearby towns and cities in the region who have to bring in on a case-by-case basis. At certain times during the year, there are a number of dog bites unfortunately some of these drugs are not readily available and they may need it urgently as it is a choice between life and death.
The anti-rabies 1st dose that may need to be administered within the first seventy-two hours is always very challenging. Sometimes they come rather late and you have to act in haste if you are to save a life. The issue of cold chain for some of these items is also another challenge as we deal in class C drugs only and therefore are limited in the scope of the products we are entitled to serve.
You find that there are still unsurmountable hurdles in the service to the community that need instant action. E.g one dose of the anti-rabies may cost up to Uganda shillings fifty thousand and yet you have to hire motorcycle transport commonly known as boda-boda at Uganda shillings thirty thousand but if you are to ask them to cover the cost plus your efforts, they would complain of lack of money. This becomes challenging in most cases when a life is at stake.
Transport is very expensive; we try to organize ourselves and buy in bulk to minimize transport costs but this is not always possible for some emergency drugs that are required as and when necessary. Sometimes the transport operators are not very friendly and since you need their service you will have to toe the line according to their whims.
Where do you buy your products from?
We purchase our products from major pharmacies like Abacus, Gulu Pharmacy, Alpharma, Royal Pharma and other accredited suppliers.
What suggestions do you have to improve your business and generally the economic development of Kalongo town and how do you change the mindset of those whom you refer to as negatively critical of new ideas?
There is a need to have a vibrant group of business owners come together to share ideas and challenges. I understand there is in existence Kalongo Business Association but probably it’s not functional, however, most of the leaders in KBA are elderly people, there is a need for all the business community to come together, the elders should accommodate the young businessmen and women who are vibrant, innovative, adventurous, and quick to explore opportunities and adapt to modern and more effective ways of doing business to take the lead.
As a young person, how do you promote your business as business is quite competitive?
I do most of my business online especially transactions with suppliers, starting with placing orders inclusive of all documentations done using available technology; email, WhatsApp etc. Delivery is done using public transport but in some occasions the supplier’s transport also at a cost.
We also use social media to engage with suppliers on new products, brands, costs and other associated information and also share this information with fellow drug shop owners in the subregion and the population as well.
Promoting new brands to the convenience of our customers e.g a combination of drugs such as paracetamol and Diclofenac, Paracetamol and ibuprofen which are stronger and faster and reduces the cost of buying them separately, another example is coartem triple strength which you take one in the morning and one in the evening and this helps patients with poor adherence who would prefer what is easier to manage.
Tell us how you are able to access the community who are far off the periphery of Kalongo Town. Do you have outlets/outreaches to support them?
As I alluded to earlier, we have created a group amongst drug shop owners who stretch from as far as Part of Abim, Kitgum, Agago and Pader districts and we try to coordinate issues related to drugs procurement and other such related matters that is aimed to minimize cost and guarantee quality and process our purchases together.
We coordinate these supplies to reach these smaller drugs shops, however, we are in the process of securing a license to operate as a fully-fledged pharmacy to enable us to directly and legally support some of these facilities to improve service delivery to the broader community.
Where do you see yourself in the next short to mid-term?
The mission of Shalom Medical centre is focused on providing the cheapest medical services to the community of Kalongo and the surrounding areas. We aim at affordable services and providing quality drugs. In the short term, our focus is to become the first pharmacy in Kalongo Town able to provide easily the necessary drugs to all the outlets and smaller drug shops and subsequently in the mid to long term open up a maternity centre. My passion is on maternal and child health.
I also intend to upgrade my level of education in the line of profession as I believe I have the potential to do greater things and offer better services to the community than what I am currently doing.
Tell us about any success story in which you proudly identify yourself as resulting from the operation of your business – Shalom Medical Center?
On a personal note, having been a teenage mother I experienced a lot of challenges in the upbringing of my daughter singlehandedly; this business has helped me now to provide all that is necessary for my daughters’ education and welfare as well as support my mother who was widowed in 2019 when I lost my father. The business has also enabled me to support my siblings in different ways.
To the community; every mother, child or any other person who walks in from the hospital or from the community in need of medication which may not have been available or expensive elsewhere, and are able to get it from Shalom Medical Center and continue treatment from the hospital or at home, and eventually gets healed gives me a lot of pride and inner fulfilment.
For some time now Dr Ambrosoli Memorial Hospital has been experiencing an irregular supply of a number of drugs, and drug shops like Shalom Medical Center have been handy to provide whenever available the drugs as prescribed for the patient who is referred from the hospital to seek the drugs from any drug shop or pharmacy and get back with it to the hospital to continue treatment. We have received a number of testimonies from patients who have been healed through our contribution towards their health conditions.
What would you care to tell the world as your parting shot?
As Shalom Medical Center, we are so privileged to have you visit us, and share with you our perspective of the business. I very much appreciate “The Kalongo Times” for this initiative that I didn’t know existed. It’s the first time that I hear about “The Kalongo Times” let alone interact with them.
I feel this is a very good initiative that provides a snapshot of some of the socio-economic development issues, challenges and opportunities of doing business in Kalongo Town. This is good for our community, our country and the global community as well.
Shalom Medical Center does not serve only a few individuals; we live in a global village and continue to also touch the lives of others in one way or the other.
I would like to request “The Kalongo Times” and any person out there as part of this global village we live in to do something for the Kalongo community; we are in dire need, the community is in dire need, Uganda at large is in dire need.
We need support in the health sector especially in Kalongo; there is a need for medical supplies and equipment which is inadequate at the main hospital and therefore needs to be supplemented by other players in the private sector. I feel that this would be a great achievement if individuals, groups and institutions are able to give a helping hand where they can.
This would go a long way to help save lives and therefore help in the socio-economic growth of Kalongo Town. I implore young people like me, let’s join hands together, put ideas together to realize the gaps in our community and ultimately change the world we live in. As young people today, we shall be the elders of tomorrow. We need to look at this keenly and put a lot of effort to change the status quo.
Thank you so much.
We appreciate you very much Ms Lakot Florence the proprietor of Shalom Medical Center for giving us your time sharing your thoughts about your business and insight and how the business has grown how it is impacting the community of Kalongo. Well done and continue to do the good work.
Obonyo Alex is The Kalongo Times, Bureau Chief, Kalongo Town Council. He currently serves on the Board of Governors at St. Charles Lwanga’s College Kalongo and on the Pader Abim Community Multipurpose Electric Co-operative Society Limited (PACMECS); a cooperative dealing with the distribution of electricity in the northern service territory. He is a member of the Board of Directors chairing its Finance and Human Resource Committee. Between 2016 to July 2018 he also served on the Board of Governors at St. Kizito Hospital Matany in Karamoja. Alex worked at Dr Ambrosoli Memorial Hospital for 28 years (1990 to 2018), and for 14 of those years, he was the Hospital Administrator. He has a Masters of Science in Health Services Management and a bachelor’s degree in Administrative Studies. Obonyo Alex is also a local Kalongo businessman.