Contributing to achieving sustainable healthcare in Uganda: St Eliza Healthcare Services Ltd

A World Health Organisation report noted that Uganda is slowly but surely moving toward achieving Universal Health Coverage (UHC) which is the cornerstone for the attainment of Sustainable Development Goal 3 on the global development agenda.

For instance, the country has a robust health sector development plan that seeks to, among other goals “accelerate movement towards Universal Health Coverage with essential health and related services needed for promotion of a healthy and productive life”. This is also encapsulated in the overall targets the country’s Vision 2040.

Through St Eliza Healthcare, Betty Bukirwa and Alex Okello are contributing to these positive statistics by providing much needed healthcare solutions to residents of Gayaza area.

Betty Bukirwa at work in St Eliza Healthcare

Identifying a healthcare gap in Gayaza area

From a young age, Betty Bukirwa was always passionate about children. This is one of the reasons why she studied nursing. Her husband and business partner, Alex Okello is an accountant by profession and with the skills they had, they started St. Eliza Healthcare in January, 2013.

Before making this decision, they lived in Ntinda, Kampala where the healthcare system was pretty good and access to quality healthcare was not much of a challenge. However, they noticed that areas in the outskirts of Kampala such as Gayaza were underserved when it came to quality, affordable healthcare.

In 2012, they decided to move from Ntinda to Gayaza which is the current location for St. Eliza Healthcare. Located 20km from Kampala city, Gayaza initially had 2 pharmacies and few health centres and those available provided poor quality services at a costly price. This was the challenge Alex and Betty intended to solve by providing the residents there with access to quality and affordable medicine with professionalism.

Coming from a strong Catholic background, St Eliza was the perfect name for the business as Eliza is short for Elizabeth which is Betty’s official name.

St Eliza Healthcare logo

Focus on children and mothers

The focus for St. Eliza Healthcare is providing pharmaceutical services to clients. However, they also perform basic tests such as Malaria and typhoid tests.

Betty noted that as much as their services are targeted to everyone in the community, children and mothers are their main target,

“80% of our clients are children and mothers. 10% are the elderly and the remaining 10% are the rest of the people in the community.”

Being a medical business, there are certain limitations on how much St. Eliza Healthcare can advertise their services. However, Betty admits that word of mouth and referrals has sustained the business so far,

“We make sure we serve anyone who walks through our doors the best way we can. We also give follow up calls to our clients after some time just to check on them and find out how they are doing after medication. This shows them that we care beyond the counter.”

Building good relationships with the community

Compared to the situation that was there back in 2013, St. Eliza Healthcare has greatly contributed to improved healthcare in Gayaza area. In addition to the services they provide, they also provide a lot of health education over the counter around compliance, good hygiene, and lifestyle. This has empowered the community residents to be aware about their health choices.

The great relationship they have built with the community is something that Betty and Alex hold with great value,

“Our clients look at the business beyond just a pharmacy. The services we provide go above and beyond normal pharmaceutical services and all our staff are well trained and very professional. We’ve been able to retain most of our staff for years now and this has enhanced the trust with the community as they attach a familiar face to the service.”

Investing in St Eliza Healthcare staff has been key for Betty. They provide regular trainings to help them update their knowledge and serve clients better. They have also built good relationships with the staff and created a culture of teamwork.

Some of the staff at St Eliza Healthcare with Betty Bukirwa

Once in a while, they offer free checkups for non-communicable diseases. From screening, to checking blood pressure, community residents can get these services free of charge.

Dealing with competition

According to Alex, competition is the biggest challenge they have faced in the business,

“When we came to Gayaza, there were around 2 pharmacies, the number has currently increased to 8. The main challenge is most of our competitors come in with the focus of making a profit and not really offering a quality service. We are working around this by constantly training our staff and providing quality service to our clients, then the word spreads to the community.”

Impact from the GrowthAfrica Accelerator

By 2019, both Betty and Alex were confident in St Eliza’s Healthcare’s growth. They had successfully been in operation for 7 years; they had gotten community trust and business was good. However, Betty felt it was a good time to take the business to the next level and the GrowthAfrica Accelerator offered the perfect challenge to achieve this.

“GrowthAfrica has been a great business partner for us. From the first Visioning bootcamp, I was triggered to think out of the box. I thought I had figured out my customers, but the sessions challenged me to get to know my customers outside of the counter. I had to ask myself, who my customers are, what are their unique underlying need, customer journey, pains and gains and how can I better serve them?” Betty said

Betty Bukirwa with fellow entrepreneurs in the 2019 GrowthAfrica Accelerator going through one of the workshops

Another valuable lesson they implemented in the business was improving their systems and processes. Betty admits that initially, she was the only one who understood the ins and outs of the business and whenever she was not around, things would not run smoothly. The accelerator programme gave her perspective on how she can transfer her knowledge to the staff so that the pharmacy runs smoothly whether she is around or not.

Some advice for entrepreneurs

Betty’s advice to entrepreneurs is to focus on their passion and not profit,

“When we started the business, I did not take a salary for the first three years. It was a sacrifice but what gave me joy was serving our customers and seeing them happy and healthy. If you are passionate about what you do and you are professional, everything else will fall into place.”

Alex adds that entrepreneurs should embrace patience as it sometimes takes 3 to 4 years for the business to grow. He also said that something that has worked for them is separating their personal finances from business finances.

Plans for the future

Betty and Alex recently conducted a customer survey and something that stood out was the customers wanted them to offer Clinical and laboratory services in addition to pharmaceutical services.

As much as they currently offer basic tests, they have to refer some customers to Kampala for other tests which is an inconvenience for the customers. To address this, St Eliza Healthcare got a bigger space around Gayaza area where they plan to set up a pharmacy and laboratory which will be well equipped to carry out more tests.

In the long term, Betty and Alex plan to open a pediatric and gynecological hospital that will offer specialized healthcare for children and mothers.

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