A Kenyan eye clinic with a long vision

A Kenyan eye clinic with a long vision

The eye clinic provides vital treatment to thousands of East Africans

Kenya’s Hurlingham Eye Care Services – a company founded in 2007 by three female doctors – started with small steps but with a long vision.

In the last six years the firm, which opened with just a few patients, has become East Africa’s leading eye clinic and offers a wide range of services, from eye tests to laser surgery.

“Right from the onset our dream was to work in a centre that can be able to provide all types of eye care as a one-stop shop,” one of the founders, Dr Kahaki Kimani, told the BBC’s series African Dream.

“We also wanted to be a centre of excellence and so, when we saw a lot of our people travelling [for treatment] long distances outside the country – to Europe, to South Africa, to India – we felt that probably it was the right time to bring some of these services closer home,” she explained.

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Initially we tried to get many more ophthalmologists to come and invest with us but they were not willing; they thought that the risks were too big”

Dr Kahaki Kimani

Dr Kimani and two other ophthalmologists – Prof Dunera Ilako and Dr Nancy Kiumbura – set the firm in motion with an initial investment of $15,000 (£9,500) which they borrowed from a friend, an eye doctor who lives in Germany and who has given them a lot of additional support, including training.

The three Kenyan ophthalmologists first established a series of optical shops through which they could offer eye tests and glasses to their patients.

Later they decided to set up a centre with state-of-the-art technology that would enable them to provide laser surgery and other specialised treatment, and for this they needed additional funding.

“Initially we tried to get many more ophthalmologists to come and invest with us but they were not willing; they thought that the risks were too big. Family thought we were nuts, colleagues thought we were crazy.

“I mean, how do you raise this kind of money and how ever will you pay it back?”

Private backing

After approaching several of Kenya’s main banks in vain, they entered into a partnership with a private equity firm, Jacana Partners, which invests in entrepreneurs and small-to-medium sized enterprises.

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Hurlingham Eye Care Services

Dr. Kahaki Kimani (left) and a patient
  • Started in 2007
  • Location: Nairobi, Kenya
  • Co-founders: Dr Kahaki Kimani (left), Prof Dunera Ilako and Dr Nancy Kiumbura
  • Starting capital: $15,000
  • Opened Eagle Eye Laser & Diagnostic Centre in 2010
  • Employees: 30
  • Annual turnover: $1m

With its backing, they started the Eagle Eye Laser & Diagnostic Centre in 2010.

At the moment, Hurlingham Eye Care Services (HECS) has 30 employees and an annual turnover of around $1m.

“If someone needs a cornea transplant, we are able to do it. If someone has glaucoma – that is high pressure in the eyes – we can take care of that, if someone needs refractory surgery – that’s surgery to correct focusing problems – we are able to provide that.

“We have both the equipment and the personnel to be able to provide whatever is needed,” the doctor told BBC Africa’s Anne Mawathe.

While most eye care in Kenya is provided through the state hospitals, the queues are long and the service is far from ideal.

Dr Kimani and her colleagues believe that their clinic is a better alternative.

“Some of the services we provide are not cheap but they are not cheap anywhere in the world,” she said.

But she thinks their fees are lower than those of comparable clinics in Europe, the US, or South Africa.

Treating the poor

However, they are aware that many of their treatments are still beyond the reach of Kenya’s poor and so they have created a charitable arm to the company that provides “pro-bono treatments for patients in desperate need” and runs eye tests in the slum areas of the capital, Nairobi.

People queuing for eye tests
The company runs eye tests in the slum areas of Nairobi

“The kind of eye hospital we dream about with my team is where we would be able to give, on the one hand, service to those who can afford it and are looking to going abroad for this service and, on the other hand, the people who are the majority of this country but, with little subsidy, can get good health care,” she said.

The centre is also offering services to foreign medical tourists who could, they say, “get their eyes lasered at the same standard, using the same equipment [as abroad] but for a lower cost, and then go on a safari with their new perfect vision”.

However, Dr Kimani warns budding entrepreneurs that starting and running a business usually means a considerable financial sacrifice.

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Sometimes you may even go without a salary but there’s always that satisfaction that you’re offering a service that you feel proud of”

According to her, although her company has grown significantly since it started, it is still along way from where they want it to be.

“Eventually we hope even to be a centre that is able to train, even offer some speciality training for eye doctors.”

She admits that they are not yet earning a salary of note and says that a significant amount of the money they get is being used to pay for the equipment they need to perform laser surgeries.

“Right now, I must confess, finances are tight and of course when you’re a business owner you get paid last; sometimes you may even go without a salary but there’s always that satisfaction that you’re offering a service that you feel proud of.”

If you have any questions for Dr Kahaki Kimani, please join her in a live Q&A on the BBC Africa Facebook page from 1500 – 1600GMT on Friday 15 February.

African Dream is broadcast on the BBC Focus on Africa radio programme every Thursday afternoon, and on BBC World News throughout the day on Fridays

Every week, one successful business man or woman will explain how they started off and what others could learn from them.

The Ghanaian woman who made millions fighting skin-bleaching

The Ghanaian woman who made millions fighting skin-bleaching

African Dream: Ghana’s Grace Amey-Obeng

Ghana’s Grace Amey-Obeng, one of West Africa’s most successful businesswomen, made her fortune promoting products which emphasised the beauty of the black skin, at a time when many of her competitors were selling dangerous skin-bleaching formulas.

The business empire she started a quarter of a century ago with around $100 (£63) now has an annual turnover of between $8m and $10m.

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The women in the market had destroyed their skin with all this kind of beauty products, bleaching products”

Grace Amey-Obeng

Her FC Group of Companies – which includes a beauty clinic, a firm that supplies salon equipment and cosmetics, and a college – has eight branches in Ghana and exports to Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Togo, Ivory Coast, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Mrs Amey-Obeng has won dozens of accolades and industry awards for her skincare beauty products and marketing.

But one of the things that make her especially proud is her FC Beauty College which, since its opening in 1999, has trained more than 5,000 young people, mostly women.

“It’s like a family bond. I’m so proud that they have managed to go through the programme,” she told the BBC’s series African Dream.

Equally important to her is her role as a medical aesthetician and she cites seeing a skin condition resolved as something that gives her “joy”.

“I’m so happy that God has given me that talent and that touch to heal people,” she said.

‘Irreparable damage’

Mrs Amey-Obeng studied beauty therapy in the United Kingdom and after graduation, in the 1980s, returned to her native Ghana.

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Grace Amey-Obeng

Grace Amey-Obeng
  • Age: 55
  • Studied Beauty Therapy at Croydon College, London, UK
  • CEO FC Group of Companies
  • Annual turnover: $8-10 million
  • Start-up capital: $100
  • Number of employees: 95
  • Exports to: Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Togo, Ivory Coast, UK, Switzerland
  • Branches in Ghana: Eight
  • Trainees: 286 currently in hairdressing/beauty therapy
  • Hobbies: Collecting African art

She knew that in her country women take great pride in their appearance and was convinced that there was a niche market she could “tap into”.

Working out of her bag and going from house to house she advised people on skincare.

Soon, however, she became aware that there was “a lot of skin-bleaching going on”, a trend she found “alarming” and something that is common in much of Africa.

“The women in the market had destroyed their skin with all this kind of beauty products, bleaching products, and so I saw the need for assisting them to reverse the process because otherwise it would become a social problem,” she said.

“The level of damage – in this climate – bleaching does is irreparable,” she added.

Not long after her return to Ghana, she opened her first beauty clinic with financial support from her family.

“I couldn’t access any funds from the bank. I didn’t even think about it because everybody said ‘In this country nobody will give you money'”.

Business loan offers came pouring in only after her business had been running for three years.

Although access to bank loans in Ghana might be relatively easier these days, she advises that budding entrepreneurs should take care not to borrow too much.

Made in Ghana

Mrs Amey-Obeng explained that, once her clinic was running, she realised that the imported products they were recommending often proved too expensive for their clients.

FC Beauty College students Since its opening, the FC Beauty College has trained more than 5,000 young people

This was often a result of currency exchange rate fluctuations.

“It was a challenge. They would come back with worse conditions, and so we said: ‘OK, why don’t we start our own line that we can sell to our people?'”.

Her skincare line, which she started in 1998, would soon have a huge success not only because of the products’ prices – which currently range from $3 to $15 – but also, in her opinion, because they were made taking into account black skins and the West African climate.

In view of her concerns about skin bleaching, the name of her brand, Forever Clair (Clear), may seem controversial to some.

However, she argues that “clair” there refers to “light, hope and strength”, not skin colour.

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The joy of putting smiles on the faces of people that this business offers, that’s what makes me want to do it forever”

“Light shows the way. It’s not about complexion, it’s about the heart,” the entrepreneur said.

And she seems indeed bent on helping others to gain hope and strength. She is well-known in Ghana for her philanthropic work, especially through the Grace Amey-Obeng International Foundation.

Women leaders, she says, should offer a helping hand to less fortunate women, encourage them and share expertise.

“The joy of putting smiles on the faces of people that this business offers, that’s what makes me want to do it forever.”

African Dream is broadcast on the BBC Focus on Africa radio programme every Thursday afternoon, and on BBC World News throughout the day on Fridays

Every week, one successful business man or woman will explain how they started off and what others could learn from them.