COVID19 inspired accidental entrepreneurship

THIS is a story of how Covid19 caused lack, turned the writer into an accidental entrepreneur who initiated a simple idea that started with a sanitizer -first formulated at his kitchen table- to a product now being mass manufactured, and how an investment of N$3 000.00 turned into a set-up that generates up N$75 000.00/day in production sale conversion.

Many of you have seen and heard about the UNAM Hand Sanitizer.  This article tells a story behind its humble beginnings.  It indeed is a story of how not to underestimate (or despise) the day of small beginnings of a small acorn that turns into an oak.  It all began one weekend when I took my kids for lunch at a restaurant in Windhoek.  After lunch we did some shopping, and decided to pick up a bottle or two of hand sanitizers.  However, after visiting several shops including a pharmacy, we could not find any sanitizer, as all were sold out.  We then decided to visit yet another shopping mall south of Windhoek.  After visiting several shops, we again found that no sanitizers were available there either.  We went home that day without hand sanitizer, a simple product that quickly became a most sought-after formulation in Windhoek.

The next day, I went to the local mall and bought several ingredients.  Back home I sat down at our kitchen table and promptly started to formulate and mix a simple prototype of a hand sanitizer.  I used old spray bottles to package the product, some of which I took to my sister in the township with the advice that they could use it to supplement hand washing, particularly when using public transport.  With that I realised that there was an opportunity to provide hand sanitizers to residents of Windhoek, particularly in the townships and informal settlements.  Excited by a possibility of solving a fast growing problem with my simple solution, I headed home.  That night I designed a simple label of the initial Hand Sanitizer that some of you may have seen.

The following morning I started looking for packaging bottles and caps from various outlets.  Like with sanitizers, I could not find any outlet that had any bottles or caps, as those too were sold out. Eventually, I bought several hundred 330 ml bottles and caps in Prosperita, and I was able to buy a few multi-colour prints of labels to complete the gathering of packaging materials.  Now all I had to do was to find more raw materials for pilot-scale production.  Soon it was time to go to work, so I took my product and went to the office.  I discussed the merits of making hand sanitizer with a colleague in the department, who gave a few suggestions.  We left the discussion about the hand sanitizer, to get on with our plans for work.

During our discussions of work plans, I guess part of my mind was also mulling over how one would mass produce this product, and how one could find customers.  Previously, I had read about the four stages of business start-up, which were:  (1) Identify a problem and/or an opportunity; (2) Develop a solution, i.e. a product or service; (3) Find paying customer(s), and (4) Set-up a way to get paid.  When I remembered that story, I realised that by producing the initial prototype of a hand sanitizer, I had cracked the first two stages of a business start-up.  Firstly, I knew the problem I saw, which was also an opportunity – i.e. limited availability of hand sanitizers.  Secondly, I had already provided a solution by making my own very first hand sanitizer product.

Thus, what I needed to do next was: (a) to find a paying customer or customers, and (b) to find a way to get paid.  I had no idea how I was to solve the last two stages of this potential business start-up.  Suddenly, my phone rang.  The voice on the other side of the phone asked if I could make hand sanitizers for them.  Without stopping for a minute to think, I said, I could and that I already had.  My colleague on the phone asked me if I could make hand sanitizers for our school, i.e. the School of Pharmacy, UNAM.  But before the final go ahead, we then agreed with my associate Dean that providing the product for SOP should not hinder my chances of providing this product for other clients in my own capacity.  As a result of that phone call, I had a customer.  Now I had solved three out of the four stages of business a start-up.  The last thing I needed to do to complete the process was, to find a way to get paid.

That afternoon, I was asked to explain how we could make hand sanitizer for the school, to a group of people working on intervention strategies against COVID19 pandemic at the Hage Geingob campus.  When it was my turn to speak, I did not say much.  In fact, I only told the audience that we had a product, and promptly asked them to try out my very first hand sanitizer product from my kitchen.  And thus, I launched the product that you all will recognise as the UNAM Hand Sanitizer, there in the lecture theater on that afternoon, in front of a few dozen audience.

What’s interesting is that at this point I did not know if this product would solve any problem I envisaged.  I did not know the extent of its impact, but by spending N$3 000.00 of my own money, I decided to take a risk.  I was really nervous about how much I had put up to bring this product to that point.  I had the bottles, caps, labels and some, but, not all the raw materials.  I put the worries about my investment aside, and decided to find more raw materials.  The only encouragement I had was that I had a customer, not a paying customer, yet, but someone who wanted the product that I had produced.  That knowledge was enough to spur me on.

Thus, I visited all chemical suppliers I knew in Windhoek’s northern industry, southern industry, and Prosperita. But the worries about money spent did not go away.  What if all the money I put in did not provide any return on investment?  With ever present worries about my investment, I decided to continue developing the product.

I got a colleague to go with me, and we decided to find ways to supply the product that our school wanted.  We briefly discussed how we could get paid, what we should charge, but then put that discussion on a backburner as we went about looking for companies that could provide us with all the necessary raw materials.

As I said previously, we had the bottles, caps and labels.  In addition, we had (and could) buy glycerine, and hydrogen peroxide.  The biggest problem was where to buy alcohol, which was very difficult to come by.  I showed my colleague how much I had invested up to that point which was quite a lot for both of us, but it was a risk that I was willing to take.

A day or so later, a meeting was arranged with officials from the Ministry of Health and Social Services.  During that first among several meetings with various stakeholders, I was asked to explain the simple product and the possible prices.  I explained the best I could and gave simple estimates of the product prices, based on the limited knowledge I had acquired during my search for the raw materials.  That meeting with MOHSS presented the first possibility of acquiring a paying customer, and thus sealing the business start-up for this nameless brand of a product from my kitchen.  Shortly after that meeting, the ministry sent a word to share how many units they wanted, and with that we had a paying customer.

With that we started a process that ticked three of the four important boxes in a business start-up planning, which were: (1) Do you have or see problem? (2) Do you have a solution? (3) Do you have a paying customer?  The answers were affirmative in every case.  We had a business opportunity and ways to provide a service, i.e. a product.  Thus, the first ever business to provide a commercially successful product completed its initiation, and became a reality, a first, in the history of the University of Namibia, and it was started in my kitchen, was brought to the department of pharmaceutics, and went on to serve the School of Pharmacy, HG campus, many ministries, Office of the President, MOHSS, Gender and the general public.

Today, a product started as explained above employs 20 staff, produces +1 300 bottles of hand sanitizer per day, with daily production value of N$75 000+.  Indeed, the small acorn has turned into a mighty oak, and has made history for the University of Namibia.  What is surprising is how a simple idea in one person’s mind, their tenacity to continue at risk of own money, and a lot hard work by many different players turned that simple idea into a viable business.

But it all started with one person’s simple idea, and initiative.  I challenge you today wherever you are in your quest to start something, to take a chance, take a leap, because until you do, you will never know how far you can go.  If you wish to try your luck or your plan, but are not sure, contact me; maybe, your idea can also succeed like mine.  But you will not know, until you try.  Come on, have a go, and good luck.

Following the inception of the UNAM Hand Sanitizer product (project), many people and the university had a hand in its further development, and their contribution is very important and acknowledged, particularly the members of the department of pharmaceutics, School of Pharmacy and many others who put in  many selfless, exhausting hours, often doing two jobs at the same time. Congratulations to you all as we continue our plan to spin-out a company over the next couple of months.

Seth !Nowaseb is a lecturer and Head of the Department of Pharmaceutics at the School of Pharmacy,  Hage Geingob Campus, University of Namibia.  He is writing here in his personal capacity. He can be contacted at: spnowaseb@yahoo.com, Tel: 0812799496.

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