What does a nursing student understand about running one of Kenya’s most innovative healthcare startups? Naom Monari, a dedicated nursing student, found her calling in an unexpected place – an overcrowded public hospital in Kiambu, Kenya. Here, she witnessed the alarming prevalence of patients seeking non-urgent care, a problem often overlooked in healthcare delivery in Kenya.
In this blog post, we look at the remarkable journey of Naom and her healthcare startup, Bena Care, which provides affordable home-based healthcare for low to moderate-income Kenyans and provides job training and jobs for the country’s nurses and caregivers. Bena Care is the first startup to receive investment from the Standard Chartered Bank’s Women in Tech investment facility managed by Village Capital, securing an investment of USD 75K.
Read on to find out why we invested in Bena Care.
In 2017, when Naom was just a nursing student conducting her clinical rotations at Gatundu Level 5 Hospital in Kiambu, Kenya, she encountered firsthand the challenges posed by non-urgent medical care. Without an obvious alternative for health care delivery, many patients go to the hospital for non-emergency medical situations and end up staying for days, receiving IVs, pain medications, and minor wound care simply because they lack care options at home. As a result, there’s significant overcrowding in hospitals, diverting adequate care from the patients who need it the most, and the patients who don’t require the level of care a hospital provides are charged exorbitant hospital bills that they often cannot afford. Naom's conviction to find a better way to resolve this challenge and care for patients led to the birth of Bena Care, transforming healthcare access in Kenya.
Bena Care’s inception was a courageous endeavor, with Naom stepping into the realm of patient care without even formally registering the company. “I was on a 2-month clinical rotation and would often administer medication, bed changes, and attend to the grooming needs of Mr. Kamau. I noticed he progressively looked lonely. He rarely had visitors, and although he suffered from a stroke, his condition continuously improved. He was the classic non-urgent case for care.”
Naom learned that Mr. Kamau was a widower but had a son who lived in the city with his family. “When I finally saw the son during a visit, I took the opportunity to pitch myself as a primary caregiver, taking care of the patient at home, as opposed to the hospital – a request that was met with the question ‘Does such a service exist?’ That marked the dawn of a promising solution for patients and the healthcare industry in the country.
Pivoting During a Pandemic
After successfully taking care of Mr. Kamau and connecting with other patients eager for at-home care, Naom started collaborating with fellow healthcare professionals, contracting fellow nurses, enabling them to generate income immediately upon graduation, prior to their full integration into the job market, and doctors who, although assigned to government hospitals, often have private practices and were able to refer patients who did not necessarily require admission. “It was a win-win situation for us all. I would match fellow nurses with patients, and they would earn extra income, and for the doctors, I ensured that their patients were well taken care of in between appointments.” Naom described her partnership with fellow clinicians as a collaborative effort to improve outcomes for the patient.
The COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a turning point, and the idea of homecare really took off in Kenya with increased acceptance of homecare and telemedicine. Naom saw an opportunity to go beyond having Bena Care as the primary service provider, particularly for patients with financial difficulties and non-clinical care needs, and introduced training programs so that family members could become the caregivers for their loved ones, significantly reducing the cost to the families. “We train the relatives to become professional caregivers so that they can tend to the patient, dress wounds, monitor medical equipment, and keep records. We also provide continued support where the caregiver/family can reach Bena Care at any time for additional support. This service costs the family KES 200 daily (approx. USD 1.4).”
Scaling Deeper and Wider: Expanding Access to Healthcare Beyond Major Cities
Naom shares, “One of the things we have focused on is ensuring that healthcare is easily accessible deep within rural areas that often have small clinics that are under-resourced both in staffing and equipment.” Bena Care provided healthcare, but they also needed the proper medical equipment to enable successful at-home care.
Bena Care launched a marketplace offering patients used medical equipment like hospital beds and oxygen concentrators. The expense can still be substantial for their patients, so Bena Care recently piloted an equipment leasing program that offers the equipment at lower monthly rates. “This idea came from having to source an ICU bed for a patient who had received a quote for KES 200,000 (approx. USD $1,365) and had to fundraise from friends and family to make the purchase. Through our networks, we could source a second-hand electric bed at only KES 90,000 (approx. USD $615), and we saw an opportunity to build inventory to expand on our homecare line of work.”
In addition to providing clinical and non-clinical care and access to affordable medical equipment, the startup provides community health education workshops, health screenings, and access to home testing and telemedicine through partnerships with other healthcare startups.
Bena Care continues exploring innovative collaborations and is researching the treatment modalities available for chronic kidney disease in partnership with the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. “We believe in the power of partnerships to amplify the impact of our services. This research will inform the introduction of home-based renal replacement therapies for our patients. We’re also talking with government representatives and private insurance providers to introduce mobile dialysis services,” shares Naom.
Forging Partnerships for Greater Impact
Like many startups, access to funding was one of Naom’s biggest challenges, “Although as a company we had enough cash flow, we still couldn’t get financial support from local banks without collateral. As a young African woman, I’m at a disadvantage culturally because I’m not likely to have a property deed as it’s culturally reserved for men to inherit land, so this automatically ruled me out. That coupled with the fact I didn’t know anyone who would lend me the amount I required or a friend or relative I could pitch to, it was almost impossible for me to fundraise without the help of partners such as Standard Chartered’s Women in Tech (WIT) program,” explains Naom. “When we got accepted into the program, we had never attended an entrepreneur support program. Through the learnings, we found gaps in the market and introduced a new revenue stream - the sale of homecare equipment. I was exposed to a network of entrepreneurs and trainers whom we have been in touch with since. They have been instrumental to our growth and have always provided client referrals. My mentor at WIT, Tirus, midwifed the birth of our APP and platform to manage nursing services as well. We needed a big organization to take a bet on us. This was really the beginning of our visibility where a few months later, we raised funding and have done so since then.”
Bena Care initially received a grant of USD $10K from the initiative and has since received over USD $150K in grant funding from Entrepreneur Support Organizations (ESOs) such as Ashoka and a USD $50K investment from Johnson and Johnson’s Impact Ventures Fund through healthcare accelerator Villgro Africa. “This latest investment from the Women in Tech Facility managed by Village Capital will see us scale broadly and deeply across Kenya. The funding will help us expand our equipment leasing business regionally. Our vision is to create a healthcare ecosystem that truly puts patients and their families first, and this investment brings us one step closer to that reality.”
Bena Care currently has 18 permanent employees and over 3K healthcare workers on the platform. The startup engages 30-60 healthcare workers per day on average, who benefit from wages and salaries. Naom’s commitment to transforming the healthcare industry and facilitating meaningful employment opportunities for fellow medics continues to drive her startup’s mission forward.