Business Profiles

Yaya Chemist: She can

Opened in 1989, Yaya Chemist has spent the past 33 years raising the bar for pharmacies in Kenya. Taking inspiration from her time abroad in Australia and the UK, the chemist’s founder, Smruti Patel, has sought to re-invent what a Kenyan pharmacy can offer and, in her own, she has been successful. We spoke with Smruti about Yaya Chemist and the services it provides, how it got to the point it is at today, its strides in empowering female employees, and her dreams for its future development.

Yaya Chemist is located on the ground floor of the Yaya Centre, a go-to shopping centre in Nairobi. Its position within the mall makes it easy-access to anyone seeking medication or medical advice, and it has held this same spot since the centre first opened in 1989. “We’ve had the same location right from day one,” Smruti told us. “The mall was under construction and they wanted a pharmacy, so we applied. Out of 50 applications, I was selected, and I started the pharmacy from scratch.”

Having qualified in the UK, Smruti went on to work as a pharmacist there for several years before returning to Kenya, where she soon found the field lacking in many of the extra offerings she had experienced. “I realised that there was a gap in the retail pharmacy industry in Nairobi at that time, and decided to open one of my own with services on a par with the UK.” Yaya Chemist and its team value accuracy and ethics, striving to provide the highest level of customer service that it can and priding itself on keeping pace with world trends. From the start, Smruti introduced a computerized system whilst other pharmacies were still working by paper, and she has continued to update this system as time moved on. The industry has progressed since 1989 and so has Smruti, and she still has plans enough to keep Yaya Chemist moving forwards for the forseeable future. “I’m passionate – I’m passionate about my pharmacy.” 

So, what were some of the key, game-changing elements that Smruti introduced to Yaya Chemist? One of the most important additions were consultation services: inspired by what she had seen overseas, Smruti invested in the staff and equipment to be able to offer tests for blood pressure, blood sugar, body composition, bone density and cholesterol, and to discuss the results and their implications with the customer. Yaya Chemist is not simply a shop, but somewhere that people can go to for a reliable opinion before they take more costly avenues: 

“Some people don’t want to go to a doctor straight away, because everything is private here. Our tests are a very minimal charge – for blood pressure monitoring, it’s about 100 KES, which isn’t even £1. For cholesterol or body composition, we charge 1,500 KES, which is about £10. However, we don’t play doctors: people have confidence that we will channel them to the doctors if necessary.”

As well as these medical tests, Yaya Chemist has gotten ahead of a trend by offering herbal and homeopathic services, as well as counselling for nutritional health given by a qualified full-time nutritionist. The pharmacists and nutritionist also work together to advise on any interactions that may occur between nutrients, diet and the medications a patient is on, which is a service that would be more costly and hard to come by from a doctor. The store itself even sells glucometers, blood pressure monitors, humidifiers and malaria testing kits for people to use themselves, as well as mobility aids. 

Finally, on the cosmetics side, the team includes a beauty assistant who is well-versed in both local and international brands, both of which are stocked. Even ear-piercing services are provided, and with a well-versed beautician overseeing this side of the business, customers are in safe and well-informed hands no matter which aspect of the chemists’ services they are there for. 

On the customer-facing side of things, these services were really what set Yaya Chemist apart, but of course, over the past two years, life became more remote. It was during this time that Smruti and her team began to examine what they could offer remotely, instead of what they could add in-store. The answer was deliveries. During the Covid period, the company launched two different approaches to handling a delivery service. To begin with, as an immediate response to the pandemic, the chemists started using WhatsApp: customers simply have to message with their order or a valid prescription, and after being prepared and double checked by a pharmacist and pharmacy technician, the order is out and on its way to them in less than an hour. This has proven an extremely popular system, with 10% of Yaya’s business now carried out in this way even after the pandemic has begun to ease up.

More recently, the chemists also launched a second online service – one that took longer to prepare. This was the Yaya Chemist website. Currently, this website is set up for cosmetics sales only, as laws are not in place to allow prescription pharmaceuticals to be sold or delivered over the internet in this way. However, always looking forwards, when Smruti commissioned her website she had it built for a full online service, medicines and all: this way, she is ready for the change as and when laws concerning chemists and ecommerce change.  

All of this is fantastic, but for Smruti, reforming pharmacies behind the scenes was just as important as reforming customer experience. This meant reforming the experience of the staff. In particular, as a female business owner in the pharmaceutical field, she knew of the challenges faced by her fellow female pharmacists, and was passionate about making a difference. As it stood, obstacles made it difficult for women to stay in their profession once having a family: after training, qualifying and committing to this field, needing to drop out of it was not only unfair on the women losing their career, but a terrible loss for Kenya. Smruti decided, in her pharmacy at least, to make a change:

“I knew how hard it was to run a pharmacy as a working mum, juggling things at home. Every mother in a profession faces this challenge, but a pharmacy has long hours, as well.” For the sake of their customers having ease of access, Yaya Chemist not only has long opening hours, but also stays open on Sundays and all public holidays. This burden can be shared equally between the team, to make sure that everyone has a home-work balance, but it can still make things difficult for a mother who is expected to look after her children as well to hold their own within a team. Smruti didn’t want to see talented and qualified women leaving the profession because of this. She responded by allowing flexible and part-time working hours. “It has made a huge difference. Even if it’s half a day or a few hours, they’re still professionally connected.” This change has allowed Smruti to employ a largely female team, and this focus on the preservation of female pharmacists’ careers, and other female employees’ careers as well, has had a huge impact on their work-life balance and, ultimately, their futures.

Another way in which Smruti empowers her staff – male and female – is through group presentations. Her staff take it in turns to give each other 30-minute presentations on different subjects that fall within their individual medical expertise, thus further educating the rest of the team as well as encouraging her staff’s confidence in their own knowledge and public speaking abilities. This confidence is paid forwards, as Smruti encourages all staff to be creative in helping their customers, for example in proposing alternative solutions when a particular product is not available. 

This much thought and effort, both towards customers and staff, paid off: in 2009, Yaya Chemist was given an award marking it as one of the best pharmacies in Kenya, and Smruti has been approached repeatedly by other malls asking her to branch out into their locations. However, for Smruti, she would currently prefer to concentrate on making her current store as good as it can be, rather than splitting her focus. “I work not for money, but for passion. I just believe in giving good service and in using my knowledge to the best level I can.” However, this interest could mark a change for Kenyan pharmacies, if more of Smruti’s competitors begin to follow suit and implement more of the services and resources that Yaya Chemists provides.

Those services don’t stop coming, either. As well as continuing to establish and expand their new delivery systems and online presence, Smruti is already looking forwards to the newest additions she would like to bring in to Yaya Chemist’s repertoire. Wisely, she intends to bring these in gradually and to stagger the change, both so that her customers and her staff don’t have too much too fast. However, she’s always looking to the next step:

“Customers might have a lot of drugs at home – drugs from over the counter, drugs from the pharmacy, drugs from years ago. So, I would like to start a yearly Brown Bag Review, as I would call it. The idea is that they bring their drugs from home in a brown bag, and we review it all. Are they taking it properly? Has it expired? Do they need it? I would also like to do a multiple drug check-up – that is, if someone is on multiple drug therapies, we provide a medication review. This is especially important for elderly patients – sometimes, they are taking so many drugs, and there are so many interactions that they may not know about. So, that is another service I would like to offer – there is nothing like that here at the moment.”

As a part of the coming Brown Bag review, and already existing as a service, Yaya Chemist is able to safely dispose of people’s expired medicine for them: rather than sending it to a landfill, the safe way to dispose of it is by incineration. This is something Yaya does for its own expired drugs, and is able to take in ones from the public as well. “Giving that awareness to the public is important: people might just throw it in the gutter, but if they bring their Brown Bag, we can advise them and dispose of it for them.” This is a part of Yaya Chemist’s attempts to be responsible towards the environment: also to this end, it has a no-plastic policy, and is cautious to incinerate collected expired stock once every six months, rather than frequently.

Overall, what Smruti has created is fantastic: having built it up from scratch and now not only ‘keeping up’ but leading the way, it is no surprise that other malls have approached Smruti themselves. Whilst Yaya is currently staying put, its message travels outwards, showing what can be done and encouraging, even daring others to do the same. This could, hopefully, be the beginning of an exciting shift, and one that we’ll watch with interest. The additional services, or the important shift for female pharmacists – if either of these could take off, it would make an incredible change. If both do, then all the better! Whatever happens, we’ll know where to look to credit where it began.