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‘Milkman’ Expands Kenya’s Medical Oxygen Supplies

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As Kenya fights the COVID-19 pandemic, medical oxygen has become crucial to saving lives. Dr. Bernard Olayo hopes to make sure it is available for all who need it.

Olayo is the founder of Hewatele, a Kenyan company that produces oxygen for the country’s hospitals. Hewatele means “abundant air” in Swahili.

Olayo founded the company in 2014, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, to address the need for oxygen to help patients fighting pneumonia and other respiratory issues.

With the rise of COVID-19, Hewatele’s mission became more critical to patients’ survival.

“Most COVID patients, if you give them oxygen early enough, then you stop them from progressing to the more critical stage where they require ventilation,” Olayo said in an interview with the Gates Notes, a project run by philanthropist Bill Gates.

Kenya has recorded more than 5,100 deaths among more than 250,000 COVID-19 cases, and health workers have struggled to keep up with their patients’ need for oxygen. As a third wave of infections hit the country in March, demand for medical oxygen more than doubled to nearly 900 tons per month from 410 tons per month in 2020.

Before the pandemic, Hewatele operated at about 70% capacity. As COVID-19 took a larger toll on Kenya, the government asked the company to scale up its operations. Hewatele expanded its staff and began producing oxygen 24 hours a day.

The company has changed the way oxygen is produced in Kenya. Olayo describes the system as the “milkman model.”

Instead of a single facility producing oxygen that must be shipped over large distances at great expense, Hewatele has created a system of facilities tied to major hospitals that can supply oxygen to smaller health care sites nearby.

The plan is to increase supplies, shorten delivery time and lower the price of oxygen, which can cost 10 times more in Kenya than in the United Kingdom and 13 times more than in the United States.

Olayo originally experimented with installing small oxygen-generating facilities in 14 hospitals. The facilities failed after less than two years because the hospitals lacked the staff to maintain them.

The milkman model avoids that problem, according to Olayo.

“With adequate cylinders, a well-maintained plant and a distribution truck or two, it’s possible to supply oxygen to all health facilities within a 100-kilometer radius,” Olayo told Bloomberg.

Hewatele operates three oxygen plants and plans to add three more. The company serves about 250 medical facilities and has about 10% of Kenya’s market for medical oxygen.

Olayo is trying to raise $13.5 million to grow his operation, add a liquid oxygen facility by 2023, and begin shipping oxygen to Tanzania and Uganda.

Olayo knows the pain of watching patients suffer and die because they cannot get something as simple as oxygen. As a practicing physician, he sometimes didn’t have enough oxygen for surgeries.

“It breaks your heart because you’re deciding who lives and who does not live,” Olayo said. “The goal is that no health worker will ever have to make the painful decision I did between who lives and who dies.”

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