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Tale of old man in Indian shops

Surgipharm Limited Vijai Maini
Surgipharm Limited managing director Dr Vijai Maini at his Westlands office on August 1, 2018. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

In 1897, a big ship docks in Mombasa from India. An Indian man gets off, stays a couple of years, finds Kenya too wild and gets on another ship and sails back to India. But the call of Africa doesn’t abate so he comes back in 1910, sets base and then invites some cousins over from India to join him.

One of the cousins who came is Vijai Maini’s grandfather.

The same Vijai who studied pharmacy in the UK and came back to start the very successful Surgipharm which now has an annual turnover of Sh700 million.

He started his company when he was 40 years, but before that he was playing badminton professionally and collecting a forest of trophies which he shows JACKSON BIKO in his boardroom in their offices in Westlands.

At 74 years, he reminisces about the young Vijai in sports, the current Vijai who has lived his life and raised his children in a way he is proud of.
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Describe to me how it feels like to be 74 years old.

(Laughs) Well, it's gratifying. (Pause) I played badminton until I was 40 years old and then I couldn’t play anymore because at that age, your energy levels are going down. I woke up and said, ‘I have to do something else with my life. So I started this business on a 4,000 square feet rental room in town.

Are you generally better at this age than you were at, say, 45?

I think one reasons better. You tend to be less aggressive, but at the same time you take less risks in business. The few you take pay off, some don’t. But I'm still very passionate, I have no intention of retiring.

What dreams do you have left that you plan to achieve now?

Well, my dream now is that this business that I created continues and thrive. The dream has always been to maintain the ethics of the business which is big for me. The drugs I sell are drugs that my own family would take. I have always prided myself to do things by the book and I would like that to be a dream that continues.

How is the experience of being a father different from being a grandfather?

We have a saying in our community: you love interest more than the capital. (Chuckles). The capital here is your children and the interest is your grandchildren.

When you have children, you're so engrossed in trying to make your living and raising them. You don’t spend as much time with them because you are building something for yourself and for them. But with grandchildren, you have mellowed a bit and you have more time.

You tend to spoil them more than you did your children because anyway the responsibility to raise them is not mine. My responsibility was with my children and I already raised them so it’s their turn now. So yes, it’s a joy.

I have been blessed. I grew up in a joint family environment and my children grew up in the same joint family.

What is a joint family?

We've got four generations under one roof. When my sons grew up, there were four generations under one roof. My grandchildren until recently have grown with four generations under one roof with my mother who passed away three years ago at the age of 94.

Obviously, there are great advantages in having four generations under one roof in terms of cohesion but in terms of privacy, how does that work out especially when you are married and some people just can’t get along and they have to run into each other in the kitchen every day?

(Laughs) Privacy is not that much of a problem because we have been lucky to have reasonably sized accommodation. But generally it’s a give and take.

It’s usually the women who have to get more used to each other than the men. For instance, for the wives sharing a kitchen might not be the easiest thing. My mother was always the best cook and when my wife came in, she had to sort of get used to the way of life. But having been brought up in that environment, living with your grandfather, the uncles and the aunts sort of thing, it has just come naturally to me. It has not been difficult.

Now that you are here, an Indian patriarch, I might as well ask you this. How does the Indian community intend to integrate with the rest when they congregate as a community in specific areas away from the rest? Is this ever a need?

Integration comes in on the outside life, not where you live. It comes in when you're a member of a private club or at school. I think a lot of integration happens in schools now more than ever. They don’t see colour. All my sons went to St Mary's and they had more local Kenyan friends than Indian friends. My eldest is very good friends with an indigenous Kenyan, they ended up in the same university in the UK and he came back also and this guy has a very senior post in Standard Chartered.

What shakes your confidence now, at 74 years of age?

(Pause) Irregular business practices. The business practices now are not really what they were. In recent years, there has been a disturbing level of corruption that I’m not used to as a businessman. This is new to me, this is not how we have been doing business.

Sometimes when I visit an Indian shop, I see a very elderly Indian man seated at a small desk at the back, hunched over a stack of papers, poking at a calculator. An old man, probably 100 years old. I always wonder, why does that guy still come to the shop? Is it to keep his brain alive? Is it that that’s all he has done his whole life and knows nothing else? What’s his motivation? What’s your motivation to keep coming here at 74?

(Chuckles) So take me for example, I started in healthcare and I have never diverted from it. All profits made here have gone back into the business to build it. I have not had the desire to say ‘OK now let me go and start a hotel or put up my own buildings.’ I still rent here. I would rather keep the money in stocks and develop the business.

When you put everything in one thing, you want to preserve it. There is a bicycle shop in River Road started in the 1950s. The owners have diversified into the hotel industries in a big way but the old man, the owner, never sits in those many hotels. He sits in that shop where he started. This is a question of belief. Or luck.

When was the last time you were broke?

I cannot remember. (Laughs)

Uhm, 1969, probably?

(Chuckles loudly) No. I've been lucky. In the sense, I suppose I came into this world fortunately. My family has always been privileged, fortunately.

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