EBRD and Kazakh government helped with warehouse automation
This summer, at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in Kazakhstan, local pharmacies experienced an overwhelming increase in demand. People were queuing for hours – some to get hold of medicine to manage apparent early symptoms of Covid-19, others to buy immunity-boosting drugs to protect their loved ones from the virus.
“We felt like we had been called up to war,” says Lazzat Kuandykova, owner of Atamiras, a wholesale pharmacy business in Shymkent, the country’s third largest city. The company was able to cope with the spike thanks to an advisory project with the EBRD and funded by Kazakhstan. The project boosted the efficiency of the business through warehouse automation.
Mrs Kuandykova and her husband, both professional pharmacists, opened their first wholesale pharmacy in 2003. Five years later, they expanded into the retail market. In 2015, they split their growing business into two companies, keeping the name Atamiras for their B2B initiative. Their chain of B2C pharmacies is named Murat-Pharm, after the couple’s firstborn son. Recently they built a bigger headquarters and a new modern 1,800 square meter warehouse where “the human factor is limited as much as possible”.
“When you work in a warehouse all day, you get tired and make mistakes. We often had trouble processing invoices because someone confused orders or made errors when picking products,” explains Mrs Kuandykova.
She decided to solve the problem by reaching out to a consultant she knew specialised in automated assistance solutions for warehouses. The consultant recommended a Pick to Light (PTL) system that makes picking work easier by guiding a worker with illuminating modules. The implementation and initial technical assistance were quite costly so the consultant suggested applying for the EBRD advisory programme. “I once read about it in a magazine. For some reason I thought it was a myth that an international bank could provide such services to a small company. It turns out, it wasn’t,” recalls Mrs Kuandykova, smiling.
PTL assistance now allows the warehouse to seamlessly process 500 invoices a day. The error rate has lowered by 20 per cent. Consumable costs have decreased by 60 per cent. PTL is intuitive even for beginners, allowing the company to provide employment for less experienced workers.
According to Mrs Kuandykova, the new system proved to be vitally important during the summer months, when Atamiras’ turnover doubled: “We sold 135,000 units of aspirin in two weeks. Normally it takes six months. We were working non-stop, but there was no chaos in the warehouse.”
To ensure adequate prices, 80 per cent of Atamiras’ supplies went to its sister company, Murat-Pharm, at the peak of the pandemic. Recently it, too, received business advice from the EBRD with support from Kazakhstan. The EBRD consultant helped Murat-Pharm revamp its merchandising by introducing freestanding and point of purchase retail displays, as well as improve sales by training staff in sales techniques and communication skills. The average purchase in a pilot pharmacy increased. The plan is to expand this approach to all 40 pharmacies.
However, the main priority on Mrs Kuandykova’s agenda is people’s health: “At the end of the day, I think like a pharmacist. If a rare drug can save even one life, we will find it and obtain it without taking our profit into account,” she says.