Medical furniture out of shell
It is a new and growing business, but not so profitable yet: medical furniture.
The scenario was mostly evident at a recent international medical equipment and healthcare services exposition at Dhaka Sheraton Hotel.
Organisers said the exposition styled Medexpo-2008 was aimed at improving the quality of healthcare services in Bangladesh and creating an opportunity for the local manufacturers of hospital furniture to grow and carve a niche for those in international market.
Stalls of a few local furniture makers at the fair drew attention of the visitors with a variety of furniture essential for hospital.
The number of hospitals, clinics as well as prime medical colleges mushroomed in the country over the last few decades, but local furniture manufacturers failed to grab a pie of the big medical furniture market.
A senior official of a leading furniture firm said present market size of hospital furniture in Bangladesh is estimated at around Tk 50 crore a year.
Although some companies started making hospital furniture a few years back, the industry is yet to reach break-even point. “It's a growing industry but not profitable yet,” said Sabbir Hasan Nasir, chief executive officer of Otobi, the premium partner of Medexpo-2008.
Set up in 1974, Otobi started making medical furniture in 1990s on a small scale. It now produces a wide variety of furniture for hospitals. Navana Furniture and Bangladesh Befit Ltd also make hospital furniture among others.
Sabbir said local firms could compete with many global ones if they got government support and incentives.
The Otobi chief executive stressed a deep cut in import duty on raw materials and extra incentives from the government to help grow the industry, as high import duty on raw materials pushes up the prices of the products.
China can make furniture at much cheaper rate as it uses plastic as raw materials, he said, adding that Bangladeshi firms cannot take the benefit as the country's plastic industry is weak.
Sabbir said Otobi is expanding its medical furniture unit but the company is still far away from making profit. Its profit in hospital furniture was minus nine percent last year.
Most of the modern hospitals of the country use imported furniture, as local furniture manufacturers cannot meet their demands, according to officials of some well-known private hospitals.
But the Otobi CEO contradicts them.
He said many people have a sort of passion for foreign products and often do not examine the quality of local furniture.
“We supply furniture to many government and private hospitals, and clinics including Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University hospital, BIRDEM Hospital and Ibrahim Cardiac Hospital and Research Institute. These hospitals buy our products because we maintain quality.”
"Local hospitals offer local firms much less price than they pay to the foreign companies even though we produce better quality furniture," Sabbir said.
“We can't cut manufacturing cost as we don't want to compromise with our quality.”
Otobi's medical furniture includes various types of bed, trolley, baby cot, bowl stand, kick-bucket, over-bed table, emergency card, saline stand, isolation screen, bedside locker, bedside cabinet, medicine cupboard and revolving stool.
Navana makes bed, trolley, isolation screen, cart, stretcher, locker, cabinet, medicine cupboard, saline stand, waiting chair and baby cot.
Bangladesh Befit Ltd with the brand name of Babel also produces a variety of medical furniture including bed, trolley, foot tool, over bed table, saline stand and revolving stool.
AKM Fazlul Haque, in-charge of bio-medical engineering department of LabAid Hospital, said medical furniture being used in the hospital is imported, mainly from Malaysia and Finland.
LabAid hardly buys any item from local manufacturers. A few minor items such as saline stand and over bed table are purchased from Otobi, Haque said.
He said they tried to buy furniture from local makers, giving some samples to a local manufacturer but its finishing was not up to the standard.
Local manufacturers however differed with Haque.
“The furniture we make is not of lower quality than the furniture LabAid uses,” Sabbir said.
Haque said all the medical furniture now being used at the hospital cost up to $ 2.5 lakh.
Another senior official of LabAid Hospital said a bed it buys from Malaysia costs up to Tk 4 lakh. The same bed is available here at Tk 1 lakh which is not that durable.
Brig Gen (retd) John Gomes, general manager (management support service) of Square Hospitals Ltd, was a little bit diplomatic about the issue.
"We imported almost all the medical furniture during construction of the hospital when Bangladeshi firms were not manufacturing such items," Gomes said.
Asked if they would buy furniture from local makers, he said: "Yes, we can buy some items." He said they use auto-bed that is not made in Bangladesh.
The demand for beds to be fitted with a motor drive and remote control system has been increasing in recent years, especially with the arrival of high profile hospitals such as Apollo and United, aimed at the country's upper middle class.
Such beds are still being imported from Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and Singapore.
Md Giashuddin Ahmed, general manager (public relations) of Apollo Hospitals Dhaka, said some local items are purchased for the hospital. But the beds are imported, as the hospital does not use manually operated beds.
Sabbir hoped it would take up to four years for Bangladesh to manufacture such beds as the high-profile hospitals demand.
Otobi exports furniture to some neighboring countries including India but its medical furniture is yet to enter foreign market. But the Otobi CEO is very optimistic about that. He hopes Otobi's medical furniture would soon enter foreign markets.
Sabbir said Otobi wants to go global with its own brand. “We want to be a global brand.”
He said their furniture will soon enter the Middle East countries.
The company will also be able to grab a market share of hospital furniture there, Sabbir hoped, as local hospital furniture has already come to the fore.