Hewatele doubles oxygen production as COVID-19 fuels demand

KENYA – Hewatele, a Kenyan oxygen production firm, is doubling production this year to keep up with surging demand from hospitals that are treating critically ill COVID-19 patients, the company said.

Demand for the commodity has more than doubled to 880 tonnes from 410 tonnes before the pandemic, the ministry of health said, causing a steep shortage due to lack of installed capacity.

The East African nation is confronting a severe fourth wave of COVID-19 infections that is putting pressure on health facilities.

Kenya has so far reported 217,276 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 4,273 fatalities. Yesterday, there were 1,546 new cases, while 1,929 patients are currently admitted to various hospitals while 9,043 are under home-based care.

There are 138 patients in intensive care units, 64 of whom are on ventilatory support and 67 on supplemental oxygen. Another 660 patients are separately on supplemental oxygen, with 618 of them in general wards and 42 in high dependency units.

This country doesn’t have the capacity to put 2,000 patients under high flow oxygen at the same time. We need to do something urgently,” said Bernard Olayo, founder of the company.

Hewatele plans to invest US$3.5 million to double production to two tones a day by year-end. The firm produces oxygen by the chemical method, using a naturally occurring salt to separate nitrogen from the air.

“It, the chemical method, has limitations because you can’t produce a lot of oxygen,” Olayo said.

To resolve that issue, Hewatele will invest another US$15 million next year to build an air separation unit to produce liquid oxygen, which will lead to a ten-fold output increase to 20 tons per day.

Kenya has only one such plant, which belongs to industrial gases firm BOC, said Olayo, who was inspired to produce oxygen for hospitals by his experience as a young government doctor in the west of the country two decades ago.

Children would die of pneumonia, not because we didn’t know what to do, but because we didn’t have oxygen,” he said

Hewatele’s expansion is being financed by a combination of debt and equity from international financiers.

Hewatele, which supplies 200 hospitals with oxygen, has three production plants around the country to help keep costs down. Still, a liter of liquid oxygen costs 120-150 Kenyan shillings, compared with 10 shillings internationally.

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