Many would term it as the creepiest business idea of all times, but BENJAMIN KIBIKU, the proprietor of Montezuma Monalisa Funeral Home, has ventured where many have dared not.
How did the idea of venturing into a business shunned by many come to mind?
I got the idea in 1982 when I lost a friend after the infamous failed coup. We had problems not only with a good transport system but the available morgue services were wanting as well. Back then, only the City Council had such facilities. My friend could not get a hearse since there was a government official who wanted the same. Thereafter, I mooted the idea to start a funeral service to some of my friends who thought I was going crazy. They told me such a business was better left to the doctors. I was then working out of the city in the energy sector, thus my idea fizzled out somewhat till 1988 when I got back to the city.
How did you proceed with your original idea?
The first challenge was to come up with enough resources to purchase a vehicle that would be transformed into a hearse. No lending institution was willing to finance a funeral facility. Even my friends who worked in the banking sector started avoiding me when I approached them for funding. Some wondered what they would do with a hearse if they repossessed it in case of any default on my part. Fortunately, I tendered for a small pick-up truck that belonged to the Red Cross Society — it had been involved in an accident. It was selling for Sh150,000. In 1988, a new pick-up was selling at Sh280,000. One lender agreed to finance it as a farm truck.
It is interesting the same banks that avoided me initially are nowadays calling to request for partnership in putting up more funeral homes. How times change.
Was that the only challenge you faced during start-up?
No. Financing was just the beginning of my troubles. Registering a business name presented another headache. The registrar rejected all names that I proposed including New World Funeral Services and Heavenly Kingdom. Then an idea struck. Back in secondary school, I had acted as Montezuma, an Emperor in the ancient Aztec Kingdom as portrayed in the book Montezuma’s Daughter. As a result, schoolmates had nicknamed me Montezuma. The registrar liked the name and that is how the funeral home came to be.
How did you go about getting clients?
Marketing a funeral service was harder than I had imagined. For a start, I rented out a small office in Burma Market with one lady employee to handle any queries. Neighbours did not like the idea of a hearse parked nearby. Whenever I got some work to transport a body, I would hire a driver who would then disappear at the end of the day. This forced me to drive it at times while still working for the energy company. Then I came up with some “clever” idea. I would peruse the obituary pages in the newspapers and get to know where certain funeral arrangements were taking place. I would then present myself as a friend of the deceased and offer to take the body to the burial place. Within three months, my truck became a common feature in many parts of the country. Thereafter, those who had seen it would call me to help transport a departed friend or relative home at a small fee.
You say you wanted a break from the then existing public facilities. In what ways?
For years, bereaved friends and relatives complained about the attitude of mortuary attendants in public institutions who used all tactics to scare them away. We have striven to remove that sense of fear by keeping our facilities sparkling clean. The high standards of cleanliness have made some to wonder whether we keep bodies here at all. There was a case of a family from Nakuru that thought we keep the bodies elsewhere and only bring them at the morgue on the burial day. They were amazed when we told them they were welcome to view the body any day, any time. We intend to maintain such high standards of hygiene all the time.
What do you say to those who think you are making money from the dead?
It is not a question of making money, but more of providing a vital social service. Let us face it. People die. This is a fact. Bereaved relatives and friends need a good, clean, less intrusive manner of preparing the body for burial. It is also good to give people an alternative and let them choose.
Speaking of choices, does the country have enough players in this sector?
There is room for private players. However, we are opposed to local hospitals putting up morgues rather than increasing their capacity to treat people. Hospitals are in the business of life preservation, not the other way round. It does not inspire confidence when one visits a hospital knowing too well that there is a mortuary in the compound. Even our universities have joined the bandwagon of setting up morgues in the name of research.
Your final word
Burying the dead is becoming costly by the day due to lack of enough space coupled with transport costs. We are encouraging our people to consider cremation as an alternative rite. The benefits of cremation are many. For one, it is cost effective as one only needs an ash urn and a small fee for the crematorium. We will also be saving our forest cover as we will not need to cut down trees to make coffins. And there will be no family feuds over burial places.