Hardly will any child tell you that when they grow up, they want to become a coffin maker, as few want to be associated with any business that thrives on death. When KCSE results are announced, the top students share their dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers, pilots, engineers and even presidents.
The never heard off casket making business has become a necessary venture sustaining many despite the stigma ring to it and as Covid-19 deaths surge, it is understandable to claim that its fortunes depend on the number of those who die in an area.
Bernard Langat, aged 40, a coffin maker whose workshop is located along the Litein-Chemitan highway in Bureti sub-county, Kericho, has cut a niche for himself in the industry and admits that this has been his first choice for a career.
The father of three whose customers are from Kericho and Bomet counties, says in the phase of coronavirus, he is currently recording low sales with customers now having a preference for cheaply made coffins and caskets.
“This coronavirus pandemic has made the casket-making industry to face stiff competition where customers dictate the prices. I am faced with the harsh reality of recording low sales each week. With coronavirus pandemic, some people think we are waiting for many to die so that we can reap but this is not the case, this is a job just like any other. Death is natural and all I do is to prepare a comfortable resting place for those who depart from this world,” he says.
With his business, which he started back in 2003, Langat can afford a comfortable life for his family and using the proceeds, he has invested in the opening of a second workshop at Kapkatet area within Bureti sub-county.
Langat reveals that his passion is to see the dead rest comfortably even if people scorn his business now more than ever with the war on Covid -19 pandemic persisting.
“People fear coffins and caskets and some will even make snide remarks about my business and whenever am working at the workshop, some will walk far away from my business. I have even been called names such as the ‘man of coffins’ ‘mtu wa jeneza’ which hurts me but I still push myself forward to see that the dead rest in comfort,” he added.
The entrepreneur says the prices of caskets vary depending on size and sophistication. The quality and type of the material used determines the price too. He is known for making executive caskets that he terms as ‘camera coffins.’
The price of the coffins he makes ranges from Sh.10, 000 to Sh.14, 000 while the executive coffin goes for Sh.20,000 to Sh.60, 000. The woods used range from cypress, mahogany and veneer chipboards.
Langat says the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed stiff competition from other similar businesses which aim at making profits instead of making certain the dead rest contentedly in their thereafter journey despite recording low sales.
“Before corona, I would sell not less than six executive caskets in a week but with corona, I can only sell just two and the customers do a lot of bargaining and at times I can sell them for as little as Sh.15, 000. I do not want to see my customers taking cheap caskets from my competitors, as my delight is to see their loved ones resting in a well-made classy coffin. Before coronavirus pandemic set in, I would make a monthly net profit of Sh.200, 000 but now I go home with half of this,” said Langat.
The class seven dropout said he ventured into the business after five years of being a woodwork apprentice at his home area in Rongai area, Nakuru County, where he would assist local carpenters with their duties at their workshops.
“I dropped out of school in 1996 due to family problems and for the next five years, I would follow carpenters around my home area Rongai in Nakuru County as they worked on their contracted jobs. Most of them would leave me to complete work on their projects mainly in homes and offices. This way, I gathered enough experience and confidence in carpentry and joinery,” said Langat.
He reveals that his big break came in 2006 when he opted to open up his workshop and specialise in making coffins and caskets after realizing there was a high demand for them. While acknowledging his business could be morbid to most people because its fortunes depend on the dead, to him, it is a business like any other.
“With my savings from being an apprentice, I had enough capital to open up a small workshop at Brooke area in Ainamoi sub-county Kericho where I made my first 15 caskets. At the time, my workshop measuring 10 by 10 metres which also served as my home so during the day, I would parade my wares outside and come nightfall, I would store them inside my house. I encountered all manner of abuses while working here from being insulted to being threatened with arson but I never gave up,” recalls Langat.
He says his children have interacted with coffins long enough and do not fear them, adding that his wife of 13 years has been his pillar of support.
Langat adds that running any business requires hard work and a lot of perseverance while advising young people not to stay idle or live waiting for white color jobs which were not forthcoming but instead engage in any kind of work so long as it is legal.
When KNA visited his workshop, Langat was armed with a hand sanitizer while wearing a face mask ready to welcome potential clients who visit his workshop on behalf of the dead, despite those walking near his workshop cringing as they passed by while others made snide remarks that he was waiting for people to die from coronavirus.
He said he knows the fear many people have towards death but he intends to follow the laid down government directives targeting businesses such as his to protect himself, his customers and workers.
“We are human and cannot pray for death. I adhere to the government protocols to minimize the spread of Covid-19 as I work at my two workshops. It is not in me to wish death on anyone but with these rules, we can actually stop the deadly virus. I empathize with my clients when they come to choose a coffin and I actually wish death was not so cruel,” he added.
The Kericho Chamber of Commerce Chairman, David Bii said the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented global event that is having a major impact on the economy and businesses.
Bii added that proprietors in the Jua Kali sector have the ultimate responsibility towards ensuring the implementation of the Ministry of Health guidelines to minimize the spread of Covid-19.
“The Jua Kali sector ought to adhere to these guidelines as they are meant to help businesses operate safely during Covid-19 pandemic and reduce the rate of Covid-19 spread across different work spaces while undertaking their business operations. They should embrace social distancing measures, adherence to the cleaning, disinfection of their tools and premises and don face masks at all times to be able to continue with their businesses safely. This is a challenge but it is for their own safety and that of their customers,” said Bii.
He advised these entrepreneurs to consider engaging with financial institutions for assistance to mitigate the effects of Covid-19.
By Sarah Njagi