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e-Magazine (For the Japanese version of this article)

Japanese Sumitomo Chemical in Africa and the SDGs Exploring Effective Support for Social Issues and Sustainability Atsuko Hirooka Executive Officer Sumitomo Chemical Co., Ltd. [Date of Issue: 31/January/2019 No.0286-0287-1098]

Date of Issue: 31/January/2019

Sumitomo Chemical in Africa and the SDGs
Exploring Effective Support for Social Issues and Sustainability

Atsuko Hirooka
Executive Officer
Sumitomo Chemical Co., Ltd.

On October 25, 2018, IIST worked in conjunction with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the Kinki Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry to host the SDGs Business Challenge Seminar: Learning from Developing Country Business Success Stories. One speaker at the seminar was Sumitomo Chemical Co., Ltd. Executive Officer Atsuko Hirooka, who describes for us here some of the efforts being made by business.

Sumitomo Chemical's Olyset® Net for malaria prevention was developed toward the end of the 1990s. It did not start out as a company initiative, but was rather the result of one member of our research team embarking on a personal mission to eradicate malaria. A product developed in the 1980s that implanted insecticide in the ear tags for managing cattle was stepped up for use in factory screen doors, and taken still further for the Olyset® Net.

The malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquito is active at night, so our developer came up with the idea that if they could embed insecticide in traditional Japanese mosquito nets, sleeping inside such a net could save lives in malaria-ridden Africa—particularly the lives of young children.

The key features of these nets are that (1) they can be washed up to 20 times and a certain amount of the insecticide implanted in the resin yarn will still permeate the surface, (2) the insecticide repels and kills mosquitoes, and (3) the wide mesh provides good ventilation in hot African climates. As a technology that combines our company's insecticide and resin, it has become a leading example of Sumitomo Chemical's “creative hybrid chemistry.”

A major international project

Demand for Olyset® Net began to expand in 2000, around the time that malaria eradication was identified as one of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), predecessors of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The World Health Organization (WHO) first recommended the nets as good personal protection in 2001. They were being manufactured in China at the time, but the WHO asked if they could be made in Africa to help the continent solve its own problems, which transformed net manufacturing into a major company operation.

Almost immediately, the project became a collaborative effort among Sumitomo Chemical and a raft of international organizations, including the WHO, UNICEF, the poverty-focused venture fund ACUMEN, and PSI, an NGO operating in the field of healthcare and hygiene. A to Z Textile Mills, a mosquito net manufacturing company in Tanzania, was selected as our local partner.

In 2003, we provided our manufacturing technology free of charge to A to Z, and in 2007, we worked with them to set up a joint venture with the aim of boosting production. In Davos in 2005, American actress Sharon Stone called for donations to get more mosquito nets into African homes. The UN asked that operations be scaled up to allow distribution of two nets per household, so we pushed production up several notches.

As a result, by 2010, we were making 60 million nets in China, Vietnam and Tanzania.

The Tanzania factory

The Tanzania factory

Local production starts from scratch

When we transferred the technology to Africa, we sent out engineers from Japan on a long-term business trip basis, and they gave up their New Year to provide painstaking guidance. At the beginning, some local managers suggested that our manufacturing standards were too strict, and some friction arose with them who felt that African standards were sufficient. However, we felt that it was vital to hold to the original standards. In the process of discussion, top management finally came to see our point of view, but directing local workers was tricky.

Firm leadership and knowhow are essential when you're trying to manage local staff, most of whom have never worked in a factory before. A young Sumitomo Chemical employee in his 20s made sure they were friendly and got on well with the Tanzanians, but they also ran the factory with a very firm hand, ultimately succeeding in producing Olyset® Nets on a par with those made in Asia.

Now the plant is run by locals, with no Japanese staff permanently stationed there. At the peak of operations, the factory employed 7,000 Tanzanians, more than 80 percent of whom were women. The Olyset® Net project therefore had multiple side-effects in addition to helping to eradicate malaria, poverty eradication and employment for women among them. In other words, it was right in line with the MDGs.

Inside the Tanzania factory © Maggie Hallahan

Inside the Tanzania factory © Maggie Hallahan

Business sustainability essential

Over the last decade, mosquito net manufacturing competition has increased to 14 companies, many of which are Chinese or Indian. The total supply capacity of these 14 firms is over 200 million nets a year, with more than 100 million actually supplied. The market has changed and the price has plummeted. This is great news for those using public funds to buy the nets, but on the production and supply side, business conditions have become extremely difficult.

Business doesn't survive unless it's sustainable. Profits can't be put into the next round of development and innovation. Sumitomo Chemical is not a mosquito net manufacturing operation, but is rather a chemical company. Our vector control (pesticide) and product development projects require a massive amount of time and development capital, with development costs taking more than 10 years to recoup.

At the same time, this project has great social significance. Sumitomo Chemical's mission as a company is to reduce the number of disease-carrying mosquitoes, which are said to be the biggest killers of the human race, and that means finding ways of preventing people from being bitten.

New concerns

Over the last 15 years, the number of malaria-induced deaths has halved, while the number of malaria sufferers too has dropped by 600 million. Nets are responsible for 68 percent of this improvement, and indoor residual spraying (IRS) accounts for a further 10 percent. While this sounds terrific, just over the last couple of years, the number of sufferers has plateaued, and in some areas, numbers are even rising again after years of steady decline.

While there are various possible causes, one that springs to mind in terms of vector control is that many mosquitoes have now become resistant to the pyrethroid insecticides which are used in all mosquito nets.

Tireless commitment

To address these concerns, in 2012 Sumitomo Chemical developed and released the second-generation mosquito net Olyset® Plus. We also came up with SumiShield?, the first IRS in 40 years to introduce a new mode of action (MOA), and launched it on to the market in 2018.

Another product we have recently developed is SumiLarv®2MR, a mosquito adult emergence inhibitor. These products along with the new space spray insecticide SumiProTM represent a great lineup, and the plan is to target malaria and infectious diseases efficiently and effectively through just the right combination of nets, IRS, larvicides, and space sprays.

Africa has powerful mosquitoes, and it is also difficult to come by resistant mosquitoes in Japan, so in 2013, we set up a research institute next to the Tanzania plant. This too is directed by a Tanzanian, and all the employees are local as well. We send engineers over from Japan on a regular basis and also bring staff from Tanzania to Japan to receive training and learn about “Sumitomo-ism.”

In 2017, we set up a field station shaped like an actual house close to land producing many resistant mosquitoes with the aim of accelerating the development of our next mosquito nets and IRSs, as well as tools a generation further on again.

Contribution of interventions to the reduced number of malaria sufferers Realizing sustainable business

We have certainly not given up on our pursuit of sustainable business. This is a business area involving numerous stakeholders, including the WHO and many other international institutions, academia and NPOs.

On the development front, the international NPO IVCC is providing assistance as a partner for development companies, and international institution UNITAID along with global foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have also pledged to provide support. The condition for receiving that support is the creation of an innovative new product, which demonstrates the level of expectation vested in ongoing innovations in vector control.

Finally, in 2014 we set up Sumitomo East Africa in Tanzania to bolster the agricultural industries so as to address future food problems arising from worldwide population increases, and in particular the need for more food production in Africa. While the company's main task is still to conduct pre-commercialization studies, it is starting with measures to prevent damage to stored grain and fertilizers as means of boosting productivity.

It takes a lot longer to get licenses and permissions in Africa than in Japan, and the process of trial and error continues four years on. Despite this, we hope that setting up a base in Tanzania will be a step toward realizing sustainable business in Africa, and we will make every effort to that end.

About the Author
Atsuko Hirooka
Executive Officer
Sumitomo Chemical Co., Ltd.

Executive Officer, Environmental Health Division, Animal Nutrition Division
After working at an international chemical company, Ms. Hirooka joined Sumitomo Chemical in October 2006, where she was involved in awareness-raising and sales for the malaria-prevention mosquito net Olyset® Net, including being responsible for negotiations with UNICEF, WHO, the Global Fund and other international purchasing institutions. In November 2012, she became head of the Vector Control Division, managing the development, production, marketing and sales of mosquito nets and other insecticide products. In April 2016, she became Executive Officer of that division, now the Environmental Health Division, as well as of the Animal Nutrition Division.

(For the Japanese version of this article)

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