Our #CapePioneers series showcases innovative local businesses that adapted to build resilience in the face of COVID-19. This week we speak to Afriplex, a contract manufacturer operating in the pharmaceutical and food and beverage space. From adapting to coping with increasing uncertainties and off-setting supply chain disruptions during the Covid-19 pandemic, the company managed to not only survive, but to flourish.
“The value created was not in Rands and cents, but in the culture that was deepened in the way that the staff interact and how they deal with crisis situations.”
What are the core capabilities of your business?
Afriplex is a contract manufacturer involved in product development. We started about 20 years ago with the development of botanical extracts and over the years that has led us into becoming a full-fledged pharmaceutical company. This origin has allowed us to always have our own ingredients, mainly from South African botanicals, and with these ingredients it prompted us to develop products. Not only did we develop as a contract manufacturer in the pharmaceutical space, but as a company with abilities to develop new products; and that is quite unique. You may find that the majority of third-party contractors can produce all of the dosage forms that we manufacture, whether it is tablets, capsules, liquids or effervescence, but the differentiator is the product development. We aim to focus on the development of our own products. with about 85% of the products that we manufacture, developed ourselves, and of that 85% I would say about 90% of those contain ingredients that were developed or sourced are in South Africa.
You have quite a number of skilled graduates, working with you. Would it be fair to say that you are one of the main employers of scientists and pharmacists in the Western Cape?
As a pharmaceutical company we have attracted a large group of scientists. Of the 250 people that we employ, 40-to-50 of them are scientists. They are either biochemists, pharmacists, chemical engineers, microbiologists or geneticists. It is a very wide range of capabilities and that is quite unique. The reason for this is that for product development in the pharmaceutical arena you require input from different scientific spheres to enable the interfacing among all aspects linked to final product delivering. This creates a development process that delivers novel products that are safe, efficient, compliant, and consistent.
Over the past 20 years we have seen exponential growth in the number of products that we produce. Five years ago, we had between 20 and 30 products, while today we have more than 200 products. We are currently busy with 80 different product development projects, with a success rate of about 60%, which means that another 40 to 50 products will go to market in the next 12 months. The one contributor to this significant basket of product development projects is that we continuously research and enable the manufacturing of new product formats that allow us to cater for the evolving needs of our clients.
How has your business adapted to Covid-19?
From the start of the pandemic to where we are now, it has been positive for a number of reasons. Initially when the lockdown started, we had a disruption of our supply chain, as well as a slight disruption within the company itself.
Initially, through fear of the pandemic, we had staff stay at home, but of the staff who stayed, their family and friends came in to join us. They filled the production lines in various positions, and within three or four days we were back to normal. When our original staff began to return to work, those family and friends remained with us. In some respects, the new staff were better in the positions than the original staff, so there was a jockeying for positions and a much more competitive environment.
We also saw people in management positions working on the production lines, either filling or packing products, and that was amazing to see. The value created was not in Rands and cents, but in the culture that was deepened in the way that the staff interact and how they deal with crisis situations.
Next we had to manage disruptions in our supply chain. A significant portion of our suppliers were initially unable to operate during lockdown as they were not deemed an essential service but were supplying us with essential products. In one instance, we brought a supplier into our umbrella of control to allow them to not only supply product for us but also for other companies. It was a rational decision, we saved jobs and at the same time we managed to get our components from that supplier and keep them operating.
Were there any other products / services developed in response to Covid?
As a pharmaceutical company, it was relatively easy for us in the early stages of the lockdown to manufacture sanitizer products. So, in the initial stages, when there was a crisis, we supplied some of the big retailers for a month or two. However, with time these products became commodities and it was just not economically viable to do that in a pharmaceutical facility.
We stopped, because we realised that the biggest contribution that we could make was to focus on our core business, which is pharmaceutical products that are related to immune boosting and general health, which were in demand. We shifted to our own core competencies. This was not only existing products that we developed before the pandemic, but new products that we developed at a high level of innovative research, using ingredients linked to the treatment of Covid-19 and related conditions.
Here we followed international research, and there were certain ingredients that were surfacing that could assist with the treatment of Covid-19. There are now a whole range of products that we are busy developing based on those ingredients and the first products will go to market very soon. It is not a cure for Covid-19, but it is the treatment of the symptoms, and in some cases, we believe it offers value to the general treatment of the virus.
What has been a success for your business during this time?
We debated from the start what scenarios could play out and how we would deal with it. Would we continue with our plans to expand or would we need to retrench staff if there is a drop in production? We ultimately decided that whether the lockdown was going to last a month, or six months, it would not matter – the business would still be there. Our customers would still be there, we would have to adapt, be flexible and find different ways of conducting our business. The principal decision was to say we are not going to change our staff, irrespective of the duration of the lockdown and we are not going to stop our development programs.
We have several on-going projects, whether it is new laboratories that we are building or new production lines that are being upgraded. This is not limited to our primary premises, and extends to some of the satellite operations that we have as well. Because of that decision, we have managed to continue and keep a positive approach to the business in general. At the same time, other companies have opted to scale down production, which means those customers have come to us for the product. So, we are actually in a better position than before the pandemic. Our sales output have been at its best in 20 years because of our ability to continue with an increased demand in the health and wellness industry, which meant we were able to keep our full staff complement. That is a huge positive for us.
Finally, what is the importance of you being based in the Western Cape?
This is a huge benefit for us. I would say the most important is that we have access to qualified staff. For us to recruit another 30-50 scientists is not a problem to find them in the Western Cape, which is not necessarily the case in other areas. The infrastructure here is also excellent, the supply chain is very well-developed, and the general environment for us to conduct our business is incredibly positive.
For more information on Afriplex, visit their website HERE.
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