KUALA LUMPUR: With demand for sanitising products surging in Malaysia amid the COVID-19 outbreak, local manufacturers are struggling to fulfill the requests because they, too, are running out of materials.
Producers of rubber gloves, meanwhile, are facing worker shortage as they ramp up production to meet international demand.
Local manufacturers of hand sanitisers and disinfectants told CNA that even though orders have increased up to five-fold, they could not produce more when they could not lay their hands on ethanol - the main ingredient to sterilise the microbes - as well as plastic bottles and bottle accessories.
It does not help that most of these materials are imported from China, which is badly hit by the novel coronavirus and has seen more than 70,000 confirmed cases and over 2,000 deaths.
LOCAL MANUFACTURERS FACE DIFFICULTIES IN BUYING ETHANOL
Malaysia has 22 confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far, with 15 of them recovered and discharged from hospitals.
When the local cases began to make headlines, disinfectant liquids and hand sanitisers flew off the shelves as residents prepared for the worst.
Klang Valley-based ENC Nationwide said demand has jumped to 300 drums from the usual 100 drums, or 20,800 litres of sanitiser, a month since mid-January.
“Many of these are cold calls, enquiries from as far as Kedah and Kelantan. They ask for 500 litres of sanitiser, and when I say no, I can’t, I get scolded for not helping them,” ENC Nationwide managing director Yew Chiun Wing said.
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The company’s clients are mostly in commercial property management, which have also increased their normal orders by up to 50 litres.
Mr Yew said the company’s supplier sources ethanol from the United States, Germany, Japan and China.
“Even if I wanted to increase my order, he doesn’t have enough to go around.
“When I called him recently, he told me he had a surplus of 400 litres of ethanol but the price was much higher than normal. Since I could only make a limited amount of drums with that, I didn’t take it up,” he said.
Another local manufacturer, MyMedic, faces the same predicament.
“It’s not just ethanol, even the bottles are in short supply,” said Mr Mohd Farkhan Damri, a senior executive of MyMedic, adding that materials are extremely limited because most of them are sourced from China.
In normal times, the company manufactures an average of 20,000 bottles of ethanol-based hand sanitiser a month for the domestic market, he said.
“We’ve been getting a lot of enquiries from overseas, including Southeast Asian countries as well as China and Hong Kong,” Mr Mohd Farkhan said.
“PRICES OF ETHANOL INCREASED BY UP TO FOUR TIMES”
In the Klang Valley suburb of Bangi, HanaMedic Sdn Bhd’s marketing manager Nadia Azlin Adnan said the surge in demand for ethanol had driven up prices by up to four times.
“The prices started going up about two to three weeks back from RM4.50 a litre to close to RM18.
“Luckily we bought our stock just before prices started increasing,” she said.
HanaMedic normally produces about 400,000 bottles of hand sanitiser in a year, but with the COVID-19 outbreak, it has already hit over 395,000 bottles in the last three weeks, Ms Nadia revealed.
Besides ethanol, pumps used to dispense hand sanitiser are also in short supply, Ms Nadia said.
She added that in one instance, her supplier for bottle accessories decided to give away her usual order to another customer because the other party offered to pay more.
“Everyone’s sweeping up everything.
“We have gotten to the point where we’ll take any stock our procurement staff can find even though it’s not 100 per cent in line with our usual bottle appearance and packaging. We’ll take them as long as the bottles and the pump caps fit, are airtight and are safe to use,” she said.
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HanaMedic devotes nearly 80 per cent of its hand sanitiser output to the local market, where the company caters to a major private healthcare chain and government hospitals, and the remainder for export to Oman, Dubai, Hong Kong and Macau.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Ms Nadia said the company has also fielded orders and enquiries from clients in other Southeast Asian countries and China.
ETHANOL MANUFACTURER SEES SUBSTANTIAL JUMP IN SALES
The effects of the demand surge for sanitising products have also rippled further upstream.
At the ethanol manufacturing end, Chemical Industries Malaya Sdn Bhd (CIM) said the jump in its sales figures was “quite substantial”.
“We have seen a huge increase in orders since the start of February from all our customers, especially those involved in sanitisers and disinfectants,” said Mr Aureole Foong, the CEO of Hexza Corporation, CIM’s parent holding company.
“Sales in just the first week of February have already exceeded our monthly average over the past few months,” he added.
According to Hexza’s website, CIM’s annual production of ethanol and related alcohol products stands at 9 million litres, with 70 per cent of output going to the local market.
While strongest demand still came from local customers, CIM has also received overseas requests during this crucial period, Mr Foong said.
MALAYSIAN RUBBER GLOVES MANUFACTURER CHURNS OUT GLOVES FOR CHINA
Separately, Malaysia, which is the leading exporter of medical rubber gloves, has also seen increasing demand internationally.
Top Glove Corporation, the world’s largest rubber glove producer, told CNA it has to outsource the packing process to meet the demand.
It has exported about 148 million pieces to China between Jan 24 and Jan 30, and an additional 296 million pieces the following week.
Its executive chairman Lim Wee Chai said these are on top of the three million latex and nitrile examination gloves donated to China as part of a Malaysian government-led drive.
“Initially, we targeted 10 per cent to 15 per cent increase in sales revenue for FY2020, compared to the previous financial year before the outbreak,” Dr Lim said.
More sales orders are expected to come in, he said, depending on the severity and length of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Almost all of Top Glove’s products are destined for the export market, with 97 per cent of its production serving 195 countries.
Since the outbreak, Dr Lim said the company had seen a surge of orders, especially from China, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
He assured that the company has access to sufficient raw material and is currently working at 85 per cent production capacity.
“We can ramp up to 95 per cent or 100 per cent, in line with demand requirements and as the need arises,” he said.
However, owing to the sudden spike in demand, some of its factories were having worker shortage issues, especially in the packing section.
Top Glove is looking at hiring more workers for the process, but in the meantime, the temporary solution is to outsource the process, Dr Lim said.