Within the fitness and well-being market, there has been an explosion in demand for natural herb-based products in recent years. From cough and cold remedies, to vitamin supplements and slimming products, the public is increasingly turning to alternative treatments on a global basis. For source to shelf manufacturers like Afriplex, the challenge is therefore to manage growth in a sustainable but controlled manner without compromising regulatory compliance.
The company, with its premises located in Paarl, on the Western Cape, was founded in 2001 by Danie Nel, who remains Director to this day. Nel hailed from a chemical engineering background and was involved in large installation work at petrochemical plants, before realising there was a lot of untapped potential in a different type of plant:
“In 2001 we looked at the indigenous plant sector and realised no activities were taking place in South Africa, despite the vast resources of raw materials – all the medicinal properties, research and manufacturing were done in Europe.
“We felt that we could combine our knowledge of processing with the indigenous resources and the result was Afriplex.”
Of course Africa’s botanicals are a vast resource and have been used for herbal remedies for hundreds of years. With international clamour for natural products at an all-time high, the world is increasingly turning to Africa and Afriplex is perfectly positioned, as the only company of its kind in South Africa.
“Our key aim is unlocking the potential of traditionally used African botanicals in order to nurture wellness worldwide,” Nel affirms. “We operate in the pharmaceutical and food and beverage arena and in the last 5 years there has been tremendous interest and growth in demand for our products, all of which are made from herbal plant material.
“Globally there has been a move to natural products, not just in the food market but also in complimentary medicine. The preference to use herbal medicines has changed our business completely,” he continues.
Of course manufacturing products for the health and pharmaceutical markets is never a completely straight forward activity – stringent regulations make sure of that. The company is privately-owned and develops, manufactures and supplies its products exclusively to the world’s large pharmaceutical companies, with approximately half of all produce sent for export to Europe, North America, Japan and Korea.
Afriplex carries out its activities across 5,000 square metres of production space, with the business effectively split into two areas: one covering pharmaceutical manufacturing, the other catering for food and beverage.
One of the main reasons for the split is that the two entities are regulated in vastly different ways, as Nel explains:
“Our food and beverage operations take up roughly 30 per cent of our floor space. Approximately half of our volumes are for the export markets and we have to comply with international standards under the ISO 2200 accreditation system.
“We manufacture around 20 different products, including functional fine foods like fruit bars, botanical plants and extracts, flavours and aromas, syrups, essential oils, packaged herbal teas and emulsions. Our food and beverage manufacturing facilities comply to HACCP GMP, thereby ensuring food safety and the production facility is also Koshjer and Halaal certified.
“On the pharmaceutical side we have to conform to a totally different set of regulations relating to international GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) and the site is registered with the South African Medical Control Council.
“We manufacture a wide range of products such as cough and cold remedies, anti-oxidants, immune-boosting properties for children and drugs to relieve joint pain. All of these products are in the field of complimentary medicines.”
The company operates with a staff complement of approximately 100 people. Nel says that roughly 70 per cent of the staff concentrate on the pharmaceutical side of the business and admits that finding the right skills is not always easy.
“At the top end it is easier to find graduates (the company undertakes much of its extensive research and development with local universities) – but finding skilled people on the floor is much harder and involves intensive internal training.
“About 30 per cent of our staff are what we might term “value-added” and are qualified chemists, pharmacists, bio chemists, food scientists and microbiologists.
“We provide in-house training for our own processes and equipment but for supervisory skills or training in HACCP Quality Management we will often send staff for third party training courses.”
Afriplex produces more than 100 plant extracts and makes use of in excess of 500 plant species. The company owns 5 commercial farms and Nel says that roughly 15 farmers currently supply raw material to the business. Primary processing like cleaning, drying, packaging are carried out by the farmers, with Afriplex working closely with them to ensure correct plant species cultivated and harvested and implementation of Good Agricultural Practice.
Some of the raw materials are also imported, making forecasting an absolutely vital element to the whole production process, as Nel outlines:
“Quality management and regulations have a huge impact on us – and have done from an early stage, when we first looked to the EU market and learnt how strict regulations are. On the pharmaceutical side we have to have in place systems for documentation, traceability and quality standards, as well as meeting OSHA health and safety standards. We have to maintain quality standards, monitor efficiency and adhere to strict access control procedures, so we have deployed 35 surveillance cameras which adds to the necessary expense.
“Because of the regulations in place we operate dedicated production lines and currently have 8 independent lines running. Our water-based products are manufactured in a separate specialist site.
“Changing over lines is a highly complex process in order to maintain integrity and compliance so we try to keep a product on a line for as long as possible, whilst manufacturing to meet demand.
“This of course puts a huge emphasis on applying good production scheduling practices – both to forecast manufacturing volumes but also how much raw material we might need. We try not to carry excessive stock and forecasting becomes critical and is adjusted virtually on a daily basis.
“We have integrated our stock control, production and financial control into an efficient system called QMuzik which enables us to schedule and change schedule as the market demand changes. We purchased the system around 5 years ago, as demand began to increase, and with continued growth, we are still developing it.”
Manufacturing itself is a mixture of automated processes on the filling lines and skilled manual labour. Again the restrictions imposed by regulation, make machine replacement anything but straight-forward, with each new addition to the factory having to be validated through a series of change control processes designed to assess risk.
Similarly, whilst Nel says that manufacturing aims to be efficient, regulatory requirements are so high up the priority list that the minute a company starts to look at ways to reduce waste, it often encounters regulatory problems. The solution is to find a balanced approach.
In 2012 the company reinvested approximately 8 per cent of its turnover into research and development. Nel says that Afriplex has invested above average resource into R&D, which sees the company work extensively with local and international universities:
“Our R&D activities operate on two levels: we work proactively with research institutions and universities on developing our next range of products – but this can take up to 4 years to finish the research stage as you have to be able to demonstrate safety and efficacy for each product.
“We also have customers who approach us with a product concept and we will work with their briefing and evaluate the market to see where the product might fit,” he says.
“Perhaps our biggest operational challenge is the length of time it takes to get a new product to market and it can be a slow, capital-intensive process. Getting new products into the product development pipeline is key to the future of the business, despite the difficulties; there are regulatory requirements in established markets like Europe which make it very costly and very difficult, so we have to increasingly look to other markets.”
Despite the challenges, demand has seen Afriplex enjoy extraordinary growth over the last 5 years, with Nel suggesting that 30 per cent year on year growth has quickly increased the need for expanding capacity in Paarl.
“In the last 18 months alone, we have investment about R4.5 million on additional production capacity, just to meet demand.
“We are establishing a New Product Development company for R&D, of products from indigenous plants from Africa. Our aim is to attract R50 million of capital from key customers, technology partners and investors and our target is to develop 50 new products in the next 5 years.
“We also plan to spend R10 million to further expand our production facilities including state of the art sterilization facility to replace irrradiation processes.”
New markets, such as the cosmetic industry, may also open up to Afriplex in the coming years, while Nel sees exciting growth opportunities in Africa, South America and the Far East. On the processing side, there is no other company like Afriplex in South Africa, offering-up a world of opportunity.