A division of the US giant DuPont, DuPont Protection Solutions supply protective gear to industrial, medical and military customers across the world. We spoke to the Regional Business Leader: Life Protection at DPS’ Sub-Saharan Africa branch, Allen Chimhandamba, about DPS’ recent operations in the area, including their role in containing the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
Since one of their researchers, the chemist Stephanie Kwolek, invented the Kevlar® synthetic fibre, DuPont have been at the forefront of the personal protection market, providing both military equipment like bulletproof vests and more civilian gear like Biohazard and Chemical suits, thermal and electrical protection and even architectural materials and sportswear. Chimhandamba joined DuPont three years ago, and has since risen to oversee the entire protective segment in Sub-Saharan Africa. His focus now is growth for the Kevlar® portfolio in SSA and growth of DPS in East Africa.
“DuPont Protection Solutions consists of several protection technologies. You’ve got Nomex®, which is your flame protection garment, Corian® which is a solid surface material, Tyvek® which is your particulate protection and Tychem®, the chemical/biohazard protection. Tyvek® is also used for other industrial purposes. Within Sub-Saharan Africa these four brands are segment leaders.’
Making Decisions to Save Lives
DuPont’s Tychem® personal protective suits were put to the test in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea during the 2014 Ebola outbreaks, widely used to protect health workers and burial teams dealing with contaminated corpses and infected people. Demand spiked as thousands of people were sent into quarantined areas, and the WHO officially recommended DuPont’s suits for use against Ebola, a mixed blessing for the manufacturer.
“Because the outbreak was unanticipated and at such large scale, we had such high demand. Everyone was clamouring for the product, and we actually had to make a conscious decision to say ‘We will give humanitarian efforts a preference over our industrial requirements.’ You can imagine that it was a challenging decision with regards to our industrial customers as they still had their targets to meet. With concerted effort between the regions we managed meet our humanitarian objective and support the industrial requirements. It literally took us up until the end of 2015 to get our stock back up to a level where was normal.”
A comprehensive PPE program developed for health workers involving Tyvek® and Tychem® suits was one of the key factors in reducing their mortality rates and ultimately containing the outbreak. In the aftermath, DuPont has been refining the suits in collaboration with the US-based Johns Hopkins University. The new project, funded by USAID, includes several innovative features developed from experience in the field including a rear zipper and ‘cocoon style’ removal, both of which make it easier to change out of the suits without risking infection from contaminants left on the outside of the fabric. The new garments will be field-tested in Liberia.
A More Kinetic Market
Kevlar® has been at the heart of DuPont Protection Solutions’ operations worldwide since its invention, and it will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the realities of politics and policing in Sub-Saharan Africa that the company’s bulletproof vests and vehicle armour solutions are in demand in several markets. South Africa is the most frequent customer, with the South African police force issuing bulletproof vests to all their officers as standard practice.
“On an annual basis the South African Police service buys a significant number of bulletproof vests, thanks to their continual recruitment and also retirement of old vests. They are our biggest customers, after that it’s various private security sector contracts and after that the military. Now the SADF isn’t a very big client because South Africa isn’t at war with anyone, and body armour is currently not standard issue to all personnel. It’s mainly used when they’re going on peacekeeping missions, but those missions are not very large so they aren’t currently a big user.”
DuPont’s role in supplying their clients is less about manufacturing actual body armour and more about providing the Kevlar® yarn to local a partner who then weaves it into ballistic fabric. DuPont supplies the Kevlar® yarn and a local South African firm, Gelvenor Textiles, (Africa’s largest weaver of aramid fabrics for ballistic protection) manufactures the fabric. These local partnerships bypass both import difficulties – many countries classify body armour as military equipment and restrict its transport across their borders – and the difficulties of setting up a supply chain in an unfamiliar country, and are used all over the world.
While largely active in South Africa for the time being, DuPont Protection Solutions plans to expand Kevlar® reach across the region to attain the status the other DPS brands enjoy in the region. Tyvek® Tychem® and Nomex® are well established throughout the SSA region. With the expanding industrial bases of several countries, they are ripe for civilian and military marketing. “We are getting quite involved in Nigeria, what with the large size of the military and law enforcement there, it’s a key market. Our approach involves looking at potential local partners and seeing what’s possible. With regards to Kevlar® In body armour, we have expertise in terms of ballistic protection, and clients benefit from the support and close collaboration with DuPont.” When asked about their plans for Africa as a whole for the next 12 months, Chimhandamba said that his company was aiming to consolidate across the broader sub-Saharan region and looking at countries such as Nigeria, Angola, Kenya and Tanzania, among others, looking for developing and untapped markets.