The meteoric rise of India’s personal protective equipment (or PPE) industry is now a familiar tale, extolled by ministers and manufacturers alike. Nevertheless, it merits a retelling. A year has passed since the first coronavirus infection was detected in Wuhan, China, setting off one of the great events of the 21st century. When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020, the World Health Organisation estimated that the global healthcare industry would need an astounding 89 million masks, 78 million gloves and 1.6 million goggles every month to effectively fight the disease. To ensure this, global PPE manufacturing would need to be boosted by 40 percent.
At the time of this announcement, India had no domestic PPE manufacturing capabilities and was entirely dependent on imports. Two months later, over 600 companies became certified PPE producers (including big textile players and several start-ups), propelling India to the world’s second largest producer of protective gear, behind only China.
What India needs now is an ecosystem that can help it emerge as a global hub for protective gear. As management guru Peter Drucker famously stated, “Because its purpose is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two – and only these two – basic functions: marketing and innovation.” It is precisely these two functions that can help create this ecosystem.
The role of public R&D investment
India may have managed to halt its reliance on PPE imports, but it is not alone. Efforts are currently underway in nations like the United States and the United Kingdom to boost domestic manufacturing to reduce their reliance on Chinese and Asian imports. If Indian manufacturers are to effectively compete in these markets and others, they will need to manufacture to global standards at low costs. Increased public investment in R&D will play a crucial role here.
The groundwork for this has already been laid. In the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Ministry of Textiles proactively contacted manufacturers and testing facilities across the country to build a supply chain from scratch. It initiated localised testing programmes, beginning with the South India Textile Research Association (SITRA) in Coimbatore, and then going on to include the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) in New Delhi and Ordnance Factories in Ambernath, Kanpur and Muradnagar, among other facilities.
India quickly demonstrated its potential to supply affordable PPE to the world. By July 2020, the supply of indigenous PPE kits had exceeded domestic demand and India exported kits to the US, the UK, the UAE, Slovenia and Senegal. Attention must now be given to enhancing quality. As a recent report by the Institute of Competitiveness suggests, this can be achieved by implementing robust quality control (QC) and quality assurance (QA) procedures common to all manufacturers. This can help ensure consistent quality and reduce testing and rejection overheads. Further, India still relies on exports for critical components such as seam sealing equipment. Greater R&D investment by the government to enhance PPE quality can help circumvent these challenges.
Reaching out to the world
While PPE manufacturers must prioritise quality and pricing to trade competitively, marketing is what will ultimately help them stand out from the crowd. Strong branding and marketing will help manufacturers in India distinguish themselves from their competitors abroad by allowing them to emphasise their affordable pricing and quality to a global market. Aside from providing manufacturers with greater recognition, it will help them generate more customers, improve trust and strengthen their business value.
With the pandemic accelerating digital adoption, manufacturers in India must enhance their online presence by leveraging digital, content and social media marketing. These channels can help them increase brand awareness, boost sales and position themselves as leading industry players.
Across sectors, more than 90 million small businesses are present on Facebook alone today, with LinkedIn being the second-most popular social platform for B2B marketers. Ninety-four percent of businesses use social media for their content distribution. Seventy percent of marketers are actively investing in content marketing, while 80 percent of marketers believe that video content has directly increased their sales.
The market for PPE is growing exponentially. In May 2020, the domestic market in India alone was worth at least INR 10,000 crores. In five years, the global PPE market is expected to be worth USD 92.5 billion. With this comes an opportune moment for India to shine globally.
(The author is a Board Member of GlobalPPEMart. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)