Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

The story of Bao Cao Su and the elusive factory

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I am ashamed to admit that after two months in Vietnam, my Vietnamese language skills remain rudimentary. I can recite a few one-off sentences and questions, but am unable to respond to people when they address me in Vietnamese. One small helping hand is the occasional French loan words that remain in the language. Three French loan words a new visitor to Vietnam will instantly recognise are cà phê (coffee), bia (beer) and toalét (toilet). Others that I recognised after hearing them a few times are (butter – pronounced like the French beurre, but without the rrrrr), xà bông (soap, French: savon) and ga tô (cake, French: gâteau).

In my research, I examine the rubber value chain in Binh Phuoc. The French introduced rubber cultivation to Vietnam, so one of the core words in the sector’s specific vocabulary is a French loan word: cao su, pronounced almost exactly like the French word for rubber, caoutchouc. I understand only bits and pieces of the responses I hear in my interviews, but can recognise when someone is talking about cao su. The following photo shows the ubiquitous cao su loan word in use: a sign for Mr. Trung Doan’s cao su giõng, or rubber tree nursery.

That introduction explains the second part of the Vietnamese words in this entry’s title – bao cao su. The first part, bao, involves a short mystery.

In looking at the rubber value chain in Binh Phuoc, I am specifically interested in the activities that occur in the province and those in which families can participate. Before arriving in Binh Phuoc, I studied the province’s statistical tables to understand the rough scale of each activity. For example, the tables show that there are vast surfaces of rubber plantations in the province, which suggest that “growing” is a principal activity. The tables also show a significant production of rubber raw material – in block or concentrate forms – which suggests “processing” is another important activity. On the other hand, the tables show little to no production of rubber end products, such as tires or gloves, suggesting that the majority of rubber raw material is exported out of the province.

Here is a table I copied into French from the 2009 provincial statistical yearbook. Beginning in 2007, the table shows a trickle of rubber end products from the province, in the form of condoms (préservatifs) and gloves (gants):

The table shows not only that production of condoms and gloves began in 2007, but also that one or more foreign joint venture companies (“external sector”) produced them.

The identity of these factories quickly became the primary mystery in my research. I had little trouble identifying, finding and visiting the plantations and processing plants mentioned earlier. But I could not find anyone to tell me about the factories producing condoms and gloves. Vietnamese do not like to lose face by answering questions with “no” or “I don’t know,” so when I asked about the mysterious factories, I received a number of responses that I either recognised immediately as false, or that were contradicted by the next person I asked.

Thankfully, we solved this mystery in a satisfying rush. After perhaps six weeks, my interpreter and I were speaking to a man from the Department of Agriculture on another subject. He was very knowledgeable and we began joking about how some of his colleagues did not have the knowledge to match the level or content area of their titles. For example, I said, one of his superiors had given a silly answer to my question about these mysterious condom and glove factories. Our friend laughed and agreed, then added that the factory in question belonged to Medevice, a Korean joint venture firm. He said he knew the factory because his wife works for the company that manages the industrial park where the Medevice factory is located. Within one week his wife organised for me a visit and interview at the plant – mystery solved.

Medevice stopped producing gloves in around 2009, when the above statistical table was produced. It now produces only bao cao su – “rubber condoms.”

When we contacted the factory about a visit, the secretary said clearly “no photos.” But I brought my camera bag anyway, hoping they would at least let me shoot some photos of the finished condoms to add to my existing images of the rubber value chain.

On arrival we had a slightly awkward introduction with a couple of the plant’s Vietnamese vice-managers. Then the plant manager strode out and greeted us warmly. He is a tall, English-speaking Indian man named Mr. Katageri. He seemed very happy and proud to speak with me and give me a private tour of the factory, so I asked if I could shoot some photos. He said: “Of course, shoot all you like.” In fact, during the tour, he stopped me several times to point out subjects I should photograph, and in a few cases even had his employees stop working to demonstrate their tasks in front of my camera.

The Medevice visit felt like a grand success: my research benefited from the information about a key activity in the province’s rubber sector; we had solved a great mystery in finding the factory; Mr. Katageri was an excellent host; and I had the unexpected benefit of a free licence with my camera.

Have you ever wondered how condoms are made? Below are a sequence of photos illustrating the process.

The factory uses latex concentrate with 60% dry rubber content (DRC). This is a liquid product processed from raw latex, which averages 30-32% DRC when gathered from a rubber tree. The plant mixes preservatives and other required chemicals into the concentrate and lets it settle for 3 days or so. When it is ready, it is piped onto the plant’s four “dipping” lines. In the following photo you can see one of the dipping lines, unfortunately stopped due to unexplained thickening in the latex earlier in the day.

In the photo you can see the line of molds and their unsurprising shape, as well as the basin of white latex below them. The molds are dipped twice in the latex.

After the second dip, the molds travel upright along the line to a set of carwash-like brushes, shown below. These brushes form the rolled seam at the base of the condom.

After the brushing, the machines force the condoms off their molds using a chemical and water wash. They exit the dipping lines into the following process unit, which coats them in silica powder.

The condoms are then washed and dried in machines that look like stainless steel versions of your home washing and drying machines. Once dry, they travel to the next room and into one of a dozen or so machines that look like industrial clothes dryers. They heat and tumble the condoms, not to dry them, but to “vulcanise” them, or make them stronger. The production phase, from dipping to vulcanising, takes around two hours.

Once vulcanised, the condoms are stored loose in bins in a temperature controlled room for a couple of days. This cooling and settling time further strengthens the condoms.

After their rest, the condoms move onto a second production floor, roughly equivalent in size to that of the earlier dipping lines. Four testing lines run standard tests for holes and strength on every condom that passes through the factory.

Flavours anyone? After the testing line, any condoms that require flavouring pass through a nondescript room, in the corner of which sit a few jars of flavouring and this small tumbling machine to coat the condoms:

The condoms pass through all of these processes in batches. Before a batch moves to the packaging floor, technicians remove a sample from the batch for quality control testing. Here is an inspection report from a batch of 3,200 condoms. It shows the sample size, which varies by test from 0.4% of the total batch for measuring dimensions, to 10% for testing for holes and bursting.

Following are some shots of the various tests. I either did not hear or forgot the technical names of the tests. The first photo shows the length measurement, as Medevice has two product lengths: 49mm and 54mm. The second photo shows the thickness of the two walls of the condom.

Next is the “vertical water test.” The technicians attach the condom to a nozzle, fill it with water and let it hang down. They then squeeze and manipulate it to test for holes.

A similar test follows, called something like a “horizontal water test.” This time, the technician ties off the water-filled condom and rolls and presses it on a counter, again to test for holes.

The next test is my favourite: the burst test. The technician attaches the condom to an air nozzle in one of several plexiglas chambers. She (all the floor workers I saw were women) closes the door and opens the air valve to inflate the condom. A nearby computer monitors the air volume and pressure until the condom bursts.

For reference, the four tests shown on the screen exceed by a margin the international standards, which are 1kPa of pressure and 18L of air. The following photo shows the inevitable outcome of the burst test – even the strongest condom perishes.

Medevice has more photos of its quality tests on its website.

Once a batch’s sample passes the inspection, it moves to the packaging floor. Medevice is a joint venture company between Korean, Brazilian and Vietnamese investors. Therefore its products are geared mainly for those three markets, although it sells smaller amounts to other markets in Asia as well. Each market has its own language and information specifications for the packaging, not to mention the different products based on size, flavour etc. During my visit I saw a batch of shiny EROS brand condoms destined for the Brazilian market, as well as the simple Bao Cao Su packages shown above, sold to the Vietnamese government to distribute free in pharmacies. The Bao Cao Su packages above are marked with “not for resale.”

Note that the foil packaging on a condom represents 50% of the material cost of the end product. The condom itself represents only 25%, with the other 25% going to preservatives, flavouring, outer packaging, etc.

Here are a group of ladies assembling the 10-packs of bao cao su destined for Vietnamese pharmacies:

Behind the ladies, you can see the folded master cartons. These are packed and stacked, awaiting shipment in one of the factory’s loading bays.

Using the above process, Medevice produces a ready-to-ship order of condoms in approximately seven days. The factory runs 24 hours per day, except for cleaning or repairs such as on the day I visited, with three eight-hour shifts. The factory produces around 800,000 condoms per day, or 250 million per year. For my research, the most interesting number is that the plant buys the processed equivalent of slightly less than 1,000 metric tons of the raw latex that a farmer might gather from his rubber trees.

After the tour and interview, Mr. Katageri disappeared for a curiously long time. When he returned, he gave me a large bag containing samples of every type of condom his factory produces. It must contain over 50 condoms of various sizes and flavours, all labelled in languages I do not speak.

I hope reading this blog was close to being as interesting for you as the visit was for me. I know one reader keen to read this entry: Eileen. I recognise that she is probably bored and humouring me whenever I talk about the rubber value chain. But when I mentioned my visit to the condom factory, my research was suddenly fascinating to Eileen. After the visit, she was also suitably impressed with my extensive new collection of condoms…


Written by Kris Terauds

April 12, 2011 at 10:46

One Response

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  1. If you think I’m gonna add a comment about the last paragraph, fuggedaboudit! Glad to see you are enjoying your time in the Nam.

    Mike Palmer

    April 14, 2011 at 22:13

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