With Africa battling the spread of infectious diseases that often affect women and children, a Japanese firm has set its sights on addressing the issue via one product: locally produced hand disinfectant.

Saraya Co., an Osaka-based firm producing hand soaps and other hygiene products as well as detergents, began homegrown production of alcohol-based liquid hand disinfectant in Uganda in February 2014, in hopes of improving the environment in the nation’s hospitals and elsewhere in the region.

“This is a product absolutely needed for African countries,” said Hirotsugu Daishima, a 51-year-old Saraya employee who has played a key role in its Uganda production.

As of August, Saraya has shipped these hand sanitizers to around 30 hospitals in Uganda and neighboring Kenya.

Saraya, founded in 1952, is known as the first company in Japan to develop antibacterial liquid soap for hand-washing and dispensers for liquid soap. The innovation came at a time when infectious diseases such as dysentery were rampant in postwar Japan.

“I would like to spread (the custom of) washing your hands to save lives,” Saraya President Yusuke Saraya said, echoing what has become the company’s catchphrase.

Saraya, 65, has been eager to contribute to reducing child mortality, one of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals along with a range of issues, including eliminating poverty.

With that in mind, Saraya, together with Daishima, visited hospitals in Uganda in 2010, where they witnessed firsthand doctors and nurses who would not wash their hands before and after surgeries.

Nurses would say they did not know when they should wash their hands or that they were merely too busy.

While the pair felt an urgent need to educate the staff about the importance something as simple as hand-washing, they acknowledged the limits of spreading such a practice as many hospitals in the region lack sufficient water supplies.

Eventually, Daishima found an unconventional way around the problem: distilled liquor.

Distilled liquor made from sugarcane and banana is readily available in Uganda, where the yearly alcohol consumption per person is on a par with that of Europe and the U.S. despite their sizable population differences

“If there is this much alcohol, maybe an alcohol-based disinfectant could be manufactured here,” Daishima said, recalling his thoughts at the time.

To do this, the company produced bioethanol, a raw material for disinfectants based on blackstrap molasses, a byproduct of the refining process at a Ugandan sugar maker. It then put some additives and water from the River Nile to successfully create a Ugandan-made disinfectant.

Saraya’s local arm also has three Ugandan staffers trained to teach the basics of sanitation to local hospitals. These employees educate staff in the basics, including five must-use instances for hand disinfectants such as before and after patient contact and after touching dirty objects.

The company says cases of septic poisoning among women after undergoing cesarean section operations and bloody diarrhea in babies have dramatically fallen after the use of disinfectant was strictly observed at obstetric and pediatric wards.

By 2017, Saraya aims to supply the disinfectant to about 100 hospitals in Uganda and a further 300 hospitals in other parts of East Africa.

Saraya’s initiative comes at a time when Japanese businesses ranging from the agriculture sector to the health care arena are expanding on the continent, often impacting local residents’ daily lives.

In August, the sixth round of the Japan-led Tokyo International Conference on African Development was held outside Japan for the first time. At the summit hosted by Kenya, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed that Japan would mobilize $30 billion (¥3 trillion) in private- and public-sector funds to invest in Africa over three years in a bid to boost infrastructure-building.

Following up on that pledge, Japan’s three major banks said they would expand their businesses in Africa. Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp. agreed with the Eastern and Southern African Trade and Development Bank to offer loans of up to $80 million to the African bank, together with the government-backed Japan Bank for International Cooperation.

Based on data from entities such as the Japan External Trade Organization, there are currently approximately 400 Japanese firms operating in Africa, with many entering the continent from 2011.

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