Ten years ago, Li Shunhai went to Africa once a year, where he slept little and ate poorly while installing and adjusting X-ray machines. A decade later, traveling for business in African countries has become commonplace for the senior engineer at Beijing Wandong Medical Equipment Co. Ltd., a leading Chinese medical equipment manufacturer.
To date, Li cannot recall how many African countries he has visited. "Our X-ray machines have been highly recognized by African clients, giving me the opportunity to travel extensively," said Li.
The engineer's story has reflected the growth of China-made medical equipment manufacturing in recent years, in which exports have become the driving force of the industry.
China's customs statistics show that in the first half of 2011, China-made medical equipment import and export volumes reached $12.05 billion, up 58.15 percent year-on-year. Of this total, exports were $7.13 billion, up 57.34 percent. In the same period, medical equipment exports to Africa increased 64.31 percent to reach $308 million. Africa has become a rapidly emerging market for Chinese medical equipment, although Asia, Europe and North America are still the top three biggest markets.
Items for export that have proved popular for many African buyers in recent years include medical disposable materials, auxiliary appliances, and diagnostic and treatment equipment.
Analysts say that there is an urgent need to improve healthcare in Africa, and their medical equipment market is largely import-reliant. Data shows that in 2010, South Africa's imported medical equipment increased by 30 percent to about $1.1 billion. With a population of more than 1 billion people, Africa represents a vast potential market.
The fledgling African market occupies a crucial position in the marketing plans of many Chinese medical equipment manufacturers.
According to Li of Beijing Wandong Medical Equipment Co. Ltd., their products, which range from large medical instruments such as X-ray machines, MRI scanners, and color ultrasonic systems to small pieces used to check blood pressure, eyes and ears, can be found in many hospitals in countries across Africa, such as Nigeria, Namibia, Niger and Tanzania.
"Compared with hospitals in developed countries, even some government-run hospitals [in Africa] were always simple, with little equipment," said Hijira Ganie, a doctor working in a clinic in Rwanda. The new Chinese-built hospital in Masaka, Rwanda, is now able to provide more thorough screenings with its updated medical equipment, added the doctor. All devices are from Wandong.
Leading Chinese manufacturers including Wandong, Neusoft and Lepu Medical are able to compete with their foreign counterparts in terms of medical instruments in Africa, due to their high quality and relatively lower prices, said Li Na, a senior medical consultant from a Beijing-based Huatong Jingwei consulting company.
In Africa's market, the Chinese companies' competitors are mainly international players, such as Germany's Siemens and Japan's Toshiba. Products that have been sold in Africa are mostly for top-end hospitals.
"The feedback is quite good. People are interested in knowing more about our products," Li Shunhai told ChinAfrica.
Apart from lower prices, the Chinese companies also offer better understanding of the clients and better customer service, an area where other foreign counterparts cannot compete. For example, the engineers from Wandong normally work for a local hospital or clinic for two weeks or longer. They provide technical support and services, such as consultations and training, to help customers use their products properly.
"We won't leave until we help locals operate the machines well. Technicians from the Chinese medical teams can come to help in a short period of time; or our clients can contact us via email or phone," said Li.
Li said his company's products are of such good quality that he only replaced a small part on a still well functioning X-ray machine, installed in 2003 in Central Africa Republic, in 2009.
Although China's medical equipment sales to Africa is still small, there is still an opportunity for these products to see a growth in distribution, as most of these devices are dispatched throughout Africa as foreign aid. Despite this, there still lies a niche for the Chinese products that are exported.
China is now South Africa's fourth largest exporter of medical equipment. Statistics show that by 2012, South Africa's total import of medical equipment is expected to reach $1.2 billion.
According to a marketing report from the China Chamber of Commerce for Import & Export Medicines & Health Products, Chinese medical equipment suppliers have benefited from the growing Sino-African economic and trade relations, and long-term bilateral medical cooperation.
"We have also benefited from the understanding of the needs and wants of local people and the hands-on experience with local hospitals and clinics in Africa," said Li Shunhai, adding that the medical equipment exhibitions that are regularly held in African countries give China's suppliers opportunities to market themselves.
Industry insiders have admitted that most African countries have gotten used to purchasing machines from European and American suppliers. While Li accepts this, he believed that with the improvement of the R&D capacity and reasonable prices, Chinese medical equipment suppliers will have a lot of potential in the African market.