World’s top rubber grower challenges Malaysia’s glove dominance

Malaysian companies were quick to ramp up glove production following the Covid-19 outbreak. (Bernama pic)

BANGKOK: Thailand, the world’s largest natural rubber supplier, is ramping up domestic production of gloves with the Covid-19 outbreak fuelling a global shortage.

About 80% of Thailand’s rubber has traditionally been exported for further processing, with tyre makers normally the biggest customers. But with the pandemic driving up demand for gloves, Thailand can easily double its market share to 26% next year, according to Boon Vanasin, a hospital tycoon setting up a 20-billion gloves facility.

While Malaysian firms were quick to ramp up glove production, often using nitrile, a synthetic compound, Thailand was slower to make the pivot to local manufacturing. Now the state-owned Rubber Authority of Thailand is nudging companies to boost glove production to take advantage of the nation’s abundant supply of natural rubber.

“We want to be the world’s number one natural rubber glove producer,” Rubber Authority governor Nakorn Takkavirapat said in an interview.

“There’s a lot of opportunities for us because the Asian glove market has the biggest growth potential, and we supply the majority of natural rubber to the world.”

Thailand produces about 4.8 million tonnes of natural rubber annually, far ahead of Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia.

Doubling capacity

Boon, who is chairman of Thonburi Healthcare Group PCL, estimates global gloves demand at 400 billion to 600 billion pieces annually with current supplies only about half of that. And the Thai rubber industry is already accelerating glove production capacity to meet the rising demand.

Sri Trang Gloves PCL, the country’s biggest glove maker, plans to more than double its capacity to 70 billion by 2026. By 2032, it plans to churn out 100 billion gloves annually.

While greater demand for gloves is helping with the natural rubber glut, other Thai initiatives to boost use of locally produced material include building rubber road barriers and making cosmetics.

The challenge for Thailand’s latex gloves industry will be to regain the market share from nitrile alternatives which do not cause allergic reactions as do natural latex gloves. Meanwhile, the government’s task will be to design policies to facilitate investment and provide some subsidies for businesses, Nakorn said.

“There’s a large gap between demand and supply,” Boon said. “Thailand exports a lot of natural rubber for processing abroad. Why can’t Thailand process rubber and make gloves ourselves for exports?”

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