Vesa Mäkipää follows finished indoor air purification products, as they roll forward in the conveyor belt. He looks pleased.
Mäkipää was 23 years old when he founded Lifa Air, in 1988. Since primary school, he had known he will be an entrepreneur. But he couldn't quite have imagined this: products produced by his company, worth hundreds of euros a piece, being bought by the Chinese, thousand products per day. And he did not imagine himself living in Asia. But all of this happened.
Lifa's air purifiers have been produced in Dongguan, South China, since 2015. From the products passing by in the conveyor belt, Finnish flags and Finland's map drawn in blue stand out from each product. At the end of the belt, products are sturdily packed for transportation. After that, they leave to different areas in China. Air purifiers are mostly bought when the amount of impurities is high. In China, winters are the worst seasons for pollution, and during the heavy pollution periods of last winter, Chinese people bought an enormous amount of Lifa's air purifiers. The purifiers are not cheap: their average price is 600 euros. During peak periods the factory manufactures 250 air purificators per hour, but during spring the amount has gone noticeably down.
-Now there’s time to play darts, Mäkipää says and smiles. He currently works as the regional manager of Asia for Lifa, and China's operations are managed by Chinese Benjamin Shum.
It has been a long road to make Mäkipää’s company’s purifiers household items in Chinese homes. While Mäkipää had known he wanted to be an entrepreneur since he was a teenager, his problem was always a lack of idea. Mid 1980s he was working in Sweden when he overheard a conversation concerning the high prices companies charge for asbestos demolition. Mäkipää got intrigued and begun research - and ended up founding Lifa, while dropping his studies. The company first focused on asbestos demolition in Finland. Since then, a lot has happened. Now Lifa has managed to sell indoor air purifying solutions to over a hundred countries, mainly to public spaces, industries and companies.
China's markets seemed to open during 2008 Olympics, as Lifa managed to sell services and products to the clean the air of the spaces used in the Olympics. After that the sales went down. In 2009, Mäkipää moved to Hong Kong. He wanted to get closer to see what could be done in China. He didn't plan on staying long, maybe a year. Now his trip to Asia has lasted for eight years. A lot has happened in the meantime: some of Mäkipää's eight children have grown up. Two of them work for Lifa, and some of them are involved as owners. His eldest son Eppu Mäkipää oversees research and product development for China’s operations. He has also lived in China for multiple years. Eppu currently lives near the conveyor belt, in the factory district, in the same neighborhood as the Chinese factory workers. 23-year-old Janette works in Lifa as a sales engineer. She is currently visiting China. Next fall her road will lead from Finland to Germany, where she begins her postgraduate studies in Germany, concentrating on air quality control.
LIFA ended up as an air purifier for Chinese homes after they created a joint venture with a Chinese electronics firm Edifier. The products are now produced in Edifiers factory, where speakers are the main product produced. The success of the Finnish firm in China tells of three major trends.
Firstly, pollutions are becoming a more open topic in China, and regular people are putting more effort into protecting themselves from pollutions. Looking back to the beginning of the century, the Chinese government had no intention of admitting pollution is a problem. Pollutions became a topic of discussion in 2013 after serious issues with pollution, and in 2014 the prime minister of China said China is starting a war against pollution. Now the pollution levels are even mentioned within weather reports.
Another major trend is the rise of Chinese middle class. The amount of urban, well-to-do citizens has risen quickly. Tens of millions of people have reached the middleclass lifestyle, now buying cars and travelling abroad for holidays. Progress is fast and more and more people have money to spend on their own well-being. The third trend is business-related. Chinese people have begun to invest in foreign companies more eagerly, and Chinese investors have invested in Finland more in the past few years than in the last decades combined.
Lifa and Edifier found each other in 2015. They set up a joint venture, and Edifier invested circa 21 million in the operations. Mäkipää says that without the partnership with Edifier, Lifa Air would have had no chance of entering the Chinese markets the way they now have. The joint venture brought in money, production spaces and knowledge of the Chinese markets. Mäkipää describes Lifa's operations in China before Edifier as being "an elf workshop".
The major causes for air pollutions in China are producing energy with black coal as well as heavy industry, especially steel industry. Black coal is a cheap source of energy, which China has plenty of. It is, however, a major cause for air pollution. The pollution is worse in Northern China, where most heavy industries are and where heating is required more during the winter.
Air pollution is a disturbing problem in China. The worst problem are small particles known as PM 2.5, which transfer to people's lungs via inhalation, and continue to blood circulation through the lungs. Air pollution increases cancers, particularly lung cancer. The particles also increase respiratory diseases as well as the risks for heart and blood vessel diseases. According to estimations, air pollution causes 1.6 million premature deaths in China every year. This means 4 400 deaths every single day.
The Chinese government has now begun to take serious actions to cut down air pollution. China has installed purifiers in factories, cut down the amount of black coal in their energy solutions and significantly added their production of solar and wind energy.
According to Lauri Myllyvirta, a specialist for environmental organization Greenpeace, air quality has significantly improved in the past few years, but the starting level was very poor.
-I personally would not live here in Beijing without an air purifier at home, he says.
At the same time, China has become more active in international climate politics. According to Myllyvirta, this has been possible through China’s own inner development. In addition, Donald Trump, the president of the United States, has threatened to cut USA from climate agreements, and China has seen an opportunity here to lift its profile.
China's ambition and the ambitions of Chinese people to take air pollution seriously means good for Lifa's businesses. The company has already launched indoor air purifier meant for cars, and later this year they will bring their own anti-smog filtering masks to the markets. On the long run, however, the company plans to return to its main area of specialization: taking care of indoor air for public spaces and companies. At the moment Lifa is working hard to sell air purification systems for Beijing’s schools and day care centers. In Beijing alone, there are 100 000 spaces which are considered classrooms. After teaching spaces, a focus point could be found in hospitals. According to Mäkipää it may take 20 to 30 years for China's true potential to show itself. But the potential is enormous, that is sure.
The worst air pollutions Mäkipää himself has encountered were on his trip to coastal town Tianjin, next to Beijing.
-The air was similar to constant cigarette smoke.
Mäkipää has conflicted feelings towards air pollutions. On one had the situation is horrible but on the other had it leads to more sales for the company.
In Dongguan, the day is fairly polluted in comparison to the usual situation in Southern China. It would not be a good idea to go for a jog. In general, pollutions are a smaller issue in Southern China. Mäkipää visits the Dongguan factory approximately once a week from Hong Kong. The travel takes a few hours. Pollutions have no real impact in his own life, and he does not spend large parts of his life thinking about pollutions. There is an air purifier at home as well as at the office. Pollutions do worry him in the long run. After eight years in Hong Kong, Mäkipää is planning to move to Spain with his family. One reason for this to allow his children to breath better outdoor air.