“We believe business can only thrive
when we value the sustainability of the environment, economy and society.”
Interviewee: Tatsuki Kimbara
General Manager, International Development Division
Director, Biomass segment and FC segment of Domestic Sales Division
Director, Legal Department
Meiwa Co., Ltd.
Interviewer: Kazuko Futakuchi
Meiwa Co., Ltd. is a leading niche R&D company based in Ishikawa prefecture and constantly evolving its business with “the environment” and “sustainable society” as its keywords. The company has succeeded in many projects to utilize biomass by carbonizing raw materials including manure, pruned or thinned branches, and agricultural by-products such as rice husks. Recently, the focus has been on its contribution to achieving the SDGs. In this interview, we asked Tatsuki Kimbara about the ideas and innovations behind the company’s progress.
Q. What do you value most in your business?
Our keyword is “the environment.” When the company was founded in 1965, the main business was sheet metal processing, but apparently, the management wanted to do something to tackle the worsening environmental pollution and realized that the company needed to be original to survive.
The initial project was developing a smoke desulfurization system to extract and process sulfur from the smoke exhaust. Mr. Shigeru Kitano, our current chairman, was the engineer who designed and developed the system from scratch. He also developed a dust collector plant to remove the dust generated when rice is transported, dried and hulled at drying and storage facilities. This system was welcomed by people involved in agricultural business all over Japan as a way of minimizing damage to health and the environment. That was when the company really took off.
Q. You are now involved in several different areas of business. Could you give us an outline of these, and tell us more about the biomass carbonization project in particular?
We are currently working in the following four areas:
• Biomass recycling (recycling of organic waste, carbonization of organic waste, etc.)
• Agriculture-related (dust collector plant, etc.)
• Research and technical services (joint development, technical services, etc.)
• International projects (introducing our environmental technologies to other countries)
Meiwa Co. Ltd. video (15 sec.)
Our biomass recycling business started when a customer using our dust collector plant talked about the issue of disposal of rice husks. Japan produces two million tons of rice husks a year, and businesses were struggling with the disposal costs. When we heard about this, our engineers thought about Japan’s charcoal burning culture. Charcoal retains water and is good at keeping nutrients in the soil, so it can be used as a fertilizer or soil conditioner. Of course, it can be used as fuel too.
So, in 1996 we started developing a carbonization system. At that time, nobody else was trying this, and we were told it would never make money. But we refused to give up and carried on researching the idea, working with universities and research institutes who shared our vision.
Four years later, the technology related to biomass utilization gathered plenty of attention, and our research and development about the carbonization system were selected to acquire government support. Since then, the boom has subsided and many companies have given up on biomass, but we have kept working on it because we believe that these products are essential for a recycling society and circular economy.
Now, carbonization system has grown to become one of our main products. We can design and produce carbonization systems to suit the capacity and characteristics of a wide range of raw materials, from sewage sludge and raw garbage to thinned branches. Recently we have become more aware of the circulation of resources, and we are involved in the support side, such as introducing customers who will buy the charcoal that is produced.
Q. So you have steadily built up the business from that all-important initial inspiration. Could you give us some recent examples?
A poultry farmer in the northern Kanto region was struggling to dispose of several tons of chicken manure every day. Since the farmer introduced a carbonization system in 2014, the chicken manure is converted to charcoal and sold as a natural fertilizer. A large-scale poultry farm is supposed to produce twenty to thirty thousand tons of manure a year, which currently cannot be processed in Japan, so it has to be exported to China or Vietnam. We have received many inquiries from farmers interested in introducing our carbonization plants.
In the town of Godo in Gifu prefecture, sewage sludge is carbonized and sold to local farmers as fertilizer. Farmers growing roses, a local specialty, are delighted with the results, and have told us: “Thanks to the water retention and nutrient retention of charcoal, we no longer need to add extra fertilizer.”
Once the system has started working, we would like users to continue using it for a long time. How can the charcoal be utilized, and what benefits could it have for society? Does this work as a business model? We are working with our customers on these aspects, too. We believe that our business can only thrive when we can propose a long-term business model.
The biomass carbonization system is registered on the environmental technology database of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), and is introduced in a video on their website:
Q. You have recently started working proactively in other countries, haven’t you?
We started our international business when Mr. Takeo Tokunari, our International Development Division Director, joined the company. After his graduation from the university, He worked in environmental consulting in Kenya, and then came back to his hometown of Kanazawa and joined Meiwa. He immediately hit it off with Mr. Shigeru Kitano and launched a project to introduce carbonization systems to Africa. First, we exhibited our system at the 6th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in 2016. There was a lot of support for the concept, and in 2017 the project was selected to receive support from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Field surveys are going on in Kenya.
Fertilizers are essential for farming in Kenya, where the soil is lacking in nutrients, but fertilizers are not produced in Kenya and have to be imported, further increasing costs. There is also an issue of eutrophication due to run-off of nutrients from fertilizers into watercourses. Meanwhile, waste disposal is also another problem in the country. Introducing carbonization systems would solve all of these problems at once.
We had tried introducing carbonization systems in China, Vietnam, and Mongolia too, but we are currently focusing on Kenya and India.
I joined the company one year after Mr. Takeo. I have been involved in international cooperation activities since my university days, so I am focusing on supporting international projects that can help solve problems in developing nations. I previously worked at a manufacturing company, so I am also pleased to be making links with manufacturing-related businesses all over Japan.
Q. So your previous experience is all linked to your present job!
Your company brochure and website mention the link to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). How are you thinking about the SDGs and taking actions towards the goals?
When we thought about our business we do toward sustainability, how we can help achieve the SDGs naturally came to mind. In particular, our International Development Division has always been implementing projects that can help solve issues in developing nations. Now we are spreading this initiative to the rest of the company.
Many businesses are proactively tackling the SDGs as we approach the target date of 2030, so we are expecting to receive a lot of inquiries from customers relating to the global goals. We should take this as an opportunity for every employee to embrace and understand the SDGs.
In a sense, I think the SDGs set out our present global concerns. Redefining our business in terms of the SDGs, which represent the current focus of modern society, brings new perspectives by showing that there might be different approaches. We want to take in these ideas into our business and team up with local businesses that have their own unique technologies to solve local and global issues. In such a team, we believe each company can act as the key player in their own field, and working with other companies for the aspects we cannot do ourselves will create diversity in our business, too.
Going forward, we want to focus more on the value we hope to create in society, not just our technical objectives. However wonderful the technology, if it is not utilized in society, it will never see the light of day; it will simply be a reserach. We will create a clear vision of the future, valuing the sustainability of the environment, economy and society.
Meiwa Co., Ltd.
Location: Kanazawa City, Ishikawa prefecture
Meiwa is a long-established R&D venture company based in Kanazawa, Ishikawa. The company designs and manufactures biomass carbonization plants to convert organic waste into charcoal for energy and agricultural use, as well as environmental plants including agricultural dust collectors and wastewater treatment systems, contributing to a sustainable future.
Photos and diagrams © Meiwa Co., Ltd. 2019