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Supporting families through employment

Unemployment in South Africa is high, especially for young people. How can we give them a future? By giving them a job–in Johannesburg, where B. Braun operates its oldest and largest production site on the African continent.

It is six o’clock in the morning and dawn is breaking in Johannesburg. Noluthando Shukuma left her home early this morning. Her shift at the B. Braun plant starts at seven o’clock. It takes her 35 minutes to walk from Alexandra, the neighborhood where she has lived since the summer, to the factory. She walks through the narrow streets of Alex, as the neighborhood is affectionately called by the locals. Alexandra, in the north of Johannesburg, is one of the many informal settlements in the South African metropolis. Often the housing is only makeshift, many people live from hand to mouth, very few of them have a regular job. Noluthando knows how lucky she is to be one of the ones who have a job. Unemployment among young people is particularly high in South Africa. Depending on which statistics you refer to, it is around 40 percent. And those are just the official numbers. In reality, it is likely that there are many more.  

Later that morning, Noluthando sits on a stool and holds vacuum-packed liquids in the air between her thumb and forefinger: she checks to see if any air has been sealed in the package. She drops the packages with air into a container at her feet. She packs all the others in a box, 72 units in each. These are infusion solutions for medical use. Noluthando, 30 years old, wears a white coat, the green B. Braun lettering on her chest, and a cap on her head covers her hair. Here, in the factory where B. Braun manufactures medical products every day, hygiene is essential.

„I love my job, we’re not just packaging, we’re checking the quality of the products all the time.“

– Noluthando Shukuma works in quality assurance at B. Braun in Johannesburg, South Africa.

B. Braun invested over 15 million euros in the new factory in Longlake, an industrial park north of Johannesburg. B. Braun was one of the first companies to build their factory in this area, in the meantime, more companies have also moved their headquarters there. Ground was broken in 2019, the plant was completed in 2020, and production operations began in mid-2021. Medical products such as infusion bags and flushing solutions, dialysis concentrates and disinfectants are manufactured here. 

B. Braun production in South Africa

Noluthando has been working in production at B. Braun for a year. Before that, she had been ill for a long time; she was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease, in 2021. When she was feeling better, a neighbor handed her a list of company names. Why don’t you try a job there, he said. One of the e-mails Noluthando wrote at the time was to B. Braun’s human resources department. A few weeks later, she was invited to an interview, and right there she was given the job. “I was very relieved,” she says. “It’s not pleasant to be unemployed in South Africa and have to ask your parents for money for everything you need.”

Jens Papperitz, Managing Director of B. Braun in South Africa joined B. Braun eight years ago. B. Braun has a total of 900 employees in South Africa, 200 of them in the factory. “Unemployment among young people is a disaster,” Papperitz says. The country is still suffering from the consequences of racial segregation and apartheid. A very large proportion of young people who cannot find work are black. This is another goal of B. Braun in South Africa: to give young black people a future, says Papperitz. 

„We need motivated employees like Noluthando, since our business is growing.“

– Jens Papperitz, CEO B. Braun in Johannesburg, South Africa

Finding the right employees is something that Papperitz and his team have to do over and over. In South Africa, there are no apprenticeships comparable to the German system. Almost no employees have experience working in an industrial environment. Also, the school education is often not the same as in Germany. Even if young people have earned a South African high school diploma after twelve years, this does not mean that they have the right mathematical and scientific knowledge. “We have to intensively train the new employees and integrate them in the workflow very well, so that they meet the Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) requirements,” says Papperitz. When selecting employees, they do not just look at grades or academic degrees, they also select for criteria such as diligence, reliability, discipline, and loyalty – even if it is often difficult to test these skills during the selection process. 

In the afternoon, Noluthando visits her family in Soweto. She grew up here, some thirty kilometers from Alexandra. Her father left her and her brother when she was about three years old. Her mother brought up the two children alone, and later remarried. For years she worked as a security guard at a mall, then sold fat cakes, a type of roadside pancake. “It’s been hard for her,” Noluthando says.

She hugs her two-year-old niece and embraces her grandmother to say hello. They all live in the same house with her parents. “We miss her a lot,” her mother says, “but we’re also proud of her.”